In 1977 Alex Haley’s “Roots” became a miniseries on television. My brother and I watched every episode and loved it. But even after watching it, we could not shake the value of finding the roots of our own family. Someday I would have children and I would want them to know where they came from, the relatives who might be long gone before their arrival, and those who they might meet but would never remember as they got older.
My brother started asking questions and information from our parents. He got the names of our ancestors for as far back as they could remember, which was a little easier for us since our parents were first cousins and our tree was a little one sided. He got the names of all the relatives they could remember, including dates of birth, marriage and death and when they came to this country from Sicily. He put everything on charts and it looked quite impressive. But, he didn’t stop there. He sent away for birth certificates, death certificates, marriage certificates and passenger lists of the ships that brought our grandparents and their children here. We didn’t computers back then so he really did a great job collecting documents. He even wrote to the church in Sicily to get some of these documents from there. My father was born there and our parents married there.
By the time I married in 1983, he had a very impressive collection of facts and documents and he had made copies of everything for me. It was then that I decided to record all the oral history we had heard for years at family get-togethers and holidays. So many things had been discussed over the years and would be lost if not written down. I started with a list of all the family members and ancestors I had heard anything and those I knew personally while growing up. It was a labor of love. I wrote every night for days and included every little detail of every story I could remember. If I forgot something or needed my memory refreshed, my mother was only too happy to fill in the blanks. But, I didn’t forget much. These stories lived inside of me and just poured out on the blank page like water from a pitcher. When I was done, my words added flesh to the body of information my brother had collected.
We got two family tree books from Barnes & Noble. They were very inexpensive. We entered all our information on the new, crisp pages of our books. I typed up our oral history. It was quite and impressive piece of work. My husband saw and heard us working on this project and he decided to try to document his family tree for our children as well. He sent for documents here and in Europe. He wrote to Malta for information on his mother and her side of the family, because they were born there. He wrote to Austria to try to get information on his father’s side. He got passenger lists for when his mother and her family came to this country. And, he asked his parents questions and got as much information as he could on names and dates. It was very exciting for him to see the wealth of information he collected and he transferred all his information onto charts too.
In third grade, my daughter was assigned a project for the year, to create her family tree! We took out all the documents and oral history. We found pictures of the relatives mentioned. We took pictures of her grandfather’s medals from WWII and her grandmother’s jewelry that had become family heirlooms that she would one day inherit. She made up questions and interviewed all four of her grandparents to included in her album. The project was fun, she learned a lot about her family that year and I have to say her project was the best. They had a year-end luncheon at the school and displayed the class’ work for all the parents to see.
I always say we are a product of our experiences, and we are. But, we are also a product of those who came before us. I am so glad my brother and I decided to act on our impulses and went out to gather and record all this information. We will now leave my girls, their children and all future generations a legacy of family history that would have surely been lost.
It’s a new year, a time for new beginnings. Maybe there will be time to search out “old” beginnings of your family? You will never be sorry you did, it’s a rich and rewarding experience. And, when your children get older, they will thank you.
Since I last wrote this, my older daughter has picked up where I left off researching our family tree. She is journaling her experience in her own bog, "Tracking Them Down" at http://trackingthemdown.wordpress.com/