How To Find Your Ancestors (For Newbies)

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Photo Source: Hine, L. W., photographer. (1909) Immigrant children, Washington School.Location: Boston, Massachusetts. October. [Image] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ncl2004000676/PP.

I have been out of the loop for a few days here. I had to take a few days to collect my thoughts and feelings. You know those kind of movies where you are following this character and then at the very end, the plot twist is that the person was delusional and all the things that happened in the movie were in their head? Well that is kind of how I feel about genealogy. It suddenly dawned on me that I was beginning to cross into the category of senility, like an elderly person who won’t stop going on about the olden days. The sad part is that I am only 32. So, you know. I had to accept that reality and then become comfortable with it before I approached it again. I must say, I have gotten a lot done, and I may quit Facebook altogether. It is a huge time waster, have you noticed? 🙂

I thought maybe it would be a good idea to create a mini how-to guide for people who have zero experience with genealogy or who think that there is nothing to learn. I promise you, there are things to learn! I have had so many people approach me and say that they haven’t been able to find anything past their grandparents, especially those with non-European ancestry. Hang in there. Genealogy isn’t just for white people (although you wouldn’t know it, I know). Don’t let a brick wall discourage you. Doing family history is a lifelong project and takes a ton of patience. You might wake up one day and suddenly discover that a record you needed is now indexed and you suddenly know the name of an ancestor who was a mystery. I cannot tell you how many times this has happened to me! Us indexers are hustling as fast as we can to get records like The Freedmen’s Bureau available to search, and I have recently seen some batches of records from Mexico available as well. I am passionate about ALL family history, not just my own, and I want you to find your ancestors, too. Give it time. There is new stuff everyday.

Here is a little beginner’s guide for how to get started on finding your ancestors. (Keep in mind, while I am LDS and we are encouraged to find our ancestors for spiritual reasons, I have found that perhaps another approach is just to look for ancestors for the pure sake of getting to know them. If you gain something spiritual, that is great, but even a non-religious person can have almost a spiritual experience learning about their ancestors because their is so much to gain from just learning about them, who they were, and what their life was like. It adds meaning to your life!)

  1. Get a genealogy account through Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage, or something similar. Or, get all of them! You can usually get limited free access to them, or if you want to get really serious, I am telling you, just sign up for a paid membership. It will change your life and it is worth every penny! If you are a member of the LDS church, you automatically have free unlimited access to all of them as long as you have your record number. To set those up, go here.
  2. Build your family tree using all the info you have: Names, dates, places lived, etc. Put in what you know, even if you don’t have all the information.
  3. Look for “hints” (on Ancestry, it will appear as a little leaf in the corner). These are records that match your relative. If it is mostly the same, then attach it! I am quite liberal when it comes to adding records, at least at first. You can always go in and clean things up later, but when you are first trying to build up a family tree, it is really helpful to just get stuff on it. You won’t “ruin” anyone else’s tree by doing this. Everyone manages their own tree and this is purely for your own reference, so don’t be afraid to add records. Pro Tip: Stick to direct ancestors at first, otherwise you will be overwhelmed with information. Once you get sucked down a rabbit hole, its hard to get back. (You will find that humans and rabbits are similar in a lot of ways, especially when it comes to breeding. 😉 )

I hope this is helpful, and if I can help you in any way, I will do my best. Good luck on your new obsession! Because it will become obsessive. Trust me.

 

 

What My Grandparents Taught Me About Love

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The year was 1935. Susan, a petite brunette with a tiny waist and Hollywood good looks, went dancing at San Francisco’s Majestic Ball Room. After all, that was what young people did back then. She had a penchant for dancing after all, having grown up in the Welsh Mormon enclave of Malad, Idaho. The Welsh were fantastic singers and dancers, she always said.

A handsome stranger approached her. “Would you like to dance?” He asked. Susan didn’t need to be asked twice. He went by the name Jim, and she thought he was as handsome and charming as Cary Grant. He was a few years older, and he worked as a journalist and printer making $30 a week… far more than her brothers and father, as it was the height of the Depression. It wasn’t long after that he was picking her up for dates in his Ford with a rumble seat. Of course, her parents insisted that her brother Pat go along as a chaperone.

