The power of the deadline

page 1 dave's letter to bea testIn my last post, I blogged about how I needed to reignite my interest in doing family history research. Due to competing priorities I hadn’t done any research in awhile and I was having difficulty jumping back in. I decided to work on research that I could share with my father when I visit him next week. That deadline helped activate me a little.

But I let the deadline get closer before taking action. Last week was an especially busy week with organizing clients, so it wasn’t until the weekend that I finally did something. And that’s because I selected a small, fun project that I could do in the now-abbreviated time available to me.

A little background: A couple of years ago, my aunt gave the great gift of a hand-written letter from my grandfather to his then-fiancee, my grandmother. In it he poured out his personal history in the hopes of putting all his cards on the table before they were married. I read and enjoyed it, but retained only a little of the information in my head. (Though I did blog about some of the insights!) I had my grandfather’s handwriting analyzed by Nancy Douglas. (Fascinating!) I had shared the handwriting analysis with my father, but never the actual letter.

So I decided to transcribe the letter before I leave town. I started on Sunday and it’s been such a fun project! The letter is 37 pages, handwritten. But the writing and spacing are large, so it’s not a daunting task. A little bonus is that the letter, when given to me, was missing three double-sided pages. I found those pages in a bundle of love letters my father gave me this past December. So I’ve been able to scan those missing pages and include them in the transcription.

This project has reinforced to me the power of the deadline and the incredible value of transcribing. In the process of transcribing this letter, I’ve really read it. I’ve taken note of what a good writer my grandfather was (he ended up becoming a newspaper reporter) and what a humorous writer he was. It’s given me a little insight into the similarities between my father and grandfather.

It’s also given me a peek into the hardships he endured as a child and young man and what a hard worker he was. I learned, for example, that in high school he worked after school from 3 pm to 11 pm every school day and all day Saturday and Sunday at a movie theater. And for all those hours he earned $14 a week. That was 1922 and Google tells me that would be $191.40 in today’s dollars. Not a great hourly wage! But he wrote very proudly of his hard work and earnings.

I haven’t yet finished transcribing–it’s a great project to take in small chunks and that’s what I’ve been doing. But I’m enjoying it so much and feel my genealogy spark turning back into a flame!

Here’s my takeaway from this little experience. I realized that I was able to reignite the flame because:

  • I had a deadline.
  • I chose a small, fun project.
  • I’m getting some great insights and easy-to-read access to them later
  • That project will be important to someone besides me.
  • The project can be done in 15-minute increments.

When I finish this, I have that set of love letters between these same grandparents that I can transcribe if I choose. Or I move on to something else. But the nice thing is that I’m working on family history again!

Putting your ancestors’ lives in context

HistoryLines can help you create a timeline for your ancestorsOne of the ways I want to explore my ancestors as I try to dig deeper into their lives (learning more about my ancestors, rather than learning about more ancestors) is to put their lives in social context. I’d like to learn more about how they lived and what life was like for them.

At RootsTech, I learned about a new service, HistoryLines, that helps me do just that. I think it’s pretty exciting. You enter in an ancestor name or link a Family Search tree or upload a GEDCOM and you’re presented with a timeline of information about what was going on around your ancestor at the time he or she lived.

The service is in Beta now, but I signed up as a Beta user (as can you) and have had a good time exploring it.

Here’s a video they debuted at RootsTech.

The timeline that HistoryLines produces includes historical events that may have had an impact on the ancestor’s life, as well as more personal information, like how childbirth might have been for the ancestor’s mother, and what education, hygiene, clothing, medicine and entertainment were like at the time. (That’s just the tip of the iceberg of available information.) There’s also an interactive map, so that you can see their migration patterns. You can edit the timeline, which allows you to quite easily create a meaningful story to share with others.

My ancestors are all from the U.S. and the U.S.-related information on HistoryLines is plentiful. They also have information from Germany and Denmark and data for Canada and France are in process. I’m sure they will be adding data from more countries.

Timelines can be a great organizing aid. Adding social to the context makes this a really fun, and potentially very meaningful, tool.

Little clues from personal correspondence

daveandbea50As I said I would, I waited until I was on the airplane to open the letter from my grandfather, Dave Adams, to his sweetheart, Beatrix Rasco, my grandmother, which my aunt had given me. (That’s the picture from their 50th wedding anniversary announcement at left.) While the letter is 36 pages long, my grandfather’s handwriting was large, and he left ample white space, so it took me no time at all to read it. (There were also several pages missing!)

