An Envelope Named “Jack”
April 27, 2017
Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of guest posts highlighting the ways in which intergenerational connections have inspired young genealogists. To learn more about how the NextGen Genealogy Network encourages young genealogists to build connections between all generations, see the NextGen Connection Challenge.
Genealogy started, for me, as a lonely hobby; many late-night hours of reading and researching those who lived before my time. My grandfather was adopted, so our family tree came to an abrupt halt prior to 1934. There’s a certain emptiness that comes with those broken branches. I feel it most on the holidays, when the gatherings seem to get smaller each year.
It was a particularly long summer in 2015 when I cracked open a blue plastic bin full of photos my mother inherited. So few were labeled and even fewer contained familiar faces. I found a yellowed envelope sandwiched between tattered albums and bibles. In scrawling pencil, someone had written “Jack” across the front. The name wasn’t familiar to me at the time.
I opened the envelope with care, revealing a collection of photos from the mid-1930s. My Grandpa Joe, around age five, posed with several people I didn’t recognize in front of a cherry blossom tree. He squinted in the sunlight with his freckles congregating in the crinkles of his nose as he squirmed from one image to the next. He was wearing a sailor suit, likely in honor of his adoptive father, a steamship captain.
With no further leads, the photos returned to their place in the dusty bin, forgotten for many months.
A DNA test brought me back to the envelope called “Jack.” I built an adoptive family tree on Ancestry and was surprised to find DNA matches with the same people in their trees. It suggested my grandfather was adopted by his relatives. I recognized the username of a second cousin match; it was a surname I had seen on the back of a Polaroid in the blue bin: Schommer. I reached out to this “Schommer” cousin and learned that her grandfather, who I knew from birth records as John, was known to his loved ones as Jack.
Excitedly, I recovered the yellowed envelope from the blue bin and scanned photo after photo. “Schommer,” who I came to know as Trish, recognized everyone standing in front of that cherry blossom tree. They were Jack’s family, meeting their nephew for the first time in 1935. The nephew, of course, was my five-year-old grandfather.
We exchanged emails full of stories. The CC list grew and grew as I was introduced to more new cousins who joined in to see the photographs.
“Jack is still alive,” one cousin said. “Jack’s son, Jack. He’s turning 90 this year. Loretta is turning 92.”
Jack Jr. and Loretta lived in Portland, Oregon, along with a few of the cousins. After some coordination, we agreed to meet.
My trip to Oregon was incredibly memorable. Jack Jr.’s daughter was a gracious host who welcomed this “NextGen Genealogist” with open arms to her home. There, I met Jack Jr. and Loretta, who shared their memories of our family. We exchanged photos and brought each other closer to the loved ones we had lost. I learned new things about my ancestors that no document or image could ever tell me. It was a special day.
My greatest memento of meeting my family from the photographs was taking a new picture together with Jack and Loretta, seventy years later, sitting between them in place of my grandfather. The yellowed envelope called “Jack” became much more than a collection of memories. It formed new ones, reconnecting three generations who have stayed in touch ever since.
Katie Welka is a tech-savvy old soul who enjoys traveling, writing, crafting, and family research. She is a member of the California Genealogical Society and shares genealogy tips on her website, AncestryTechie.com. She works in Silicon Valley and loves unraveling the mysteries of her Sicilian, Polish, Scottish, and Irish ancestors.
Remembering Granny: When Secondary Sources Become Primary
February 28, 2017
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of guest posts highlighting the ways in which intergenerational connections have inspired young genealogists. To learn more about how the NextGen Genealogy Network encourages young genealogists to build connections between all generations, see the NextGen Connection Challenge.
Often in family history research, we get caught up in names, dates, and places of people we never knew, but this time in my searching I found more about a connection I had to someone I knew well.
I remember growing up that my Granny, Dorothy Marie (Verbeke) Smith, was into genealogy. Unfortunately, she had died before I became deeply involved in the field myself. We never really got the chance to talk about our shared family history while she was alive. I do recall her occasionally telling stories around the dinner table about the struggles her father (my great grandfather) went through as a recent Belgian immigrant trying to start a new life in America. I was young, so I listened intently, but I never thought to write any of these stories down. I did eventually get a copy of her genealogy binder after her death, but it was mostly filled with names and dates and didn’t have any deeper details of our ancestor’s lives.