Susan went away for the Summer to visit her Grandpa and Grandma Owens. She heard that Jim had taken out her friend Norma on a date, and she was heartbroken. When she was in Malad, she got reacquainted with her old high school boyfriend, Sherman Richardson, and they had made plans to get married. However, when she got back to California, Jim showed up to take her to a show. On the way home, he looked over at her and knew he couldn’t let her get away.

“Let’s get married,” he said.

Susan’s heart stopped. She had been in love with him for so long! She said yes. Not long after that, they were married in the San Francisco Courthouse, on April 25, 1936. It was the best day that ever happened in her entire life.

***

I remember playing at Granny’s house, as she often let me stay over, and she was really my favorite friend to have sleepovers with. I always felt so well loved and cared for. One evening, she sat at her kitchen table, and I noticed she was crying.

“Granny, what’s wrong?” I asked. She grabbed me and hugged me, crying into my shoulder.

“I’m just so sad. I miss Papa. I miss my family and my sister. All of my family is dead, and I don’t have anyone. I wish I would just hurry up and go so I could be with them.” She sobbed.

My little eight-year-old heart broke for her. “Granny, don’t say that! You have us. We love you,” I said, and hugged her back.

She was always so loving, but there was a streak of sadness in her. When all else failed, I knew I could just do Ren and Stimpy’s “Happy Happy Joy Joy” dance, and she would be crying tears of laughter instead of sorrow.

Every night, she kissed a framed photo of Papa and said goodnight, and set it back on top of the gold urn that sat on her dresser. It was a large box with two compartments: one with prayer hands that held his ashes, and the other one with a rose for hers, when her time came. All of the women in her family have roses on their epitaphs. It is Welsh and English tradition.

Granny told me she woke up one morning around the time Papa died, and her mother was standing in her room. “What are you doing here?” She asked. Her mother’s apparition vanished. She didn’t seem the least bit frightened at this admission.

***

In the Summer of 1998, Granny was dying. I thought perhaps she got lonely lying in our spare bedroom, as she could barely open her eyes or talk. I went in to lie next to her and keep her company for a while.

“Granny, I am going to miss you when you go, but I know that you are going to Heaven. When you get there, I know that Papa will be waiting for you. Maybe he will ask you to dance. And I know your family will be there- your parents, your sister, your brothers. They will be so happy to see you.” I said, as I held her hand. Her nurse exclaimed, telling me to look at her face.

Tears were streaming out of her eyes. Granny gently put her hand on my face. “Pretty,” she faintly said.

Not long after that, she left us on a beautiful and bright July afternoon. It felt peaceful. There is something beautifully serene about the mood surrounding birth and death. Anytime someone is coming or going, the Heavens are open for a brief moment in time.

I imagine that Papa was waiting for her, flowers in hand, ready for a dance. Even when he was bedridden with Alzheimers and could barely remember his own name, he had an urgency to take Susan out on a date. It was all he could talk about.

This is love to me.

 

 

 

A New York Minute

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I watched the Manhattan skyline slowly appear in view from my train window last Saturday morning, after an hour of staring out the window at houses and neighborhoods. I pretended that I was a lady traveler from a bygone area, when the locomotive and railroad were America’s crowning achievements of infrastructure. Oh, I wish I could have been alive in the early 20th century! As I sat alone in the quiet car, I couldn’t believe that just 24 hours prior, I was in the midst of a mommy nightmare, home alone with two small children and every kind of bodily fluid and mess to clean up before my dear friend Shawna would be arriving for a visit. Now, here I was, traveling by train to New York City in a shady hat and big sunglasses. You’d never know I was actually a mom of two from the suburbs of Philadelphia. 

IMG_1963 (1) Her cab dropped her off on the corner of 8th Avenue and 36th Street, not far from Penn Station. She had some flight issues and ended up getting rerouted. She ended up flying into La Guardia and meeting up with me.

