What was your grandmother's maiden name? Where did your ancestors come from? Is your family known for a strong work ethic, a bold spirit or something else? Are there illnesses or diseases that tend to run in your family? If you know the answers, write them down! It's a priceless part of your family legacy, and nobody can tell the story better than you.
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"As a senior, you are the one that knows the most about your family's history," says Kathryn M. Donovan, board secretary for the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania. "Recording those memories preserves that history for your children and grandchildren and generations to come."
You'll help loved ones understand your family's struggles and triumphs, and feel deeper ties to each other. Knowing your family's medical history can keep you healthier, too.
You don't need special training to trace your family's roots or put cherished memories down on paper. All it takes is the willingness and desire to do research, ask questions and create a lasting record. Here are some guidelines to help you begin.
Start with what you know
"The simplest place to start is with yourself," Ms. Donovan says. "Write down where you were born, when you got married and to whom, and the names and birth dates of any children. Then do the same for your parents." Consider this information the "trunk" of your family tree. You can find forms to record this data in genealogical books or on the Internet. The forms are often called "pedigree charts" or "family group records."
Gather your keepsakes
Search your attic, scrapbooks and other records (a family Bible, for instance) for key documents, photos, letters and keepsakes. Official papers such as birth, death and marriage certificates, military documents, court records and news articles will help you build a time line. If old photos aren't labeled, add the names of the people you recognize, the occasion and the year, if possible.
Put the word out
Write, call or e-mail relatives to tell them of your project and ask for help. Ask about childhood memories, lessons learned, hardships endured, illnesses, deaths, marriages, travels, joys, sorrows and advice to young relatives.
Existing genealogical charts, personal journals or other records will save you time. Is a family reunion possible? If so, urge those who attend to share stories. Take notes, ask questions and offer your own recollections. Otherwise, talk with other senior family members by phone or in person. A tape recorder or video camera may help. Ask about childhood memories, lessons learned, hardships endured, marriages, travels, joys, sorrows and advice to young relatives.
Weave these personal stories into your family history. Put in details that reflect your ancestors' character and humanity. Try to explain the "why" behind major life decisions: a career choice or job change, a move across the country, a marriage or even a pet hobby. Be careful not to repeat hearsay as fact.
Search official records
Libraries, local historical and genealogical societies and public archives are great sources of information. The Internet gives instant access to many government census records. The Mormon church has set up Family History Centers worldwide that store and share genealogical records for more than 3 billion deceased people of many faiths. Access is free.
Even if you write just a brief family history, record the source of your facts, whether it's an official document or a relative's memory. Copy source documents if you can. Doing so helps others who may want to do more research. A filing system -- with one folder for each family group -- will keep your notes in order.
Here's help to get started
Browse the genealogy section of your library or bookstore for books to guide you in your research and story writing. Here are several:
For All Time: A Complete Guide to Writing Your Family History, by Charley Kempthorne
Unpuzzling Your Past: The Best-Selling Basic Guide to Genealogy, by Emily Anne Croom