Your life is much more than two or three dates. I don’t remember my birth. I’m fairly certain I won’t remember my death. The only one of the “Big Three,” BMD (Birth Marriage Death) events that I’ll ever have much recollection of is the “M,” that day almost 33 years ago that I married my wonderful Monchers. (Why Monchers? As a newlywed, when I’d hear him come home from work I’d run to the front door to greet my “Mon Cheri.” The name just evolved from there.)
Your ancestors had those three important days in their lives as well. But in an 80 year life holds more than 29,000 days. If we try to reduce our ancestors’ stories to only three of those days, we miss so much of what made them who they were. If I only remembered my wedding, I’d have missed all those moments big and small that have occupied our lives – not one but two broken water pipes; sitting on the deck sipping gin and tonics and reading the paper together; a walk around the block as our 18-month-old son toddled ahead and our German Shepherd ran back and forth, circling his “herd” to keep them together; picking blackberries at the park and coming home and making jam together.
Those day to day things are “life.” Make note of what you do. Dress. Eat. Work. Relax. Commute. Chores. Hygiene. If you do it, you ancestors did, too. Think about how they might have done things.
Did they grow their own food? Hunt for game? Buy it in a market? How did they pay for it? How often did they shop? How far did they have to travel to reach a market? How did they get there? How did they prepare the food? How did they store it?
How did they dress themselves? Who made the clothes? What were they made from? How many clothes did they have? How did they maintain their clothes? How did they launder them? How often did they launder them?
Where did they work? Was it dangerous? How did they get there? Was it the same thing every day or did their job vary with the seasons? Did they have job security? How were they paid? How much? How often?
Did they go to school? For how many years? Were girls educated or only boys? What ages were educated together – a one-room or two-room schoolhouse or a different classroom for every grade?
How did they relax? What kind of games might they have played? What books might they have read? Were dancing or music part of their entertainment or relaxation? Were sports?
Before you write your family history, ask yourselves all these questions and more. Then read read read to find the answers. Read old newspapers. Read magazines from back in the day. Read occupational guidebooks written at your ancestors’ times – how to farm, how to keep a home, how to raise children.
The more day-to-day details you can include in your family history, the more real it will seem to your reader. Because day-to-day life is real living.
For additional resources here are a few sites::
Cornell University HEARTH – Home Economics Archive – Research Tradition History - http://hearth.library.cornell.edu/
Cornell University Core Historical Literature of Agriculture - http://chla.library.cornell.edu/
Genwriters - http://genwriters.com/ - great questions (and some answers) to get you thinking about your ancestors’ world
If you have some resources you use for learning about your ancestors’ lives, please share. I’d love to hear about your favorites!
Mary Kircher Roddy is a genealogist, writer and lecturer, always looking for the story. Her blog is a combination of the stories she has found and the tools she used to find them.