We got the call on the Saturday morning right before Thanksgiving. I went to the convalescent hospital where she lived. I started packing the few belongings she had left. There were family pictures tucked away in various cabinet drawers. There was a black shawl crocheted by her mother and even a picture of her mother wearing it. There was the afghan knitted by her mother almost 60 years ago. One of the items I noticed was missing was a photo taken in the 1940's of her mother with her brother. They sit on the grass with her mother's knitting in her lap and her knitting needles in her hand like she has been interrupted from working on the latest blanket for a grandchild. No matter how hard I tried to find it, it became obvious that that picture was missing. I left word with the administrator of the hospital but felt that that picture, like so many memories, might be lost forever.
I often think about all the changes that happened in her lifetime. Can you imagine it? The mass use of cars, how the cars of her youth have evolved into the cars of today. The inventions that made life easier and more entertaining for us, television, movies, washing machines, the microwave oven. The population of Los Angeles County was one million when her family reached the city of Los Angeles in the early 1920's and grew by another million by the end of that decade. In 2004, the population for just the city alone was approaching 4 million.
Have you seen the new Kodak commercials? They begin with a tour guide leading a group of children through a museum that displays hundreds of photographs of all sizes. Some are black and white and are of famous people, some are in color and are of normal everyday people. The commercial is the only one that actually makes me cry each time I see it. The tour guide says to the children, "Do you hear them?' The children, confused, ask the tour guide what they are supposedly listening for. He replies, "Just listen…the pictures, they are talking". The children are in somewhat disbelief at the idea that the pictures are actually speaking, so they ask him, "what are they saying". He replies, "Keep me… protect me…share me and I will live forever." One of the children, having stood in silence replies, "I hear them." 1
Isn't that what we as genealogists do? We are the keepers of memories. We are the ones who talk endlessly about people long dead, who no one remembers. We are the ones that bore our families with tales of who begat whom. Our jobs are vital to the survival of our collective family memory.
As we approach the New Year, please make a list. What can you do to make sure that your family's history is preserved? I have had so many incidents this year that remind me again and again about the importance that I have as a genealogist in my family and my job to pass along the family names, stories and photos. Even if you are not a genealogist, you can do something to document your life and the life of your immediate family. You may believe that no one is interested in your life. But what would you give for a remembrance penned by your grandmother or your great-grandfather who fought in the civil war.
As you decide on new family projects, consider the following list that will have you leave a legacy to the next generations and for generations to come:
- Start a family history web site;
- Send copies of pedigree sheets and family groups sheets to other family members and share what you have accumulated;
- Provide family members with blank family groups sheets and pedigree charts and update your family history. Document this generation;
- Get your pictures out of the boxes and the yellowing albums and buy photo safe, acid free photo albums and scrapbooks. They don't need to look fancy, they just need to be in a safe place and be labeled;
- Scan photos and share them with other family members;
- Write a narrative history on one of your ancestors;
- Write your life story;
- Document with photos and writing the family heirlooms you have in your home;
- Interview an older relative;
- Take a trip to an ancestral homeland, even if it is the next county over;
- Help a neighbor or a friend start their family history;
The convalescent hospital called today, they found the picture that I thought was lost forever. Now we can truly heed a truism spoken in that Kodak commercial, "keep me, protect me, share me."
1 A longer version of this commercial can be seen on the Kodak website at www.kodak.com. Scroll to the bottom of the page and you will see a box with a tour guide and some children, it says "A place called Kodak."