My grandfather opens the letter by explaining that it is a confession of sorts. He wrote:

“…[B]ecause I have absolute faith in your love, and believe that you will try to understand me, and most of all, because I’m going to clear the path to our marriage at Christmas–or block it–I’m going to write the whole thing. If I could see you–and boy how I wanted to–I could explain the whole matter with a fine chance of getting across, for in my mind there is no guilt….I want to resassure you before I start that no girl is implicated. I fooled you, didn’t I, honey? But as far as I’m concerned, it’s much worse.”

You can imagine that I was chomping at the bit to find out what he was going to confess! But there weren’t any major revelations. (That would have been too easy, right?) Instead I got little clues about how grandfather lived as a child and young man, and some more insights into his parents’ estrangement. I learned that there wasn’t a big blow up or event that led to their separation. Rather, due to economic necessity, my great grandfather, Elmer Adams, lived where he worked and my great grandmother, Hattie, stayed in a more populated area (Olympia) and rented rooms in their house to earn income. Eventually, they decided to make the arrangement permanent and my grandfather was informed by his sister, and then his mother, that the couple would never again share a home.

It led me to think about how our social norms have changed over the last 85 years. Things we wouldn’t bat an eyelash at now (having parents who were separated, for instance) were a potential reason not to marry someone, apparently. My grandfather wrote in his letter that he asked his sister, Dora, if he should “let the fact that I have no united home keep me from marrying. Dora said ‘absolutely not.'”  His siblings gave him the courage to confess his family’s checkered history and ask for his sweetheart’s love and hand in marriage.

I did pick up a few facts that I hadn’t known:

  • My grandfather and his family lived in Portland, Oregon (where he was born on November 12, 1904), until he was four, when the family moved to Quinault Lake, on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. On today’s roads, that’s a 185-mile trip. In the letter, my grandfather mentions that 50 miles of that journey was traveled on the first road ever constructed to the lake (what a remote place that must have been!) and that he made the trip with a broken leg, tied in a box.
  • I didn’t learn why my grandfather’s family emigrated to Washington from Kentucky in the first decade of this century, but I did learn that they made a trip back to Kentucky when he was 10 for a visit that lasted a half year. That must have been a big adventure!
  • I learned that my great grandfather, Elmer, was an industrious man with a propensity for bad luck.  When the U.S. became involved in World War I, he started a spruce mill to create lumber for airplanes. It wasn’t an easy task–he had to build a road up a hillside to the mill site and it took a year before he turned out his first lumber. That happened about November 7, 1918, just days before the end of the war. My grandfather wrote in the letter, “The first day the mill made expenses, the Kaiser quit. I reckon it was because he heard I would be a year older the next day and would probably go warring after him.” With the war over, the demand for spruce evaporated. But the government made good on its promises and Elmer ended up being reimbursed for his loss. Next, Elmer started a logging business in the capital city, Olympia, but a gasoline shortage meant he couldn’t get his logs to the railroad. The letter details other ventures that resulted in a whole lot of hard work but not a whole lot of money.

I treasure this letter because it’s full of love, humor and honesty. I love that my grandmother read it and married him anyway (just a month later). They were married for 58 years, until Dave died in 1986. I worry that we’ve lost the art of letter writing to the expediency of email and, worse yet (from a permanence point of view) text messages. It makes me wonder if future generations will experience the thrill of this kind of discovery from their 21st-century ancestors!


An unexpected gift

davebealetterI’m still visiting my family and today, I stopped by to see my aunt (my father’s sister). She delighted me by giving me a photo of she and my father, taken in 1934, when they were 5 and 6 years old. Adorable. I’m very grateful for it.

Then she blew me away by pulling out a 36-page handwritten letter (though at least two pages are missing) from my grandfather to my grandmother, written about a month before they were married in 1927. My grandfather, David Adams, wanted to reveal his life’s story to his sweetheart in hopes that she would still want to marry him.

How tantalizing is that for a genealogy enthusiast? As I’ve written here, I’ve been frustrated in my efforts to know more about my grandparents. I didn’t know why my grandfather’s family moved from Kentucky to Washington in the first decade of the 20th century or why his parents were estranged. I’m hoping to learn the answers (at least from his perspective) in the letter. Maybe I’ll also learn why it is that these estranged parents were buried next to one another.

I’ve not yet read the letter. I have a long flight ahead of me on Saturday and I think I’m going to wait until I have that uninterrupted time to dig into it and see what mysteries are solved and what facts are revealed. I am so grateful to my aunt for sharing it with me and promised to scan it (guess what I’ll be buying!) and return the original to her, though she promised I’ll be able to keep the original one day.

I noticed that on the back of the last sheet, my grandfather wrote, “Destroy the manuscript, will you please?” I am so happy that my grandmother ignored that request!