Thursday, December 30, 2010

Favorite Narrative Family History Books

During the holidays and particularly on my long flight to and from Hawaii, I was able to do a little bit of reading. (Imagine that.) It was quite a production even for me to select which books I wanted to bring on the plane with me – I had such a long list of things I wanted to read. I ended up bringing a ridiculous amount of books (I think I had 5 books), of which I only read part of one. In ordering my books, I began reflecting on some of the best “family history” books I have read. I thought I would share some of these.

First, my criteria: I did not choose any “instructive” how-to books. These books had to be narratives. They had to be nonfiction and cover several generations of a family’s story. Some of them are old, and some are new - and on my desk right now. (Of course, my book would go at the top of this list, but these are ideas for after you’ve FINISHED reading my book!)

1. Family by Ian Frazier. This is one of the books that truly shaped my course in life. I read it as a college student and instantly knew that I wanted to write a book like that someday. This book describes Frazier’s “ordinary” family through several generations of American history. Frazier is the master of understatement. I have tried to model this in my own writing – describing actions that show emotions instead of always stating emotions directly. For example, he describes losing his brother when he was young. He tells about his parents getting back in the car after his brother’s death, describes their slow, methodical actions. Then states simply “It was the worst day of my life.” That’s all he needs to say. It’s so powerful! One of my favorite quotes, one that I use in my book lecture, comes from this book. Frazier says (I am paraphrasing): While we are required to love all of our descendents equally, the same doesn’t apply to our ancestors. We are allowed to have favorite ancestors because they aren’t around to know about it.

2. The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home by George Howe Colt. He uses the history of his family’s vacation home to describe his family and the changes that have come over them – and their environment - during the past one hundred years. (The house is on the Cape which endears it to me even more.)

3. Red House: Being a Mostly Accurate Account of New England’s Oldest Continuously Lived-In House. Here’s another New England house book. Messer parallels the life of the family that owned this house for generations with her own family who buys the house.

4. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang. This is possibly my favorite book of all time. Everyone, everyone, should read it. Chang traces her Chinese family through three generations, weaving in the incredible events of Chinese history that shaped them – and those around them.

5. The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family by Duong Van Mai Elliott. Fascinating! Elliott’s book starts in the past in rural Vietnman and finishes with Elliott’s life as her family escapes from Saigon and she eventually marries an American man.

6. Mosaic: A Chronicle of Five Generations by Diane Armstrong. This tells the story of a Jewish family beginning in 1890 and stretching to present day, including stories of her family during the Nazi regime.

7. In My Blood: Six Generations of Madness and Desire in an American Family by John Sedgwick. This is the book I read on the plane to Hawaii. I’m about two-thirds finished with it. The thread that extends through time as he traces the generations of his family is mental illness. I’m enjoying the book.

8. Shaking the Family Tree by Buzzy Jackson. I ordered this in from the library, but haven’t started it yet.

Of course, this is only a few of many possibilities. I would love to hear other people's favorite books in this category.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

My Family History Christmas Present

I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas. We had a delightful day with our kids and my parents. Monday morning, we will travel to New York City for a couple of days to see more family.

I wanted to share a little with you about a gift I got this year from my mother. Under my tree were three binders:

1) The "Document Binder", as my mom called it, contained pages and pages of documentation of my life. This binder contained a vareity of papers such as my birth certificate, kindergarten report card, standardized test scores, a newspaper announcement from when I won a story writing contest in second grade and got to read it on the local radio, a school newspaper article announcing the winners of the kite-flying contest (I won 3rd place in the "most unique" category), swimming class certificates of completion, dance recital programs, my high school graduation program, etc.

2) A Photo Album of my childhood. The photos began with baby pictures and school pictures such as this one:

There were sections with my siblings and me, as well as some photos of me with my grandparents and great-grandparents. The one below shows my brother Mathew (age 1), my great-grandmother, and me (age 3).

A section at the back was entitled "Heritage." Here, my mother had placed photos of her parents, my dad's parents, both of my parents as children, and pictures from my parents' wedding.

