To be the family historian in a clan is an honored role. But to fulfill it effectively, you must include all stories–including your own. So here’s a prompt and a story to get you started: What led you to become a genealogist?
“Your stories are the family history of your descendants,” is something you’ve heard me say on the Genealogy Gems Podcast. In her first article here at Genealogy Gems, I’ve asked genealogist Margaret Linford to share one of her own stories with you: how she came to be a genealogist. I’m anxious for you to get to know Margaret because she has some wonderful gems in store for you in the months ahead. Grab your favorite cup of tea and enjoy!” -Lisa Louise Cooke
What Made Me a Genealogist?
I can remember, as a little girl, walking in after school. The aroma of freshly baked biscuits or bread always filled the air and enveloped anyone who walked through the door. The house was spotless. The bed linens were crisp.
This was the home of my Grandma Overbay. She was completely devoted to her family. Her home was a refuge for many when they found themselves struggling through life. No one was turned away and she made sure that those who entered her house always felt welcome.
My answer to the question, “What made me a genealogist?” can be traced back to this one woman and my countless experiences with her.
The Greatest Gift
I can remember many lazy summer evenings on the porch, listening to stories of her childhood, accompanied by the rhythmic sound of crickets. Through Grandma’s stories, I was transported back in time. In my mind’s eye, I could see her as a little girl picking blackberries on a mountaintop and following the local doctor from house to house as he treated patients. She lived in a small community, where it was a common practice, in that time, for doctors to make house calls. She had an insatiable curiosity, which prompted these tag-along visits. I imagine it was on these “house calls” that she came to love hearing stories. I loved being able to envision her as a carefree young girl, being taught life lessons, as she served as an unofficial intern to this kind community doctor.
She painted pictures on the canvas of my mind and introduced me to my ancestors. With each story she told, she was “downloading” some of her memories into the brains of her children and grandchildren. This was one of the greatest gifts anyone has ever given me: the gift of her time and her stories.
“With each story she told, she was ‘downloading’ some of her memories into the brains of her children and grandchildren. This was one of the greatest gifts anyone has ever given me: the gift of her time and her stories.”
I don’t think my grandma realized how important her stories would be to creating a strong family narrative. But her legacy lives on, thanks to the time she invested in a budding family genealogist.
The Master Storyteller
I feel fortunate to have been the granddaughter of this master storyteller. She created characters and made my ancestors come to life. They had traveled the path of life that I was just beginning, and had much wisdom to pass down to me. My grandma was deliberate in her attempts to transmit this wisdom.
Life lessons were always embedded within the stories. She often told a story that was related to her by her father. He had elected to disregard some of his mother’s wise counsel with regard to a person he wanted to date. He later learned that his mother truly knew what was best and he could have been spared an agonizing experience if he had chosen to heed her counsel. This theme of “honoring father and mother” was woven into many of her stories.
I learned from her that everyone has something to teach us–if we choose to take time and listen to the people we encounter on a day-to-day basis. Grandma believed in devoting her full attention to people. She would stop everything she was doing to lend an ear to someone who needed to talk. In these moments, she was offering her friendship and genuine concern. She was a listener, always sifting through the seemingly mundane to discover bits of wisdom and life lessons she otherwise may not have learned. She taught me, in word and by example, that life can be enriched as we take time to hear each other’s stories.
Pearls of Wisdom
Through the successes and disappointments of my ancestors, they left their children and grandchildren pearls of wisdom. These pearls are strung together, as we remember stories of the past. The greatest “heirloom” I ever inherited was this “string of pearls,” given to me one story at a time.
Six years ago, when I was asked to begin writing a bi-weekly column for my hometown newspaper, this heirloom is what prompted me to christen it “String of Pearls.” There is an even deeper meaning tucked into the name for me. I share the name “Margaret” with my grandmother and great-grandmother. I grew up often resenting being given such an “old” name. As I have matured, I have come to love it. To my delight, I have found that the name, which means “pearl,” has been used for many generations in my family. I am but one in a long string of “pearls.”