Recently, I was looking up her obituary, and when I typed her name into Google, I noticed among the search results a page that is very familiar to me from working on genealogy for others: Ancestry.com’s RootsWeb mailing list archiver. These pages are collections of mailing lists and exchanges between researchers working on particular surnames and family lines. They often provide hints, though some more useful than others, about shared ancestors and family legends. Typically, when coming across these pages through frantic Google searching of surnames and their spelling variations, I am very cautious about the information found within. These are, after all, secondary sources, and most things don’t usually provide citations other than an occasional reference to a vital record or paper tucked away in a courthouse. In fact, I spend a lot of time trying to debunk the family myths that these sites can perpetuate.
This time, however, on my screen, I saw my own granny’s old email address associated with many of these posts on RootsWeb. While her married name was common, her maiden name, Verbeke, revealed her Belgian heritage and she posted frequently looking for leads on this family in Watervliet, Belgium.
Reading through these posts, I learned about alleged family rivals between my Verbeke ancestors and the family my great grandmother eventually married into. She recounts her successes in borrowing microfilm from the Family History Library and struggles with ordering a vital record from Springfield, Illinois. From these secondary sources, I was able to learn firsthand about her quest to trace her Belgian roots. I am thankful I can now have this insight about her research even though we can never talk about it in person. These pages became primary sources that document her life and her hobby that also help me connect with her after her death through our shared enthusiasm for genealogy.
This experience was also a good reminder of how important it is to connect with older family members and document their stories the next time you see them. Something as simple as making a recording on your smartphone while talking to relatives can create new primary sources about your family’s past to preserve for future generations.
5 Reasons Why Podcasts are Great Learning Tools for Genealogists
November 21, 2016
As I sit on my living room couch underneath my favorite blanket, I listen to genealogical experts share their insights. With podcasts, we have the ability to listen to these experts comfortably at home, in our cars on our way to various places, and even at work. Podcasts are extremely beneficial for genealogy researchers to improve their skills for five reasons.
1. Podcasts allow you to learn information quickly. Last year, I taught a genealogy course at my local family history center. I had a good command of much of the content I planned to explore, but not all of it. Listening to podcasts on focused subjects allowed me to fill gaps in my understanding quickly, so I could pass the information on to other researchers. Further, because podcasts are available any time or day, I did not have to wait to go to a conference or meeting to hear the content.
2. Podcasts can be listened to when you cannot read materials. Listening to content via a podcast can be more accessible than reading in many situations. I listen to genealogy podcasts while I do chores and when I go running. In situations where you cannot read a book, you can still absorb genealogy material through listening. Reading genealogy and family history books are a must, but listening to content can be an important way to learn as well. With that, there is something special about hearing how someone speaks about a topic. We have all heard speakers that get us excited about a topic in large part due to their own enthusiasm on a subject.
3. Podcasts cover diverse genealogy subjects. Interested in lineage societies? Interested in how to write for a genealogy journal or newsletter? There’s a podcast for all of the above. From how-tos to information on particular research systems, podcasts allow people to explore whatever they would like to know. iTunes and other services allow you to customize what shows you subscribe to. Blogtalk Radio offers several genealogy-related shows, including “Research at the National Archives and Beyond” and “The Forget-Me-Not Hour.”
4. Podcasts offer a depth of subject matter. Podcasts are long enough to cover material in good detail. They can offer the right balance of depth and introductory information. Genealogy podcasts commonly last forty minutes to one and half hours. This length usually affords speakers enough time to delve into a subject.
5. Podcasts direct you to other resources to explore. Effective podcast speakers explain what they know and where listeners can find more information. My favorite podcasts regularly direct me to more genealogy references online and in print.
What are your favorite genealogy podcasts?
Shelby Ward is from Kansas and lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. She has taught on the subject of African Diaspora genealogy, history, and culture at the Knoxville Family History Center and started the Beck Cultural Exchange Center Genealogical Society. She is the creator of Millie’s Porch, a family history start-up, and participates in several Facebook genealogy groups.