3) The last binder was the thickest. It contains dozens and dozens of family letters my mother had written to her family when I was growing up. They're full of stories of me writing on my walls with crayons, blessing the butter, bread, and even my shoes in the dinner prayers, and sleeping with a dozen dolls in my bed. They stretch until when I was adult and include some letters that I wrote to my parents from college, and even my mother's reaction when she learned I was pregnant with my first child. One of my favorite letters is dated October 1979. It's a letter my mom wrote to me on my third birthday. I wanted to share a couple of sentences from it:

"When I think of you, I think of scraped knees and golden hair clear full of sand. You love hot dogs, going to the park, and having books read to you. You dislike sharing your toys with Mathew (my younger brother) and being quiet and sitting still in church. You can ride your trike all by yourself almost all of the way over to the university and back. You can count and read the alphabet. Because you act so smart and are so tall, everyone thinks you're older than you are. But when I tuck you in bed and you put your little arms around my neck and give me a hug, you seem so small and vulnerable. I wish that I could protect you from all of life's sorrows, but I can only hope that life will greet you with the same enthusiasm and love that you rush into it with it."

Needless to say, these binders were my favorite gift. Part of the reason, of course, is because the family historian in me was cheering at how these pictures and letters had been collected and preserved. But the bigger part was because of the memories and feelings these binders brought flooding back into my mind. It made me motivated to save some of these important things - documents, photos, and letters - for my children so that someday perhaps I can give them a gift as special as the one my mom gave me today.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Hawaii Part III (last one - I promise)

I promise to post something useful about genealogy research after this, but I just had to finish with some pictures from our last two days in Hawaii.

Sunday morning, we began adrive up north, stopping in the little town of Hanalei to attend church. The northern coast of Kauai is absolutely amazing. Kauai is known as the Garden Island, and it's easy to see why. We felt like we were driving through a jungle. Here's a picture of the scenery across the street from the church.

After church, we continued our drive to the end of the road - literally. The road on the northern coast of Kauai ends at the Na Pali mountains, which are too rugged for roads. The Na Pali coast is known for its breathtaking beauty, but the only way to see it is by helicopter, boat, or hiking. The first two options are out for me because of my suspectibility to motion sickness, so we had opted for hiking (my preference anyway). We started at Ke'e beach on the well-known Kalalau trail. We only planned to go the first two miles to the Hanakapaia Beach. Not to be cliche, but really I don't think there is any way to describe how absolutely beautiful the hike was. The photos don't do it justice. But here's a couple anyway!

When we got back, we were covered in mud and dripping wet (it drizzled for most of the hike). That night, we enjoyed an anniversary dinner - we've been married twelve years!

Monday was our last day in Kauai. We were worried that the weather would foil our plans (it rained basically the entire time we were in Kauai - I guess a place doesn't become the "Garden Island" without a lot of rain!), but it didn't. We drove to Waimea Canyon, known as the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific."

Before returning to the airport, we also made a quick stop at Spouting Horn, a lava tube where the ocean spurts up through.

I can't resist one more image of Kauai. Every place we went - the canyon, the beach, the jungle, our hotel, etc. - there were wild chickens and roosters (known as moa) everywhere.

I wanted to close my vacation posts with a little thought (yes - I'm waxing philosophical about vacations....). From the time I left Massachusetts, until the time I got to the Honolulu airport, I only checked my email - or got online at all - one time. I didn't lay awake at night and think about all the things I had to do. I didn't stress about how my book was or wasn't selling. And somehow, the world still didn't collapse. It has been an intense few months - but for a while, life wasn't intense. It was about beaches and flip flops and yummy food.

Obviously, life can't always be about beaches. And obviously I can't go to Hawaii every month - or even every year. But I can take a break from intensity, just by choosing to let go of the intensity - even for a little while.

I know - easier said than done. But I think it's worth a try every now and then.

