Archive for the ‘Family History’ Category

World Blog Tour…really?

In cultural history, Family History, social history on August 6, 2014 at 2:40 PM


globe-and-quillWorld Blog Tour…who knew???

Probably not the place to admit this, but I am always a little surprised when someone posts a comment to my blog so I was even more surprised when one of those comments was an invitation to participate in the World Blog Tour. What is World Blog Tour you ask, well, basically it is like a chain letter for blogs. Someone invites you to participate, you invite someone else to participate, and they invite someone to participate, and so on. So a very heartfelt thanks to Kassie Ritman, aka “Mom” over at for the invite (and the comments). Truth be told she is doing some really important work at her site; engaging her entire family in the process of family history preservation by focusing on “the stories behind the photos and stats.” Most of us would love to get our family on-board and Kassie shares some great ideas she’s used with her own family.

So, back to the World Blog Tour, a short Q & A about my own blog and then a quick shout out about some of the other blogs I follow. Maybe (fingers crossed) they will want to participate in the World Blog Tour as well. Now, onto my “A’s” for those “Q’s.”

Question One: What am I currently working on?

I’m an adjunct history professor so the summer is a bit slower than life in the fall. To that end I’ve begun writing a book. My academic research is focused on the 20th Century so this book will trace the everyday experiences of three families from 1933-1945; one each from Germany, England, and the US.

How Does My Work Differ From Others Of This Genre?

While the underlying goal of my work does not differ much (that is I hope to help folks gather, interpret, preserve, and share their family history) my approach does. As an academic and historian I understand that while history is generally explained by the deeds of the great heroes, it is in fact lived by everyone. Each one of us has a unique chapter to contribute and without it the story of history is incomplete. I help clients understand their own family history from the context of greater historical events of the time.

Why Do I Write What I Write?

I have always enjoyed history, studying the past, and trying to understand how our present condition was influenced by the events that came before. Most everyone I speak with indicates they too enjoy history but not the way it was taught in school; the endless memorization of places, names, and dates that were out of context. Hopefully my writing will encourage others to do some research of their own to reconnect with their own family history.

How Does My Writing Process Work?

Rather boring actually. Develop a thesis, do some preliminary research, re-think the thesis, and repeat. I jot down or record thoughts as they come to me and have kept a Commonplace Book for decades. I can easily fall into procrastination and then be forced to conduct a writing marathon but thankfully those are coming less and less.

A quick “shout-out” to some old friends and new discoveries.

Debbie Perham at A Lifetime Legacy is doing some amazing thing on Long Island. From her “grown-up show and tells” to her Facebook page for those who live or were from Commack Long Island she is making great strides in helping her tribe discover, preserve, and have fun with their family history.

Another plug for Kassie Ritman, aka “Mom” over at Her blog is full of really innovative ideas to get the family involved in the project and when you have more players it is just that much more fun.

Ben Highmore over at looks at history from a cultural perspective. Ben teaches cultural studies at the University of Sussex in England and recently published The Great Indoors: A Home in the Modern British House. Obviously his writing is about all things English but his style is very crisp and his work is a lot of fun to read.

Finally, the folks over at StoryCorps. While this is not really a blog they are doing some amazing work preserving the oral histories of everyday folks. Taking the form of recorded interviews, participants (two) simply sit in conversation. A copy of the recording is preserved at the Folklife Center at the Library of Congress (talk about preserving history). Check out their work and look for a StoryCorps program in your neighborhood.

So check out the blogs, start your own, and remember, you should be Saving History…because your story is priceless.

Dealing with our parents stuff

In clutter, Family History, social history on August 5, 2014 at 7:41 PM

downsizing parents stuff

Dealing with our parents stuff.

Claudia Buck of the Sacramento Bee published an article in the Seattle Times entitled “Boomers need help dealing with their parents ‘stuff’; basically a how to downsize your parents’ belongings. The statistics are clear; the parents of the baby boomers, generally in their 80’s and 90’s are passing on and leaving behind a lifetime of stuff to their children. Most of us don’t need an article to remind us that this “stuff” can become quite a dilemma for the family. If we have not already inherited our own parents “stuff” we certainly have enough of our own to know it’s everywhere. Lining closets, stored in boxes, crammed in attics and garages, our material lives take up considerable space.

