Preserving Your Family History

Vintage letter


When it comes to preserving your family history, there is no time like now.

Imagine it is one hundred years in time and your living relatives are curious about their ancestors.  If they stumble upon your photograph, will they know who you were?  If there is nothing written on the back of the photograph, then the chances will be that you will be just another nameless face.  Is that what you want for future generations? Do you want to fade into oblivion, along with your entire life story?

When I file through the numerous photos, letters and keepsakes that lived behind my Great Grandparents’ cupboard doors, I feel blessed in that I am able to preserve an entire lifetime of memories.  Obviously, my Great Grandfather’s military life was of great importance as he had kept and preserved so much.  Those pieces of his life form a strong portrait of the man.  What do your things say about you? More importantly, what legacy do want to leave for your family?

Photographs are a good place to start, as family history archaeologists  are always excited by looking into the faces of ancestors.  Family resemblances are a coup.  I have a group photo of my ancestors taken back at the beginning of the 20th Century.  There are no names written on the photo to identify the faces, although I know one of the faces is that of my Great Great Grandmother.  I have identified her from the numerous photos of have of her.  Another face would have to be her sister and perhaps the central figure was her Mother.  I am always struck by the man standing at the back of the group as he has an uncanny resemblance to my Grandfather.  I know it cannot be him as he was probably not born at the time the photograph was taken.  So, my message to you is to write the “who”, the “where” and the “when” on the back of your photographs to save lots of guesswork by future generations.

Aside from what your ancestors look like, it is important to know how they lived and what they thought.  Photos are windows through which we can look into their lives, but we need family stories to bring them to life. I grew up listening to stories, told by my parents and grandparents. Now I wish I had written them down, but as a child it was enough to listen with eager ears as I was transported back into carefree times filled with adventure.  There is a line from that wonderful movie “Secondhand Lion”, that would describe some of my ancestors, whom I had the pleasure of knowing.  The two 90 year old brothers have just died trying to fly their bi-plane through a barn and their great nephew is asked, “Did they really live?” to which he replied, “Yes, they really lived.”

Those two elderly brothers, in the story, lived a remarkable life and passed it on to their nephew in the form of stories.  Not everyone has such a colourful history, however, everyone’s life is valuable and worth preserving for posterity.  Perhaps it is time to start writing down your family stories you heard as a child.  If you are still blessed to have your Grandparents, then start with them.  They all have a story to tell and it is too late once they take them to their graves.

When I first ventured out on the ancestral trail, I became curious about my Grandparents’ lives.  I was fortunate in that my Grandmother on my Father’s side, was always talking about her family.  She was one of 12 siblings and I knew the names of each of them, as well as the names of her parents.  However, after her death, I was curious about her parents’ stories; how they first came to Australia; how they met and married.  My Dad suggested that I talk to his Aunt, my Grandmother’s only surviving sibling.  His words were, “you had better hurry as she is not getting any younger!”  She was 87 at the time.

I am so glad that I contacted Aunty Dulcie as she was a wealth of information.  I wrote out a list of questions and forwarded it to her by mail as she lived 1000 miles away in Brisbane.  I then visited her in Brisbane a few weeks later and she had the answers written out for me.  That marked the beginning of a seven year friendship.  She was my last connection to my Grandmother; her voice, the sparkle in her eyes; the many conversations sprinkled with references to her siblings and parents.  Like me, you too might find a treasure trove of family history, if you reach out to long lost family.

If you do not have any living grandparents or great aunts and uncles, then start with your parents.  Everyone has a story and their stories are part of your life too.  It is important to record the lives of those who walked this earth before us, in order to make sense of our own lives.  I can honestly say that I have discovered myself whilst uncovering those who lived before me.

Apart from the stories of past generations, it is also important to preserve our own stories.  Remember that in the future, we will be a past generation.  Do you document your life?  Scrapbooks are a great way to start preserving your photos along with the accompanying stories.  Keeping a journal is a wonderful way of recording your life.  Not only are the everyday happenings important, but your thoughts are also vital as they paint a picture of who you really are.

When I began my enquiries into my family’s history, I had the basic genealogical information such as names, dates of birth etc., but that wasn’t enough.  I yearned to discover who my ancestors were as people, not just a position on a family tree.  I guess that is what I want of my own life.  It is not enough to be simply a face and name.  I want my future generations to know me as a living person with thoughts and needs, who created an interesting tangle of colourful leaves along the branches of the family tree.



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