29    Jul 20100 comments

Make someone happy: Talk tradition

During this year's round of conferences and travel, I've been reminded more than once that creating contacts, asking questions and talking traditions can produce clues to our family history.

After reconnecting with someone whom I knew in California and who was now in New Jersey, I realized her husband's family's long connection to a small community, now a suburb of a larger city, in that Eastern state. My own family had a long-ago connection to the same community when it was much, much smaller, and more rural.

My great-grandmother's sister and her husband had settled in that small town soon after they arrived in 1905, although my great-grandmother and her family lived in nearby big-city Newark.

I took a chance and asked if the woman's husband, whose family had lived there from the early 1900s, possibly had known my relatives. It was very exciting to learn that my great-grandmother's sister had been the husband's  babysitter!

I had never met my great-grandmother's sister, but knew her son and his wife. I learned from the husband that they had both died in recent years, but I'm hoping now to connect to their daughter.

My husband often says that I will talk to a lamp-post if it might provide family information. I think it is just a case of being friendly and genuinely interested in people.

As a journalist for many years, I have always tried to utilize questions about family history when assigned an interview. This was always  in spite of my editor's frequent reminders that "not everything is about family history."

I disagreed, and still do, as I believe it to be an important interview tool to break the ice and connect.

Everyone always wants to talk about his or her family, whether they have details or not. I've made some very interesting connections this way, and I think it added to whatever story I was working on.

In an additional twist to the initial incident detailed in this post, I also talked family history in general. "Oh, we know everything about our families," she volunteered.

I'm sure she honestly thought she did know everything about the family history.

However, as a genealogist, I was betting that much more could be discovered.

After learning the surnames and the towns, and spending not very long with Ancestry.com and other online resources, I've amassed a 22-page document with much detail about both sides of  the family.

Just one example: I discovered the arrival record of her husband's great-grandmother to Philadelphia to join her son (the husband's grandfather). The family never knew that the family had ever lived there, so it was a big surprise! There were arrival records with details, census records and many other types of records offering more information.

For her family, I discovered great chunks of information in Polish records - birth, death, marriage records - that have certainly have added to her family history.

It was a great exercise for me, and I am still putting records together for them. It hasn't been very difficult, but it has made people happy, added to their knowledge of their ancestors, and created interest in recording their family history.

So far, the research has just involved cutting-and-pasting documents and records into a word document, and I keep the family names in front of me to check as I peruse other online resources for additional research.

Of course, it helped that the surnames were not exactly common.

For the woman, my Polish research indicated that her father's and mother's families had lived in the same towns at around the same time over the years, which increased the possibility that the two would eventually meet and marry.

As an additional point of interest, it turns out that the husband's family originates in a place not that far away from my great-grandfather's town in Belarus.

If I kept on with this research, wouldn't it be interesting if I could connect these families in some way?

Moral of this story: Make someone happy. Help them get started. Use what you know to help them learn their own family history. Along the way, you'll sharpen your own skills and investigative abilities.

Have you helped someone in such a random way? I look forward to hearing about your experiences.

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