Hawaii Part II

We are now in the Honolulu airport waiting for our flight back to Massachusetts (via San Francisco). It was a fabulous trip. It already feels like a dream. I wanted to share some more pictures in a post today and then hopefully finish tomorrow.

Friday, after George's meetings, we headed east from Waikiki to the Nuuanu Pali lookout. We could see green cliffs stretching to the beautiful, blue ocean.

We stopped for a few minutes to see the Byodo-In temple, an exact replica of a 900-year-old temple in Japan.

Next, we drove to Kualoa ranch where we had reservations for an ATV tour of the mountains. The views were breathtaking - and the ATVs were fun too! Lots of movies have been filmed in these mountains including Jurassic Park.

We finished the day with a picnic at Koala Beach, across the street from the ranch. Our view included a little island known as "Chinaman's Hat."

The next morning, we caught a quick flight to the island of Kauai where we would be staying in the town of Lihue for two nights. We grabbed some of the famous Saimin noodles for lunch before driving a few miles north to the town of Kapaa. Here, we had reservations for a kayaking trip. We kayaked a few miles up the Wailua River. Then our guide led us on a one-mile hike to Secret Falls where we took a little swim before hiking and kayaking back.

We finished the day with dinner at the cutest little place ever, called Kalapaki Beach Hut, right on the beach near Lihue.

Tomorrow, I'll post a few more from pictures from our last two days. I'll see my kids in less then 24 hours! I can't wait! (I do wish I could skip the twelve hours of flights ahead.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Hawaii Part 1

We have now been here in Hawaii for two and a half days. Of course, I am missing my kids like crazy! But they are in good hands with my parents. We have talked and emailed pictures (Sarah Ann, my five-year-old, said "If you send me pictures mommy, then I won't miss you so much!").

But - we are having a great time. Hawaii is amazing! The weather is sunny and perfect. The beach and mountains are gorgeous. We are staying on Waikiki beach - which actually probably wouldn't be my first choice, but that's where my husband's meetings are. Waikiki is beautiful, I just usually prefer to stay in a little less touristy places. My husband is at his meetings right now so I decided to share a couple of photos.

We flew in on Monday evening and didn't do much but roll into bed. We still haven't completely adjusted to the five hour time change. I have woken up by 6 a.m. every morning (so much for sleeping in - it's impossible....)

Wednesday morning, we drove to Pearl Harbor to see the USS Arizona Memorial. I have included a picture below. The entire place is very nice and tastefully done. We watched a short video and then took a little boat over to the memorial that is right over the actual sunken ship where around 1000 people lost their lives on December 7, 1941.

Next, we drove up around the north shore to see the famous waves of the "surfing capital of the world."

Finally, we headed to the Polynesian Cultural Center where we spent the rest of the day visiting recreated villages from all across Polynesia, and enjoying a luau, and show. The villages and shows featured college students from the various areas of Polynesia showcasing the song and dance of their island. The night finished with a spectacular fire dance where several young men twirled and tossed sticks burning from both ends. (I could hardly watch!)Below are some of the dancers during the canoe pageant.

Yesterday, we began the day early with a visit to Hanauma Bay, about 30 minutes east of Waikiki. The bay itself is breathtaking. We rented snorkel equipment (we had never been snorkeling before) and headed out into the water. We soon found ourselves swimming directly above a coral reef among fish and even a giant sea turtle. Here's a picture from the top of the walkway looking down into the bay.

We concluded the day on Waikiki beach. We took a quick swim, watched the sunset (below), saw a hula show, and had a nice dinner at Duke's Canoe Club.

We have more fun plans on Oahu today before catching a flight in the morning to Kauai.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Lectures This Week

This week I gave two really fun lectures about my book. First, on Wednesday I spoke to the Genealogy Club of Newtown (Connecticut). I drove up early and enjoyed a delicious dinner with Ray and Mary Maki, the founders, and Marian Wood, the program chair. Both Mary and Marian have blogs. You can read about the lecture on Mary’s blog or at Marian’s blog. The group meets at the Newtown library, which has a really interesting history. The money to build the library (and several other buildings in town) was left by a wealthy woman who lived in Newtown around the turn of the twentieth century. The library even has a genealogy room. The group was fabulous – so fun and interactive. As a speaker, it really makes a difference to have an audience that is responsive. (And it sure beats having someone snoring on the front row – which I have also had happen!)