Professional Organizers are featured in the article as their services are often enlisted to help sort, organize, and dispose of the accumulation… DISPOSE??? Yes, sometimes in the literal sense as boxes, furniture, and pounds of ephemera end up in dumpsters and charity bins across the country. Other times items are simply pared down and re-stored with the promise to “go through this stuff soon” but sometimes “soon” never comes and the boxes get passed down again. Of course we cannot expect to save everything, especially things we know little about, but that is exactly the point. Someone, at some point knew about that stuff, what it meant, and why it was saved in the first place. The things we amass help tell the story of who we were, what life meant to us, and what mattered to us.

If you find yourself dealing with your parents stuff, remember, part of that stuff is your history too. Ideally we can make time to discuss and document the memories before we find ourselves sifting through a garage filled with things. Remember, you too should be Saving History…because your story if priceless.


The value of social history

In Family History, social history on July 28, 2014 at 8:16 AM

Grandma and grandpa 1938

In the course of my dissertation research, which is looking at how student perception of history education changes when family history research is incorporated into curriculum, I’m finding little real scholarship on the pursuit of social history here in the US. Broadly defined, social history is the accounting of historical events from the perspective of common people (oh how I dislike that phrase), more specifically what I like to refer to as the ordinary folks like you and I who have lived extraordinary lives. This is not to say that one perspective is more accurate or valuable than another; clearly understanding WWII from a military perspective is critical to understanding the war at all, but so too is understanding the civilian experience during that period. How did the mothers and fathers and children interpret the conditions of their lives during that time, what was their understanding of the events and did they even talk about it?

Of course it should be noted that there are a few very good social history projects being conducted in the US; the American Social History Project at the Center for Media and Learning at CUNY is doing incredible work engaging young students and the general public. Likewise the Center for Oral and Public History at CalState Fullerton, one of the best in the country, is also doing incredible work engaging young students and the general public. What seems to be missing though is real deep work on the connection between family history and social development. I have to wonder why. Of course it is clearly understood that Roosevelt (FDR) was responsible for very important policy during some of the bleakest moments in American history and understanding the political nature of those policies is important to understanding the history of the period. But so too is the perspective of my own grandmother, who used ration cards, raised four children alone after the far too early death of my grandfather, and forged a life on the foundations of those policies. Her perspective, added to the others, brings depth to our understanding. So, where is the scholarship? If you’ve found some, I’d love to know. Leave a comment. But more importantly remember, you should be Saving History…because your story is priceless.


Leaving a Legacy

In Family History on June 23, 2014 at 6:41 AM



In 2005 and again in 2012 Allianz Financial Services conducted a comprehensive survey to understand what is believed to be the largest intergenerational wealth transfer in world history (Allianz Life Insurance of North America, 2012). Called the American Legacies Study, this survey based research sought to understand the attitudes, hopes, worries, priorities, and goals of the two generations at the heart of this transfer; baby boomers and their elder parents. It is not surprising a financial services company would conduct this research; conservative estimates put this transfer at over 25 trillion dollars. As indicated in the report, “this is a good time to be in the financial services and estate planning business” (Allianz Life Insurance of North American, 2005, p. 2). Interestingly, while one might expect the report to focus on the financial aspects of legacy transfer, both boomers and their parents were, and in fact remain more focused on the emotional elements of legacy. In other words, both generations, though boomers more so , are concerned with what Allainz calls the “four pillars of legacy”; values and life lessons, personal possessions of emotional value, wishes and directions to be fulfilled, and finally financial assets and real estate (Allianz Life Insurance of North America, 2012).

As a historian and educator, I find this very encouraging because it means that the stories, the memories, and the mementoes collected over the course of one’s life are deemed equally or even more important than the financial assets they amassed. More importantly these stories become the foundation of their legacy and quite possibly may someday become part of the historic record. Anything we can do to increase the sources of history will add depth and perspective to our understanding of the past. Boomers changed the course of history and it is encouraging to know their unique perspective on it will be preserved for generations to come. Remember, you should be Saving History too because your story is priceless.

