Monday, September 2, 2013


     Author Bruce Feiler has written an honest and informative piece in the September 1st New York Times about family reunions. A must read whether you are planning a reunion or wondering what went wrong with one in the past!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


     I am often asked for advice about "fleshing out" a story about ancestors about whom little is known.  I recently read a posting on Facebook by Maureen Hastings, a fellow genealogist and possible cousin of mine (we matched as distant cousins on our DNA tests).  Her post is an excellent example of extrapolating thoughts about an ancestor. Sometimes showing is more instructive than telling:

     "My 3rd great grandmother, Sarah Ober Foster, was born on August 10th, 1825, in Beverly, MA. She was one of the 10 children born to cousins Judith Foster and Joseph Lovett Foster. Judith's and Joseph's fathers were brothers Josiah and Joshua Foster. I don't mention this to judge them, but because it is some of the precious little information I know about Sarah. I don't know the color of her eyes or hair. I don't know what her talents were or her favorite food or whether she liked to sing.
     I know she was born, 8th child to Judith and Joseph. I know she was married on April 1, 1844, in Beverly to Charles Holden. I know they had four children: Ellen, Joshua, Charles Austin (my 2nd great grandfather), and George. I know she must have worried when her husband went off in 1861 to fight in the Civil War and was probably relieved when he was discharged wounded, and not dead. I know she was familiar with the odor of shoe manufacturing, leather, glue, polish, etc., since her husband was a shoemaker as were many of the men of their families. I know she lived on Roundy Street in Beverly when she died of gangrene on August 3rd, 1889, at the age of 63, 124 years ago today.
     She is buried in a plot with her husband and several children and grandchildren but no marker is carved with her name. Her husband's military marker is the only memorial that identifies the location.
     The only traces of her is her name in various vital records and censuses. And perhaps a characteristic or feature has traveled down through her genes and manifests in me." ---Maureen Hastings
     Isn't that a lovely piece to write about an unknown ancestor, instead of just having a name on a tree?

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


     Turns out that nostalgia is not a "bad" emotion after all, but is a boost to your mental health. So says this study reported in the New York Times:
     Nostalgia can even fight off depression and loneliness! One more GREAT reason to recall and preserve those family stories!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013


     I have been thinking about a question I often hear from audience members at my talks. Usually the person asking is grappling with the question of whether to include a scandal or crime in their family story collection, but this question pertains to all family historians: whose story is it to tell?
     If a story or fact is about you, do you "own" it? Not in a legal or possessive sense, but in a sort of ethical or righteous sense? For example, in the movie The Stories We Tell, the director, Sarah Polley, asked her father not to publish a book about Polley's mother and the story of Polley's birth. Ms. Polley wanted to present "her" story herself. Was this story Polley's very own, not for anyone else to tell?
      In another example, two family historians recently asked me about the same problem: lateral ancestors who had children born outside of a marriage. Both were asked by cousins, who were direct descendants of the ancestors in question, not to include the information in the genealogy report that would be distributed to the extended family members. Apart from questions of harm and hurt, do those direct descendants "own" that part of the tree?  Again, I am not speaking in a legal or copyright sense.
     But don't we all feel a sense of ownership regarding certain family stories or facets of family history?

Thursday, June 27, 2013


      Hmmm, as many as one in five genealogical discoveries considered a "negative" story? In an interesting Wall Street Journal article "When a Genealogical Hobby Digs Up Unwanted Secrets," Sue Shellenbarger reports on the chances that a family history researcher will discover infamous, scandalous, or criminal ancestors.

Friday, June 21, 2013


     When I was a young assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, I was intrigued by and amazed at the different stories told by eyewitnesses to the same crime. Each person who witnessed a crime saw the event from a different angle and perspective. The eyewitnesses' own backgrounds and emotions and prejudices colored their perceptions, and especially, their recollections. Where did the truth reside?
    These questions and more are addressed in director Sarah Polley's exquisite documentary Stories We Tell. What are our family stories? How are family secrets kept secret? Where is the truth in our stories? Whose version is the true version? Is there a true version? Who "owns" the story? Who "owns" the right to tell the story or to keep it hidden?
     I want to write pages and pages about the questions raised by Stories We Tell. But this movie is so full of surprises that I would certainly trip up and include a spoiler or two. So, watch the trailer:
    If the movie is not playing in a theatre near you, consider buying or renting the DVD version,  scheduled to be released in September.

Thursday, June 13, 2013


      Neil Coxon, the owner of the journal publishing service From You to Me, says of his late father, "His name is on a family tree, but [his descendants] wouldn't know the great character that made up the man that he was."  
     Is there any better way to say why we need to save our family stories?
     Neil tells the story of his father's journal and of the need to collect family and personal stories in this touching video made by Genes Reunited:
  (Neil Coxon's company publishes journals in which family and personal stories can be collected.  A unique service offered by his company is the customer's opportunity to personalize their own journal format).