Then on Friday, I went to my daughter’s fifth grade class at Chestnut Hill. I had a blast talking to those fifth graders. I got so many questions! On just one slide, there would be about six kids with their hands in the air. They wanted to know why our ancestors had so many children, what would have happened if my ancestors’ parents threw him overboard, if people gave their children Tylenol back then, if my ancestor got typhoid fever at the same time her mother died from it, and what would happen if a kid sneaked onto one of the covered wagons to ride when crossing the plains when he was supposed to be walking. Some of those are certainly questions I had never been asked before!

By the way, if you are thinking of ordering The Journey Takers as a Christmas present, you should consider ordering it from Deseret Book or Seagull Book (it’s cheapest here - $17.95). Amazon says they can’t guarantee it will arrive on time for Christmas. (Who knows why….)

My little Christian finally seems like himself today. He has been so sad and clingy all week. I could tell he felt better today because he spent his time roaming around the kitchen, opening all the cupboards and pulling everything out. As I was trying to help my other kids decorate Christmas cookies, Christian took several pot lids into the bathroom (I don’t know why) and of course dumped all the spaghetti noodles out again (I ought to smarten up and move those noodles, don’t you think?) That’s the Christian we know and love.

Two more days until we leave for Hawaii! Yesterday when my kids got on the bus to go to school, it was 3 degrees. On Tuesday, I will be sitting on the beach in flip flops and short sleeves. Amazing.

Maybe I should move to Hawaii.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Your Family's Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island

This week we had some people over for dinner. During the course of our discussion, I asked one of them about the origins of his surname. (What can I say? I’m a genealogist – I’m always fascinated by where people’s names come from.) He told me that it had been spelled differently in Sweden, but then his family immigrated and they changed it at Ellis Island.

If you are a genealogist, you are cringing now. I know you are. I had to concentrate to not actually cringe when he said it.

If you’re not a genealogist, then maybe you don’t know why we are all cringing. Maybe you even have a similar story for your name.

Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you then: Your family’s name was not changed at Ellis Island. And neither was this person’s name. This may be the number two myth in genealogy (next only to the “I’m-descended-from-royalty/Indian-princess/Charlemagne/noble-who-fell-in-love-with-a-peasant-girl-and-stowed-away-on-a-ship-to-America-in-order-to-escape-the-Prussian-military-myth”).

First, many of the people who say this didn’t even have family that came through Ellis Island. Ellis Island didn’t open until 1892. Immigrants who came to New York prior to this probably came to Castle Garden which served as the port of arrival from 1855 until 1890.

Second, there was not a conspiracy by the officials at Ellis Island to change as many names as possible and make it difficult for their future descendents to ever trace their heritage.

Have many family names changed in spelling from their “original” spelling in Europe? Absolutely. But it wasn’t because of a massive change at Ellis Island. So why have these spellings changed then?

Well, there are several things to keep in mind. First, often there never was a “correct” way to spell the name in the first place – even in Europe. Our ancestors spelled phonetically – based on how things were pronounced, how they sounded. They were not overly concerned with what exact letters were included. You will often find names spelled multiple ways within one record. Also our ancestors, and even record keepers, were often only semi-literate. They had bigger things to worry about in life besides “i before e, except after c.”

The other piece of this is that things got more complicated when our ancestors came to the US and another language was involved. These foreign names were unfamiliar to US record keepers. The recorder heard the name – as it was spoken in its original language – and recorded it as he heard it in English.

Yes, sometimes names were written “incorrectly” (which is actually impossible since if there isn’t a “correct” way to write a name, then there can’t really be an “incorrect” way either) at Ellis Island. But, this is usually just another warping of a name that had been – and would be – warped into many forms. Just because an official wrote a name a certain way in the passenger arrival records, did not mean our ancestor was forced to spell his or her name that way forever afterward.