We were on a time crunch. We suddenly became like real New Yorkers that moment. We ordered and ate a $20 burger on the go (the best I have ever had in my life) and basically ran to the Imperial Theatre on Broadway in order to make it to the 2:00 show for Les Miserables.

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New York is fast-paced, and people are kind of pushy and impatient, but I’ll tell you: New York City is nothing if not efficient. If you see a line out the door, just get in queue and wait a bit. You’ll be at the front before you know it. Pay attention, though. Otherwise you will get yelled at.

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And let me tell you, Les Miserables was lovely. I can’t remember the last time I cried so much. How actors can sing a certain note or hit a decibel level that forces tears out of your eyes, I’ll never understand it. The level of talent is unbelievable. Of course, Shawna, who studied French Lit, pointed out that there were some differences in the musical that were not in the book. As a former high school slacker, I failed to read it. The themes were conveyed to me, though. Jean Valjean and Javert. Mercy and Justice. It was really, really wonderful. I can’t say that enough. 

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We ended the day by walking around Central Park and Midtown, seeing all the sites, and having real heart-to-heart conversations that only confirmed that Shawna is a true bosom friend; a kindred spirit. The Diana to my Anne. Or, the Anne to my Diana, if you go off of hair color. Although, I am definitely the crazy one, and might possibly smash a slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head, given the chance.

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It is just funny how life turns out. A few years ago, I lived in Utah, and we were pretty poor. I used to dream of what it would be like to just go and visit New York City. I wondered if it would ever be possible.

“Someday, we will go,” my friend Shawna would tell me. On New Year’s Eve that year, she and her husband and daughter came over for a cheese plate and fake champagne. We watched the ball drop at Times Square on a live video and ended the night at midnight Eastern time, which, for us, was 10 o’clock Mountain time. We knew our toddlers wouldn’t make it to midnight. Besides, New York City was where we really wanted to be.

It is funny how life works out. It really makes me believe that there is a God, and that his timing is perfect. He can even answer prayers for you and give you something far better than you ever could have imagined. The only catch is that you will have to accept that there will be ups and downs. You can’t always be up. And you won’t always be down, either.

By sheer happenstance, we moved to the suburbs of Philadelphia. Now, I go to Philadelphia and New York City on a semi-regular basis. These fancy East Coast places, once myths, are now within reach. I don’t even need to live in the actual city. I am fine with being a tourist. Living where I live allows me to have my cake and eat it, too.

I came here with ambivalence, knowing full well my desire for adventure and my tendency to become homesick. Yet, I have never been homesick once since I have lived here.

I think that means I’m home.

