When Mary Ann Wright was younger, she’d drive her mother from their home state of Tennessee to Texas so that her mother could visit her sister.
“These two would sit for hours and just tell stories about what life was like when they were growing up,” said Wright, who is president of the Puget Sound Genealogical Society. “What did I do? I sat there and read a book. I should have been recording their conversations.”
But that’s a common oversight. Many families have “those stories” that get told over and over when family gathers. And like Wright, most of the time, nothing gets recorded or written down until it’s too late and the elder generations have past.
Wright has done something about that in her family, and has suggestions for others who want to keep their family histories.
She volunteers her time in the Genealogy Room at the Sylvan Way location of Kitsap Regional Library, 1301 Sylvan Way, in east Bremerton. The room is filled with books to aid anyone wanting to study their genealogy. And during library hours, members of the society are on hand to help patrons with their search.
But even if you don’t have time to use the library for research, anyone at anytime can begin the process. Wright says to begin with yourself.
“Write down your memories,” she said. “Write about what life was like when you were a child.”
Then, she said, interview your siblings and cousins, and any living family members of the generations that preceded you.
“They’ll have different memories of those family times and that summer barbecue,” Wright said. “But by gathering all the information, you’ll get a better picture of the event.”
When interviewing older family members, it is important to remember to do it in steps.
“They will get tired,” she said. “So plan to do it over time. And go with specific questions that will spark memories.”
The society has a list of possible topics and questions. An example, talk about the sugar coupons that were given out during World War II.
“Something specific like that will get a flood of memories,” she said. “How did they have a birthday cake when there was a limit on sugar?”
And keep technology simple. If you are recording or videotaping the interview, try to come with as little equipment as possible.
“If you just flip on a micro-recorder and lay it on the table, soon, everyone will forget that it’s there and the conversation will just be normal,” Wright said.
Take it in small pieces. At one interview, ask about the person’s youth. Then, at the next ask them about their adulthood, she suggested.
“And bring family photos,” she said. “You may not know who’s in the photo and there may be nothing written on the back of it. So be ready to ask your family member and write the names down.”
If you are interviewing several family members at the same time, be ready for their memories to be different.
“Sometimes, that’s what fills in the details,” Wright said. “Don’t be concerned that they may differ on how things happened. We all have different perspectives.”
Family Bibles are also good sources of names and dates, she added.
Most importantly, once you have the information, do something with it. If it’s recorded, download a computer program so you can keep the video or voice interviews on your computer, and then back them up with a copy on a hard drive, a flash drive, disk, or maybe all three.
If gathering these memories sparks a real desire to research your family history, the society has paper pedigree charts and family group sheets that can get you started and keep you organized.
“There are things like this online, too,” she said. “But sometimes, some people like to start by just writing things out on paper.”
There are many online programs to choose from when researching, including Ancestory.com, Findmypast.com, Fold3.com, and AmericanAncestory.org. Some have fees, but Wright said any member of the society can use the library’s version of Ancestry.com at the library without cost.
There are also online sources to keep your own family information such as Legacy, Roots Magic, and Family Tree Maker.
“Most of these offer a free trial,” Wright said. “So try them and find the one that you are most comfortable with.”
Wright knows that many people think they don’t have time to record family memories or research their family tree. Like Wright, some older adults will think about it once their family is grown and they are retired.
“But you can do small things that won’t take a lot of time any time,” she said. “Even the Boy Scouts now have a badge where they research their genealogy.”
Start small and build on it. And if you need help, join the society which meets monthly and has speakers who talk about genealogical subjects. The group also has classes on the first Tuesday and the last Saturday of the month. To register call 360-475-9172. To find out more, go to www.KRL.org.
And most of all, don’t be afraid of what you might find.
“We like it when we find relatives who were in trouble with the law or who died tragically,” she said. “There’s much more about them that’s been written down. My great-grandfather was a traveling salesman and died in a train disaster in Arkansas. When I went looking I found information about that head-on train collision in three newspapers. I found the name of the mortuary where he was taken and I contacted that mortuary. In their records was a statement that told how much the suit cost that he was buried in and what was paid for the casket.
“You just never know what you may find.”
About Puget Sound Genealogical Society
PSGS began in 1973 and its history is detailed on their website, www.pusogensoc.org. PSGS entered into a partnership with Kitsap Regional Library in 2011, based partly on a shared vision of life-long learning, educational opportunities and access to research services, and moved the society’s research collection into the Sylvan Way location for a grand opening in January 2012.
Society members serve as volunteers in the Genealogy Center during regular Sylvan Way hours and are ready to assist anyone who comes in with questions about getting started or what to do next. Current membership is 166 but has been as large as 200. Membership is $15 per year.
Leslie Kelly is special sections editor for Kitsap Living and the Kitsap News Group. This story first appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of Kitsap Living: The time of your life.