In fact, names usually continued to warp and change after Ellis Island. If you collect a stack of records throughout an immigrant ancestor’s life, you will most likely see the name morphing over time – not a sudden break at Ellis Island (or Castle Garden). Some of ancestors made conscious choices to change their name’s spelling in order to make it sound more “American.” Sometimes, it just gradually drifted to a more “American” spelling. Then of course, some people’s names shifted drastically into a name that appears to be completely unrelated to the name they had before. Sometimes there are reasons for this that we can figure out when we understand naming patterns. Other times, there appears to be absolutely no logic behind the change at all.

Those ancestors are the most fun of all, right?

For more information on name changes, you can read my article about it here from Everton’s Genealogical Helper. Or, if you have a special interest in patronymics, read my introductory article from Ancestry Magazine here.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Christmas crazies

It’s a new week – and not just any week – a week in December. I’m sure I am not the only person out there that feels that weeks in December are fundamentally different than weeks in any other part of the year. I LOVE December and I LOVE Christmas. But it also makes my life a little crazy. Here are some items on my list for the week:

-Two lectures. I will be speaking to the Newtown Genealogy Club in Connecticut this Wednesday at 7 p.m. about my book. I am looking forward to my lecture. Then, on Friday I am doing a very special lecture. I will be speaking to my daughter’s fifth grade class (and another class) about my book. I spoke to eight fourth grade classes in October and it was so fun! I loved the creative, thoughtful, unexpected questions and comments I got. I will be sure and write more about it after the presentation.

-Submitting an article for an upcoming issue of the Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly entitled “Get Published in Magazines: Tips for Getting Your Words in Print.” This is based on a lecture I gave this past August in Knoxville, TN at the National APG Conference in conjunction with FGS (Federation of Genealogical Societies) Conference. You can watch the lecture online. You can also see most of the other presentations given at the conference at the APG website also on such useful topics as marketing, choosing continuing educational experiences, and your online presence. Check out the list here.

-Christmas cookies. We have a tradition of making Christmas cookies every year – LOTS of Christmas cookies. We have four kinds in the freezer already. We have three kinds left to go this week: gingerbread, Spritz, and a new one called “almond delights.” Over the weekend we will decorate and deliver all of them (hopefully…). I really enjoy making cookies with my kids, but every year it is an exercise in patience and in not micromanaging (snowmen can be green and it’s’ okay for the cookie to have five different kinds of sprinkles….)

-Christmas shopping. I am almost done…just a few hard ones left. And, there’s still one big gift left for my kids. It’s a surprise so I can’t tell you yet!

-Piano lessons, dance class, basketball practice, activity days (a church activity), Irish step. None of these activities are mine, of course, but they are still on my list for the week!

And an update: I took my little Christian to the doctor yesterday after he scared me by coughing until his lips turned blue. He has ear infections in both ears. So now he is on antibiotics – and hopefully on the mend. (And the doctor was unimpressed by my story of him coughing until his lips turned blue, which is, of course, unrelated to the ear infections.)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

This and That

My poor little baby is still sick. He doesn’t have a fever anymore, but he definitely still has a cold. I had all these good intentions to write a really useful post with lots of genealogy information. But, you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men….

So instead I thought I’d just share some of the random thoughts dancing around in my head:

1) I missed a NERGC (New England Regional Genealogical Conference) board meeting today. If any of you are New Englanders, I hope you are looking into attending this conference. It’s a fabulous conference with speakers from across the country. This year, it will be in Springfield, MA – just forty minutes from my house. (But today was the “Christmas tree day” at our house, so I had to pass on the meeting. They didn’t need my anyway:) You can read more about the conference here. And by the way, you don't have to be a New Englander to come!

2) My book was reviewed on the latest episode of The Genealogy Guys Podcast . It must be late, because I can’t make my computer cooperate so I can hear what they said.