Even ancient history is “our history”

In Family History on June 16, 2014 at 3:36 PM

Boring History


As a history professor I am not surprised when I hear someone say how much they dislike history. I hear laments of “boring and irrelevant” in every class and yet quite often these same students will show considerable enthusiasm for the bits of history that directly influenced their own families. Whether it’s a better understanding of what daily conditions were like during the Depression or clarity around the circumstances leading to war; where their own families are concerned these subjects stop being boring and irrelevant. In fact these subjects become part of their own story, the story of who they are and where they came from. Making these connections is not difficult when the subject is from the 20th or 21st century. The challenge comes when covering subjects from early civilization. Most students have direct experience with three generations of family history but few would dare try to draw a connection back 28 generations to the Ottoman Empire. However, the truth is that most students did have family member who not only lived during that time period but were directly influenced by it. Of course this history is long lost to most of us; the history that remains for us to study is the history of the few, the elite, the rulers, famous or infamous, but not the ordinary people who also lived extraordinary lives. On the rare occasions when students do draw their own connection to such distant times I am delighted. For them history has stopped being boring and irrelevant; for them history is really about them. Remember, you should be Saving History…because your story is priceless.


We are each a part of history!

In Family History, genealogy on March 22, 2013 at 10:06 AM

Roots Run Deep

Genealogy…the sound of this word gives me chills; or at least it used to. Like most I’d always wanted to trace my family history, discover my roots; learn about “who my people were”, where they came from, how they lived, and the whole story. Of course that was the point where the chills would start; just thinking about how vast a task this really is, how many hours of research are required, not only looking through sources but trying to manage the genealogy subscription and its “not so user-friendly” software. Simply put, the “I’d love to know” bucket did not outweigh the “this is way too much work” bucket. So I dabbled. Any tiny discovery would motivate me to continue. I’d research for a bit and when the discoveries stopped I’d put it down for weeks and months on end. Then one day I got an email from a long lost cousin who was also researching the family history.
Looking at our separate trees we quickly discovered mine was rather paltry in comparison to hers but she was happy to share. Another boost of motivation found me making some substantial discoveries on my own. Now I was sharing new information. Still motivated I visited a Family History Center at the LDS Church…the undisputed experts. I found the wife and child of my great-grand uncle (a relative I did not even know about). Then I hit the mother lode! My great-grand aunt has a family history that traces back to the some of the earliest Dutch settlers in New York (about 1657) and was married to the daughter of Wyandanch (a sachem of the Montaukett Indians on Long Island. Needless to say I was blown away!
OK, we are not talking a blood relative here; this is the family of the wife of my great-grand uncle but it is a relative none the less and I can trace her connection to me. What I find more remarkable though is the actual connection to the history I studied as a child. I was born and raised on Long Island and as such social studies always included our local history. While I always found history interesting, studying about the native people and the early Dutch settlers was foreign to me, totally disconnected and out of context to my life. A name, places, dates; the memorization was painful at best. That is how history was taught “back in the day”. Sadly, the majority of history it is still taught that way, which brings me to the point of this post.
We are each a character in the “story of human history”. Some of us may already have a chapter in the record book, others a paragraph or two, but we each have a much greater story waiting to be discovered, interpreted, and preserved. A little digging and a couple of lucky turns revealed my own connection to a history I once studied in elementary school. I am not unique in this regard because with a little digging (and a few lucky turns) we can each discover how we are each connected to history; the grander story of us all. It is there waiting to be uncovered; it’s your story and it’s waiting to be told. Look in the boxes in your attic or the keepsakes on your shelves for its clues. Recall the stories you’ve been told and do a little digging because I suspect not too deeply buried is a remarkable connection to a history you once studied too. You’ll be Saving History…because your story is priceless.

The Things We Leave Behind

In Family History on November 29, 2011 at 3:15 PM

I’ve recently read Objects of Our Affection by Lisa Tracy. It discusses the journey she and her sister embark on after the death of their mother.[1] Like so many of us the author was responsible for dealing with the physical representation of her parent’s lives; household furnishings, family documents, memorabilia and such. While her journey was physical it was also emotional; many of the objects conjuring up memories long forgotten.

Over the course of several evenings I found myself looking up from the book at the collection of things within my own home. Because my home does not look cluttered I was surprised by how much I’d actually accumulated over the years. Many of these things, some little more than odd nick-knacks, hold a special place in my memory. It was time I gave them voice so I decided to create a brief tour of my stuff. Not the dreaded “let me show you our vacation pictures” tour but instead a simple jotting down of what each piece means to me and why, after all these years that ugly faded bud vase still sits proudly on my vanity.

Lisa Tracy and her sister were faced with a difficult task and a difficult time. The research they conducted yielded many answers but not for all their questions. Hopefully my little tour of my stuff will leave more answers than questions when the time comes. It was a great book and a great journey.

Remember, your own story is priceless…be sure to save it.



     [1] Lisa Tracy. Objects of Our Affection. (New York: Bantam Books, 2010)

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