If you’ve been thinking of looking into your family history and starting to fill out your own family tree, now is the time. I mean, not just “Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” but “The holidays are the best time to start.”
Think of the family gatherings. Thanksgiving dinner. Christmas vacation. All those parties, maybe even a wedding or a baby shower. It’s the perfect time to ask questions. What’s grandma’s middle name? What’s Uncle Charlie’s birthdate? Where was Aunt Eva born?
Caution: Some families bicker and argue over everything from the spelling of a name to whether grandma’s family in Germany was Jewish or not, to who was great-great-great grandpa because he was married to someone but it wasn’t to your great-great-great grandmother. If you’re taking notes (and you should), just jot down the different opinions and ask someone for their casserole recipe to change the subject.
Before you pack the car, take a little time to write down what you know (or think you know). Ancestry has a printable 4-generation chart. Misbach.org has one that fits 6-generations on one page. Start with yourself and work your way back. You may want to use a pencil in case you find out the name your grandfather always used isn’t his legal name.
Sidebar: About 23 years ago, my mom called and said my grandfather was in the hospital. I went to the hospital to see him. I went to the desk and asked for Hoyt Cook, and they said they didn’t have anyone by that name. Remember, this was before cell phones, and my mother was at the hospital. Somewhere. Unreachable. Eventually, I got it sorted out, and come to find out, Hoyt was my grandfather’s middle name, and they booked him under his legal first name. I kind of knew that, but not well enough to recall it in the lobby of a hospital where he’d been taken rather suddenly. Use a pencil.
If you fill out a couple of generations before you get to the family gathering, it shouldn’t take long to verify what you have and make corrections or additions. Then you can start asking what you don’t know, like your great-great grandparents’ names and where they’re from.
The more you can find out from your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, or even family friends, the better armed you will be to start finding the answers that can fill in the blanks that no one knows.
I got a late start at genealogy. I was always moderately interested in the family history, but while I enjoyed hearing the stories of hog thieves and hellraisers, I didn’t really commit any of it to memory or write it down. Now my grandparents are all gone, and my mom’s memory isn’t what it used to be. The families are spread out and we aren’t able to get together in person as much as we once did. So, if you’re still young, please, fill out the chart now, even if you just stick it in a drawer for now. Someday, you (or your kids) will be glad to have it.