Wednesday, May 18, 2011

DNA? Really?

My two youngest boys. "Pete"  and "Repeat!" aka Kenny and James
I walked into the library full of anticipation. I had my family history file box under one arm and a bag of books to return hanging from the other.

Immediately I saw some familiar faces. And then my stomach dropped. I knew we were having a repeat presentation on DNA/Genealogy because I recognized the instructor.

I was supposed to be at home taking my 10 minute nap, waiting for the last 4 children to be delivered from school. But I was at the monthly genealogy meeting instead, hoping that I'd learn something that would feed my passion. Something that was worth sleep deprivation.

So, I sat and politely smiled and studied maps and images and charts. I could barely keep my eyes open. It was too awkward to leave, so I started daydreaming about dinner. If you know me, you'd know that I'm bored if I start menu-planning.

But, life is too precious to me to waste any of it. I am very curious and open to new things. I just couldn't find the excitement for learning about DNA connections to my relatives and ancestors. Maybe I'm a romantic, but if you've married into or been born or adopted into my family, we're related. I don't need a test to tell me that. All I need is documentation to prove that we're connected.

There was a couple who'd had their DNA testing done through a few organizations. They'd spent quite a bit of money and actually found a living relative who shared the same DNA markers. The instructor learned that his family three generations back had changed their last name when coming to the United States. He was thrilled to be able to be able to continue one family line that had been a mystery for years. They had an animated conversation and the energy in the room was palpable. Everyone had questions. I just wanted to know what time it was.

But they were happy. For them family history meant working your family tree back as far as possible, even if it's just one line. Aren't we all a bit more curious to find an ancestor that lived a thousand years ago than the name of a great uncle who you met once but didn't really like anyways? It feels like such a badge of distinction. And that feeling is addictive!

So, I get it. But I don't have to like it.

Honestly, it's a distraction for me to look so far back into the past when I have so many people closer to the present that I want to put in order and to learn from.

I'm looking for those of you who want to start your family history research, and are completely overwhelmed. My passion is working with beginners and finding and documenting ONLY the four generations that lived before you. That would include your parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and great great grandparents AND all of their spouses and children.

Why just them? Because the skills that you will master putting those generations in order can be added to as you need them for special cases, but if unlearned will only make genealogy frustrating for you.

Start today! Do one thing. Download the worksheet and get it printed. Then start filling it in!
Pedigree/Family Group Worksheet/ Free 18x24" Download

As for me, I'll wait a while to see where DNA fits in. The jury's out for now.

Betsy Cross

Friday, May 13, 2011

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Every Spring vacation during the 1960's and '70's my parents would take us to see my grandparents on St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands. I still recall the smell of the leather seats of their VW  Beetle, the gardener climbing coconut and banana trees for some fresh fruit, and islands surrounded by gorgeous blue water that we could see from the back yard of their "mountain" home.

It was a family thing until it wasn't anymore.

I was really upset when I found out that my dad wasn't coming on our yearly trip to visit my grandparents in the Virgin Islands. My dad, seeing my distress, sent me to get my Raggedy Ann doll for him. He found the heart on her chest and wrote "Daddy" underneath it. That was the best he had to offer. It was something tangible to comfort me as the memory of his face faded over our ten-day vacation. Come to think of it, I don't think I looked at his signature much. I was too busy swimming and exploring,

There's no getting past the fact that when someone passes you miss them. But I'm more concerned with valuing the uniqueness of their life than dwelling on the imposed separation.

Think about all the things we keep around us to keep memories of our loved ones fresh. Tombstones, statues, pictures, scrapbooks, letters, video-recordings, voices on an answering machine, and endless knick-knacks are visited, shared, dusted and sometimes moved from house to house in an effort to remember. None of them replace the person, but all of them trigger treasured feelings associated with specific memories.

I've noticed a shift in a lot if not most of my older friends and relatives. There comes a time when the old photos get dragged out and perused regularly. The stories from the pictures are repeated for anyone within earshot. And the enthusiasm and wistfulness is contagious. It's as if they're hanging on to memories as they feel them slipping away, knowing that someone will be looking at them in those photos someday, too. It's like a lesson in how to respect the memory of someone without using any words. But, we all get it.

When all is said and done, as they say, all of us get a sense of our mortality and feel gratitude for those who've shared our lives with us. Maybe we wonder how we'll be remembered. Like my father we leave our signatures on hearts all over the place. And we hope that we've made an impression there.

That's why I'm drawn to those who've lived, but, like all mortals, have died. Their influence lives on, waiting to be uncovered again by those who mattered and continue to matter to them. I believe that deeply. I feel deep joy and satisfaction when I see hearts opened, shared, and valued.

The only way to keep them on our minds is to figuratively "take them on our trips" with us. For me, the past, present, and future intersect and weave together all the time. I believe that our ancestors influence can be felt IF we take the time and make an effort to "see" them. That influence is written on our hearts and can grow stronger when we slow down and allow it into our busy lives.

