I first began researching my family tree after the death of my grandfather. I had always been interested in the family stories and information. My passion for history encouraged this. However, I hadn’t really focused on the evidence and background side of my family stories until my grandfather was gone. See my article, The Family Story Teller for more on this. Starting out on this side of the family tree would have been an almost impossible task if I hadn’t tracked down my feature for Treasure Chest Thursday, my grandfather’s first cousin who lived more than a thousand miles away and whom I hadn’t seen in many years. His knowledge, memory, and his great respect for details were more than appreciated and helpful. The best part though? The box full of old family photographs that brought my family tree to life and provided me with a greater wealth of information and a feeling of connection to my ancestors than I had thought possible.
When I first contacted Don, this first cousin of my grandfathers, I began by writing him a letter. He was in his eighties and I didn’t really know him, so I thought this might be best. I merely asked him for any information he might remember about his grandparents, if it wasn’t too much of an inconvenience. I didn’t expect much of a response besides maybe a few stories or details that I had already had. What I received instead has been the greatest find in my entire family tree research experience.
I received a letter back from him about two weeks later. In the letter, he expressed how happy it made him that I was interested in my heritage. He told me to also keep in mind how happy this would have made my grandfather as well. Apparently, he is the teller of family stories for his children and grandchildren just as my grandfather had been for mine. Another similarity is that while his children had always listed to his family stories, none of them expressed a great interest in the family lore and details. So much so that he had a wealth of information and documents that he was about to donate to a historical society near him in Texas because he just didn’t know what to do with it all. Their loss was my significant gain!
He informed me that he wasn’t very comfortable when talking on the telephone. It made him lose his concentration and get confused easily, so if it was okay with me, we would continue our correspondence about the family tree through letters. He asked if I would like for him to tell me everything he knew. My answer, sent back to him in a letter that very day? PLEASE!
I waited patiently (not really) for his reply and checked the mailbox with daily hope for a letter from him. I didn’t know exactly what to expect or how much he would really remember besides the stories, but I had a gut feeling that he was going to be my stepping stone on this project. Man, was I ever right!
The first letter that I received from him contained many of the same family stories that I had heard a million times from my grandfather throughout my life. At least I now had them in writing to reference back to. What that letter also had though was evidence of Don’s impeccable memory. In his response, he included: names, dates of birth, parents names, dates and causes of death, burial places, dates of immigration, the countries they came from, physical descriptions, sayings he remembered his grandparents and great grandparents saying when he was a child, family traditions, addresses of family homes from years past, etc. I had hit the jackpot!
At the end of his letter he informed me that he also had a box of old documents and photographs that his children’s lack of interest in was leaving him disheartened. He knew that these should stay within the family and that someone should treasure them, but he had no one to give them to. He asked me if I was that person who would treasure his family history and keep it within the family. And now here I sit, my kitchen table flooding over with pictures, documents and letters from my ancestors, feeling this great presence as I imagine their delight in my great admiration of these people who created my family.
During months of handwritten letters with Don and occasional telephone calls as well, these documents and pictures that I cherish more than anything, not only made my family tree come to life. They created this great connection for me. His memories and stories, connected with the faces in the photographs, gave me the feeling that I know these past generations of people in my family.
Posts on these photographs -