3) I made our kayaking reservations for our trip to Hawaii. And I made reservations for the Polynesian Cultural Center. I’ve really wanted to see the Na Pali Coast, but boats and helicopters are not an option for me (motion sickness). So, I’ve decided we’re going to hike in a couple of miles instead for what is supposedly a stunning view. Can’t wait!! Sometimes I think I missed my true calling in life – being a professional tourist (or at least a travel writer).

4) Family Chronicle is about to put out a new book entitled, “Tracing Your Civil War Ancestors.” You can pre-order it now on their website. I have Civil War ancestors – maybe someday I will trace them, instead of only tracing my European ancestors. It always makes me laugh when people assume that because I’m a “professional,” I must have “finished” tracing my family.

5) Listening to a little baby cough is about the saddest thing ever! I hope my little guy gets better soon.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Since I recently wrote a post about the things I’m thankful for, it seems only natural to now write a complaining post. Here are my current life complaints:

1) I am sick. I am not deathly, horribly sick, but I do feel lousy. It’s really just a cold – but one of those severe colds, where my head is so fuzzy that I have a hard time forming coherent sentences because by the time I’m halfway through the sentence, I have already forgotten what I was talking about. I have the desire to climb back in my bed. But as you all know, moms don’t get “sick days” like everyone else.

2) Christian (my thirteen-month-old) is sick. He ran a fever of 103 for two days, but actually seems a bit better now. This means, I have spent large amounts of time sitting with him in the rocking chair.

3) My husband is out of town again. This, of course, confounds the problems of #1 and #2 above.

4) I am not getting anything done. Like all the rest of the world, I have long to-do list, but due to #1-3 above, have found it nearly impossible to do anything more than the laundry (wash it at least, it is still unfolded on my living room couch).

5) My computer died a couple of weeks ago, and I have been using my husband’s old computer. It insists on disconnecting itself from the internet at least once an hour. It is making me crazy! (My husband doesn’t think I need a new one – because this one works good enough. My question for him is: then why did he get a new one?)

6) As I am writing this, Christian (who definitely seems better today) has opened the hutch and pulled all the food out, including dumping nearly a pound of spaghetti noodles on the floor.

This is a picture from another day of Christian pulling food out of the hutch.

Fortunately though, there are some positives in life right now to balance these out. Here is my positive list:

1) I am going to Hawaii in less then two weeks! And I am going with just my husband. It is the first time we have gone anywhere without children together since we had children (except to a brief trip to Pittsburgh which doesn’t count because it was for adoption interviews and was stressful). My parents will stay with my kids. I have done absolutely nothing to plan this trip until the conditions described above hit. But now, since I have spent lots of time sitting in the rocking chair with Christian, I have started reading my Hawaii tour guide, and am now so excited I can hardly stand it!

2) I have a radio interview today with a Utah radio station about my book. I can do it here at home. I am going to concentrate really hard so as not to run into the problem described in #1 above in which I am unable to complete sentences that make any sense.

3) My book sold more on amazon in November than any previous month. (But it needs to sell more. December is supposed to be a big month for books. Anyone have a difficult-to-shop for person on your Christmas list? I know just the thing to get him or her….)

4) I feel rotten enough that I’m not even that concerned about all things I'm not getting done. I’m perfectly content to read about snorkeling in Hanauma Bay and kayaking on the Wailua River.

5) My husband comes back tomorrow night. The house can’t completely disintegrate by then, can it?

6) Christian is still happy – now pulling all the pots and pans out. This is the longest he has gone without me holding him since Monday evening. He looks pretty cute in his dinosaur sleeper surrounded by pans and spaghetti noodles.

7) Did I mention that I’m going to Hawaii for the first time in less than two weeks? Even better, my husband has meetings there, so the trip is highly subsidized by his work.

Well, how’s that? I have more things on my good list then my bad list. (Okay, so I may have put Hawaii twice, but I think it’s worthy of counting twice.)

Now the decision: should I clean up the spaghetti noodles or make kayaking reservations? (Or even better, put Christian down for a nap and go back to bed myself…if only….)