So, they may not live in a place I can visit, but the tangible evidence I have of them in the form of a picture, a family tree displayed purposefully in my home, an heirloom passed down with its story, or the blond hair and blue eyes of my Norwegian ancestors that some of my children have 'til they're 5, keep my ancestors close to my heart.

Let's help our children become more familiar with their ancestors by telling more stories, pointing out more similarities, hanging more pictures or planning more reunions for the living.  Simple statements like,"I remember when Grandpa used to do that!" or "Remember what a good gardener Aunt So and So was?" plant seeds that will knit hearts closer together over time.

Just because they're out of sight, doesn't mean they have to be out of mind.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

What Can My Ancestors Do For Me?

Imagine being given a beautifully wrapped gift from your great grandmother. It has sat on a shelf in your home for years unopened. One day you ask your mother about it. She tells you it has been in the family for years. She thinks her brother may have opened it once, but wrapped it again to protect it.

So, there sits the gift waiting for someone curious enough to wonder about the treasure inside. Someone who'll stop in the middle of another busy day, sit down, place box on his lap, and open it.

I believe that it is not random chance that we are in the families we are in. Honestly, if I didn't believe that I wouldn't be motivated to continue the  research of my ancestors or to help others with theirs.

But, I do believe. No one had to teach me those truths. I just knew them. I've had experiences that have given me evidence of these truths, but ones that I didn't need because my heart was already convinced.

So, what can your ancestors do for you? Their lives are full of answers for your life. So many character strengths and life skills are passed down through generations. So are physical and spiritual traits.

My great grandmother was teacher of languages.  I love languages, too. Her daughter was an artist. So am I. My mother is a very spiritual person and has passed that gift to me as well.

Open the gift of family'll find more of yourself there!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Starting Your Personal History

Kathy's Memorial, 2005. by Betsy Cross

I'm 49. It's a bit overwhelming when I think about writing a personal history for my children to remember me by. In a few months I'll be fifty years old. Half of a century! I think that's incredibly exciting! And it seems so much longer than forty-nine years!

But, of course, there's good news. I'm a lover of the big picture and a master and organizing it into smaller, more manageable parts. So, needless to say, I have a few really simple things to do for those of you who want to start documenting your personal history and are as old or older than I am. You don't want to get overwhelmed, but you do want to get something accomplished that reflects the life you've lived.
Picnic At Grandma's, by Betsy Cross

Here's step-by-step what I do to get started. First, I get a 3-ring binder, typically a 2"one with a view=front cover so that I can slide the name inside with a photo attached.

1. For every decade I've lived I get one sheet of paper. Next, 3-hole punch the sides and place all of the sheets in a 3-ring binder ( I'd use 5 sheets of paper, one side for every 5 years of my life).

2. I divide the paper into 5 sections from top to bottom. Number 1-5 on the front, and 6-10 on the back.

3. Label the front / top of each page with the name of the decade. Example:

The front of the page will look like this:

1961(the year In was born)-1970 (the sections will be about 2" each because the sheet is 8 1/2"x11"

-2" space- (same for every year)

Continue with the back:

6. 1966
7. 1967
8. 1968
9. 1969
10. 1970

Add one sheet per decade sheets until you are back  to the present (or to the end of someone's life if they are deceased).

4. Add pocket folders at the end of each decade for pictures or copies of documents pertaining to those years.

5. Now the fun begins! Add facts like your birth, school, and marriage dates, and your childrens' birth and school start-dates. As you remember something like when your family moved from Connecticut to Cape Cod, put it in the year you think it should go.

You'd be amazed at how your memories are triggered to fill in the blanks!

Some questions you might ask yourself:

Did I have any pets? How old was I, and where did I live?
Who were my best friends (think of different schools you attended)?
What were my favorite movies?
What was a major world event that  can remember? How did it affect my family?
What were the hairstyles, clothing styles? Did my parents like my choices?
Who were my boyfriends / girlriends?
Where did I travel? How did I travel?
How did I get to know my relatives?
What did I do with my free time?
What kinds of toys did I play with?

Each question will bring up memories of people, places and things that can help you fill in the gaps that you thought were lost forever in the cobwebs of your mind.

Ask friends and relatives some of their memories of your life. I'm surprised at how much more other people remember of my childrens' lives than I do! Sad, but true! Not only is it wise to include as many people as you can in remembering your personal history, it's so much more fun!

What about the finished product? Below are three links to some fantastic and very different companies that I follow on Twitter. Or you can be creative and design your own keepsake. But share what you've made no matter what! That's half the fun!

Good luck!

Make your own book
An online memory book.

As a Memory Library member you will have a virtual box into which you can put all the letters, photos, home movies, music and documents that have meant something in your life. 
The Memory Library (from the page):

Then you can really bring all this to life by recording one (or many) video clips of you actually talking about your life and memories. It is this combination of mementos and videos that future generations will treasure.