Becoming acquainted with our ancestors can be fraught with difficulties. Without letters or diaries, where do we start? Often, if you are researching a Grandparent or Great Grandparent, there are bound to be living relatives who knew your ancestor personally. Of course, researching previous generations can be more difficult.
In the case of my Great Grandparents, I have managed to interview several living Grandchildren. Interestingly, each of them began the conversation with, “I don’t think I can really help you.” Regarding my Great Grandfather, they all assumed I wanted information about his military activities during the Great War. In fact, I was hungry for any piece of information they could offer me, and it turned out they were more helpful than they imagined.
One of the aforementioned conversations was conducted over an hour and at the end of the phone call I had transcribed two A4 pages of notes. I noted titbits of conversations that took place 60 to 70 years ago; I discovered my Great Grandmother’s favourite jam; I was educated in family Christmas traditions; I listened intently as I was transported to the front room of my Great Grandparents’ house on the day my Great Grandfather died; and I learnt much about his character. In another conversation, I discovered that Grandma was proud of her knitting abilities, as she only learnt the craft in her thirties. Also, I discovered that she placed no importance on Christmas gifts, however, she always gave her Grandchildren money on their birthdays.
Over the years I have managed to place more pieces of the puzzle into place by grabbing fleeting comments. One elderly friend of the family who grew up with my Grandfather remembered my Great Grandfather with fondness. “Captain Lyons was always very polite, and thanked us kids when we opened the gate for him to drive his sulky through.” He recalled.
I have also grabbed from fleeting conversations with relatives that my Great Grandfather loved dancing, he played the tin whistle, he taught his nieces to ride their bicycles, and that he had problems with his eyes as a result of the Great War. I questioned my Father regarding the latter comment and he confirmed that it could have been true as his Grandfather always wore sunglasses with wrap around sides.
Over the last 15 years, the collection of memories, stories and anecdotes I have gathered is quite substantial. Each piece, however small and seemingly insignificant, have helped me create character portraits of my Great Grandparents. Remember, our lives are the sum of fragments that have moulded our souls. By gathering those pieces, we can gain a better understanding of our ancestors’ daily lives and the people they were. The secret is to be patient. It takes time to find those scattered pieces, but once a picture of your ancestor begins to form, the feelings of satisfaction are immense.
My final piece of advice is to act now, while there are living relatives who can assist you. Once they are gone, so too are their valuable memories.