Be a Family Historian: How I Became One

 


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In 1985 my grandmother passed away. As my sisters and I sorted through and organized her photos and her photo albums, I was suddenly struck by the realization that I didn’t know all that much about my grandparents and their history. When I was a child I would listen curiously as my aunts and grandma talked about the “old country" and always found myself wondering where the “old country" was.

Here were pictures of people and events that were not “documented", no dates, no names; nothing. That was the beginning of my passion for the past. How about you, are you interested in preserving your family’s history?

Old Documents and Photos tell a Story

Do you have any old photographs or documents, perhaps from your grand-parents, or great-grandparents? Birth certificates and immigration and naturalization papers, blood donor certificates, marriage certificates are all a wonderful source of history and stories.

When I first discovered this untapped resource in my own family it was a little overwhelming, here were all these documents, with the most precious of all, a certificate to my grandparents, in recognition for their contribution to Alberta’s heritage; signed by the Premier Peter Lougheed, and it took me a long time learn how to organize and store all this information.

I have always been interested in the lives of “ordinary" people because there is so much reality and beauty folded into a person’s lifetime. As I looked at these old photos of my ancestors, I noticed the clothes that they wore, the hairstyles, the weathered and rugged lines on their faces, and I wondered about their “story". I realized then that my grandparents and great-grandparents wrote the history of our small corner of the world.

With a tremendous amount of assistance by my mother, the task of organizing and putting facts to the photos was completed. Then I began scanning all the photographs and storing them on CD’s. Around this same time I had joined a free genealogy hosting site where I set up my first website that I called “Grandma’s Album".

The interest in my website grew, and so did my passion for writing about my ancestors lives.

Take Time!

Now, it was more than just the photographs that intrigued me, it was the need to know my ancestors life stories that urged me on. I had now learned that once a loved one is gone their memories and stories are usually gone too.

In 2001 I sensed that I needed to set some goals, and one of these goals was to see my paternal grandfather with the purpose of getting his life story. His immigration to Canada from the Netherlands in 1950 represented another era of my family history that begged to be explored. Life in the Netherlands during the German occupation was horrible; I knew that my great-grandmother had tuberculosis and had died of starvation in the sanitarium when the Germans boarded it up; I wanted to know more about my grandfather’s escape from the Germans and of his voyage to Canada, this is a story that will someday be told. My mission to see my grandfather again was fulfilled, however, getting his story was not, and he died just 2 months after my visit. Perhaps I can derive some of his story from my father or my aunt, but I will never get my grandfather’s perspective, that opportunity is lost. And on that same note – don’t wait too long to reach out to other family members, in my own experience if you wait too long they may be gone by the time you get around to it.

Move the Universe!

I began collecting my relative’s memories and stories; I did personal interviews where I tape recorded them answering specific questions about their childhood memories; school years, family, the houses they grew up in, etc. and then would go home and transcribe them onto my computer. (And I didn’t have a transcription machine either! I would listen to one sentence at a time, stop the machine, and type like crazy!)

I was so busy writing stories at this time about my grandfather’s journey to Canada, and interviewing my great-aunt about her childhood, and really enjoying it, that when I decided to submit my first article to our community newsletter I froze. I still remember standing at the mailbox holding the brown envelope over the slot thinking, “as soon as I drop this in there, the decision has been made, there is no turning back, I have moved the universe. "

And move the universe I did! My first article was scooped immediately and after a meeting at the local coffee shop with the editor of the newsletter I was offered my own column.

Build a Website

A website can be been very successful; also very busy and challenging. I had to learn how to use FrontPage for the web design, and learn about meta tags, keywords, and search engines, but it has been worth the effort. I send out a family newsletter that updates everyone on any new changes or additions that I have made to the website, I announce birthdays, anniversaries, and new photo’s and stories, and just in the last month I have been discovered by a “missing branch" from the family tree. My readers are from all over the world; Germany, Netherlands, Australia, and the U. S. A. Much of the content on my website consists of contributions of photographs, memoirs, and genealogy from family near and far, but my favorite parts of the website are the memoirs and stories.

You Can Write Personal History

With 2005 being the 100th birthday of Alberta, what better time than now to look for those old photos of grandma and grandpa, or sit down with them and listen to their story, like I did with my great aunt and my mother. There is an abundance of stories just waiting to be told.

You too, can write about your ancestors or other family members; or even yourself. The accomplishment will someday be appreciated by your children and grandchildren, or even your great-grandchildren, as I have found to be true.

Cindy DeJager is a family historian. She collects stories and photos from her ancestors and also sends out a monthly family newsletter. Her articles have appeared in the Bridges Newsletter (Calgary), where she had her own column. You can read her article, Six Generations of Calgarians, in the Kirby News, in September 2005.

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