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Rachael

In November of 1990, something amazing happened: I became a big sister.
I remember the moment Rachael was placed in my arms as a tiny infant in a swaddling blanket. She was so tiny. Her little face was so squishy. I was filled with joy and excitement as I thought of a life with a sister; all the good times we would share, and the life that we would have. I still remember her looking up at me, her big brown eyes looking into mine, and I thought to myself, wow, I love her so much!
I was just barely seven years old, which put our age difference wider than most siblings, but it didn’t matter. Since we were growing up with only each other, she was still the most important short person in my life… even if sometimes, she drove me nuts.
Rachael and I became much closer just before my parents divorced. After having a rough breakup and some big life changes, I moved back in to my parents’ house at age 23. I only lived there for the Summer, but it was the best Summer I can remember. My sister was old enough to drive, and we were inseparable. We both got a job at a local drive-thru burger place, and we often worked together. She was on drive-thru, and I was on the register. She had such a better work ethic than me. I didn’t take the job seriously, but she did, and she would get frustrated with me when I didn’t do my side work the right way, or when I cut corners out of apathy. She could have run the place. She was so independent and responsible.
That year was filled with happy memories. We went to Coachella music festival together, and on the drive home, we blasted Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, rolled down the windows, and sang it at the top of our lungs while the warm night air blew on our faces, our dark hair flying everywhere.
She was more than a sister to me. She was my best friend. Sometimes, I think she should have been the older sister. While I was the one plagued with insecurity since childhood, she was the one who cared for me, and who loved me. No matter the mistakes I made, she was always right there to believe in me.
I remember one car ride, the song The Middle by Jimmy Eat World came on the radio. “This song reminds me of you,” she said. I asked why. I think she felt embarrassed to elaborate, because when I listen to the words, I knew what she meant to say: Live right now, just be yourself. It doesn’t matter if it’s good enough for someone else. It just takes some time, little girl, you’re in the middle of the ride, everything, everything will be just fine, everything, everything will be alright, alright.
In late 2010, I became pregnant, and Josh and I were so poor that we were living in a garage and sleeping on an air mattress. We both had jobs, but we didn’t make enough for a place of our own. One Sunday evening, I got a text from my sister, for whom I was coincidentally knitting a scarf as a birthday present. I put down my knitting needles to read what it said:
“I just bought you a crib,” she said. Then, she sent me a picture of a beautiful wood crib.
“That is so cool!! Thank you so much!! Hey, we find out the sex of the baby on your birthday :)” I replied, after showing Josh my phone, my eyes misty from being so touched by the sweet sentiment.
“I can’t wait to start buying you baby stuff. There are so many cute things at Target.”
She had a dream just a few weeks before that about my unborn baby. She said that it was a girl, and that she was holding her.
The text conversation dwindled, and we didn’t really say goodbye. We just left it.
Not 24 hours later, I was face to face with my sister. That afternoon, she had an asthma attack. She was in a coma.
A few days later, a prognosis was made.
She was brain dead.
In the time that it took to get that answer, I finally finished Rachael’s scarf. Her boyfriend said she would have loved it.
November 1st rolled around, which was her birthday, and the day that my dad was called by the funeral home to go pick up her cremated remains.
I went to the doctor for a 20 week ultrasound. I was told I was having a girl. Just like Rachael’s dream.
I couldn’t call her and tell her, though. I sent her a text anyway, even though I knew I would never get a response. Do you know what it is like to wake up in the morning, and wonder if everything that happened was just a dream? There were many moments like that, where I would wake up in the middle of the night, convinced it was just a nightmare. Except, it wasn’t.
 She was really gone.
There was one other person in the universe who was literally organized from the same exact genetic material that I was, and that person was Rachael. When I looked into her face, I saw my own reflection. I saw the same dark hair; the same brown eyes with a hazel gleam. The pain of losing her was unbearable.
Never before this moment did I ponder life and death as much as I did once Rachael was taken from me. But you know what?
I can still remember the literal feeling of Jesus Christ, wrapping his arms around me, as I stood there in the emergency room and hugged my mom and dad. It was as if I could actually feel arms around us, protecting us, and holding us.
I didn’t get through the grief because I was strong. I got through the grief because Someone carried me.

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt. 11:28-30)

 
Six months later, I found myself in a hospital bed, hooked up to various machines and wires, and in labor. Unable to move because of my unborn baby’s distress, I sat there, drifting in and out of twilight sleep, thinking of my sister.
 She told me that she wanted to be with me from the moment I went into labor, and the entire time until the baby was born. She wanted to be the supportive sister who threw me a baby shower, and who got to be there to hold her brand new niece. As I thought about her, I looked around the dim labor and delivery room, and realized I was alone. Josh was in the corner, asleep. I stared at the clock. I closed my eyes.
I suddenly got the feeling that I wasn’t really alone after all. The feeling I got was as if my sister was right there beside me, cheering me on in jubilation at the thought of a new life entering the world, and reminding me that when our bodies die, our spirits still live on.
Rachael didn’t get to hold my baby daughter. At least, not in her physical body. She held her in her dreams, and then she told me about it before she slipped to the other side. Their souls passed one another, like ships in the night.
Suddenly, it all made sense why I was prompted to start a family at the most inconvenient time of my life. For the first time in months, I felt joy. It was then that I knew… everything was going to be fine.