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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Talking with Family
by Rhonda R. McClure

December 14, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

The holidays are here and many people are making plans for family gatherings. For some, these gatherings will take them home for family reunions, formal or informal. We have become such a far-flung society, that it is only at vacation and holiday times that we often get to see some of the family.

Of course, for those who are just beginning to get involved in genealogical research, this is the ideal time to see what the family may remember. Of course, you can't just show up on someone's doorstep and start quizzing them. If you cannot contact them ahead of time, you need to have a plan for the types of questions you are going to ask.

Holidays offer a way to get family info.

Name, Rank and Serial Number

From experience, asking them when great grandpa Ted was born is not the most effective method. Invariably, they will shake their head and tell you they just don't remember. Instead of asking such direct questions, you will want to ask them about things they will remember. Ask them about going to school or holiday celebrations. Ask them about their first car or about when they moved into a house or to the farm.

These are the types of events that people remember. While they are telling these stories you can interject questions about how old they were then or if great grandpa Ted was there for that Christmas or birthday and if so how old was he.

Without their realizing, as they answer your questions, they will be supplying you with the information you need to those drier questions, such as just when was great grandpa Ted born. When put in the context of their life, they have something to pull out of their memory, and it will make a difference in the information they share.

Working with the Information

Armed with this information, you can then begin to create a timeline that will hold the clues to approximate dates of birth and marriage and death for many of the family members. This gives you the starting point for your genealogy. At this point you can begin to see what record types might be of use to you.

Once you have the timeline, you can begin to put the pieces together in your genealogy software. Then as you get records that verify this information, you can include the source citations in your database. And before you know it you will be a full-fledged genealogist, complete with the database back six or more generations.

Don't Let the Chance Slip By

If you are going to see the family over the holidays, don't let the opportunity get away from you to talk with them. You never know when it will be your last. We always think we have unlimited time and before you know it, you find yourself the oldest living relative with many regrets.

Some of my fondest memories are of sitting at the table talking with my grandfather about his first job, and when he and my grandmother were first married. Pictures that he showed me had a story. They stopped being two-dimensional and came alive. And while I didn't get to videotape these times, I have my notes and hopefully my memories for time to come and I have the pictures as well.

In Conclusion

Getting started with genealogy need not be overwhelming. Talking with family is the best way to begin. And if you jump right into the records sometimes you don't get around to talking to the family until much later. Sometimes you miss out that way. Don't let it happen to you.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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