There are people like my grandma within each family. They are the keepers of the family stories. They seem to have a special calling to pass along the wisdom and knowledge of previous generations. There is an old proverb that says, “You live as long as you are remembered.” We are remembered as long as our stories are told, and it starts with you telling your story.
Questions Worth Asking
What is it that ignites the spark within someone’s heart to possess a love of family history, to take their rightful place as the “keeper” of the stories? What motivates certain individuals to be so dedicated to searching out their ancestors? What made my Grandma so intent on transmitting these family stories to future generations? I never had the opportunity to ask her that question. I had no way of knowing that her presence would be snatched away so soon. I often find myself repeating the phrase, “if I had only asked.” Perhaps you have, upon occasion, had the same thought with regard to your own family members.
Though we may have some regrets about unanswered questions, it’s never too late for us, as family historians, to start answering these questions ourselves. What inspired you to delve into your family’s history? Was it a grandparent, a photograph, or a family mystery that you wanted to solve? What prompted you to first seek out your ancestors?
As I answered these questions for myself, I was reminded of the emotional connection to my Grandma. A flood of memories came back to me, serving to remind me that these family ties last long after death. Our ancestors live on through us and through the stories they left behind. The image of my Grandma sharing her stories on the front porch will be the image that comes to mind the next time someone asks me what made me a genealogist.
In recalling my own “genealogy origins,” I made a startling discovery. I realized that my children are well acquainted with stories of their grandparents and great-grandparents, but know little about the early life experiences of their own mother and father. I have become so focused on telling them stories from previous generations, that I have entirely neglected to tell them my own! After all, it as important to capture our own memories and experiences as it is to save our ancestors from being forgotten. Now I have a renewed commitment to preserve these stories and emotional connections for my own children and future grandchildren.
More to Come
I look forward to sharing more of my stories here with you at Genealogy Gems, as well as some good old tried and true research strategies to help you on your genealogical journey. In this first post, thank you for letting me share my genealogy origins story with you. I invite you to take some time to reflect on your own genealogy origins and go back in your mind to a place and time when you first felt the desire to search out your own ancestors. Who was it or what was it that ignited this spark within you? “What made you a genealogist?”
Share Your Story
Leave a comment below to share your own “genealogy origins” story. Or, if you’re ready to capture more of your life stories, consider purchasing the life-story writing guide, Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy by Genealogy Gems Contributing Editor Sunny Morton. It’s packed with journaling prompts for every phase of life–from childhood to retirement–and opportunities to reflect on the relationships and experiences that have shaped you. Give future generations the gift of your life’s stories and lessons: the pearls you have to pass on.
An excellent story and a wonderful reminder to me to write my story before more time passes.
Thank you for sharing a lovely memory of a grand mother.
My story is from a cousin who began research back in the late 40’s when she moved about as a military family. She did her beginning research at original locations of National Archives, libraries and local areas of our ancestors.
I am keeping her legacy going by adding to what she began.
Trina, thank you so much for sharing your “genealogy origins” story! It is so wonderful that the torch was passed to you and you are keeping your cousin’s legacy alive. Good luck to you, as you work on writing your own story for future generations. Keep us posted on that journey. I would love to hear more!
Thanks for your post, and for the reminder of how important it is to tell our own life histories!
I got my start in a similar way to you, Margaret: via a storyteller in the family. When I was about 12, my Uncle Bob acquired the Hungarian passport of my great-grandparents. At the time, I was most fascinated with the fact that it recorded my ancestors had “regular” noses, but over time, it triggered questions, starting with why did my grandfather change his name.
So, it was Uncle Bob’s telling a story from a family heirloom that got me hooked. I stay in the game because I’ve discovered I love telling stories too! For me, genealogy is not about building a giant database of records, but of reaching beyond those records and turning data into story.
Lee Ann, I wholeheartedly agree with you! The best part of genealogy is discovering the stories of our ancestors. I love your genealogy origins story about the passport and “regular” noses. Those are the kinds of details that prompt us to be more curious about our ancestors. Your Uncle Bob sounds like he was a great conduit through which to carry a love of family history to future generations. Thanks so much for sharing.