Caring for a Family Collection
September 19, 2016
Many of us caught the genealogy bug when we were children. I find this is especially true with the current generation of NextGen genealogists. As a child, I was well versed in my family’s deep and varied history. I credit those stories with my burgeoning passion for genealogy in my twenties. One such intriguing story was my grandfather’s service during World War II. As a medical doctor, he served in the South Pacific for over eighteen months, and shortly after my grandfather shipped out, my father was born. They did not meet until my father was a toddler, almost two years later. Another facet of this story is any historian’s or genealogist’s dream: My grandparents wrote to each other every day during my grandfather’s deployment. Better yet, the majority of the letters survived. Originally preserved by my grandparents, the letters eventually came under the care of my father who passed them along to me.
Becoming the caretaker of my family’s historical past is a great responsibility, and it does feel overwhelming at times. There are many aspects of care to consider: how should the letters be preserved, who is allowed access, privacy concerns, what happens after I am done with them, and so on. The following is a narrative of my journey as the family archivist. Nowadays, there are many options available as well as many tools. In my case, this collection of letters, documents, and photographs is huge. In fact, there are over 1,300 letters! Did I mention how overwhelming taking care of a sizable collection can be?
My first thought when I acquired the letters was that I wanted to read them all to glean any genealogical information I could. In retrospect, this sounds wonderful, but at the same time, very naïve. I found reading one letter or two at a time to be fun, but I missed out on the bigger picture of the narrative—similar to picking up a book and reading a chapter in the middle. I knew what happened on one day, but I did not know how or why those events occurred at that particular time.
Organization became the key first step. In the beginning, I separated my grandfather’s and grandmother’s letters and arranged them chronologically. I was able to see the gaps in the narrative more easily. I opened each letter, removing rusted staples and paperclips and flattening folds. While not the best preservation technique, I saved each letter in a plastic sheet protector and organized them in binders. For me, this was the easiest and cheapest method. There are drawbacks to using plastic sheet protectors, especially in places where water damage is likely to occur.
Transcribing and scanning the letters came next. In the beginning, it was difficult to read my grandfather’s handwriting, but I improved over time. Transcribing the letters forced me to actually read what was written, instead of skimming over the words. Once I finished transcribing each letter, I scanned it. All my scans are .TIFF, not .JPEG, which are the better file for preservation. Having a backup copy or a digital image to share with family members is important. What if my house was damaged and the letters with it? I feel much happier knowing I have backups! And always remember to save a set of backups off-site.
Sharing the letters with family was a priority to me. My father had never actually read the letters, even though he had kept them safe for many years. The letters tell his story, although he was too young to remember any of it. With digital copies of the letters, I could have shared them with family through email, or shared sites like Dropbox or Google Drive, but I didn’t. I chose blogging instead. Very early in the project, I decided to post one letter a day on a blog. For me, blogging established a routine as well as a disciplined way to keep myself on task. By posting the letters, I created some lovely “cousin bait.” I have connected with distant cousins as well as descendants of my grandparent’s FAN club. In return, I have acquired new stories and photographs.
Since privacy may be an issue for some readers, always consider the information you might be sharing. In my case, the vast majority of people involved in the letters are deceased; the only person who might object to the content of the letters is my father, and he has given me his wholehearted support for this undertaking. I also feel strongly against redacting history. I may not agree with the opinions or attitudes of the past, but I feel it is my duty to preserve the past, not rewrite it.
After blogging “a letter a day” for a few years, I decided I wanted to reach a different audience as well as preserve the letters in a more concrete way. Self-publishing books has become exceedingly easy over the last few years. Companies like CreateSpace and Blurb produce high quality products, as well as the ability to sell the books through Amazon. I published the first volume of letters last year and am currently working on the second. By having a physical book to share, donations to libraries and genealogical societies are now possible. Books are also great for older relatives who shy away from the Internet.
While I may be finished transcribing the letters, the collection still takes up a lot of my time. I continue to prepare the letters for publication as well as plan for their future. My preservation techniques have improved over the years. Currently, I am phasing out the plastic sheets and binders and am in the process of moving the letters into Hollinger boxes and archival folders. I plan to create a finding aid and catalog the collection. Eventually, I want to find a repository or library willing to house the collection. While I enjoy caring for the letters, I am not sure my children would want the responsibility, so it’s wise to think ahead to the next next generation!
Deborah Sweeney is a genealogist, author, and blogger based in Northern California. A former theatrical costumer and a fourth grade teacher, she holds a Certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University and has completed the ProGen Study Group. Dear Mother, Love Daddy is the first published volume of letters written by her grandparents during World War II, and a second volume, Lots of Love, Daddy, will be published in the fall of 2016.