Friday, January 6, 2017

Family History is about People

Some scattered thoughts...

A few days ago, my mom strongly encouraged me to go to Rootstech 2017. I think we had decided we just couldn't afford the expense ($280 for travel, $189 for tickets, plus obviously I will want some spending money, since this is the largest genealogy conference in the world...there will certainly be a lot of interesting books, and who knows what else, available for purchase). Lodging is free for me, the only question is whose house should I stay at? One of Danny's siblings (American Fork, American Fork, Park City - by far the closest option!), or Danny's grandparents? Historically, we stay with the McQueens because:
A. we really love them
B. we really don't get enough time to spend with them
C. we are totally comfortable staying in their huge house, and they really love their relatives to use them as a hotel
D. we used to live there for about 6 months, and so we know exactly where everything is

One time, we called Grandpa McQueen as we backed out the driveway on a 16 hour road trip from Iowa to Utah for Thanksgiving break. We thought we had asked if we could stay there, but we thought it best to make sure. Grandpa said, "No, that's not how we do things, Kate! You're supposed to wait to call us right when you cross over the Utah border!" We always joke that nobody in Danny's family plans anything, and it is really true. They are the most hospitable, kindest, most generous people I know.

This is logistically the first year that I could even hope to attend. Last year I was still breastfeeding Cora, but she was too old to carry around. Besides, I did that during a Texas Czech genealogy conference, and it was a little bit miserable, not to mention it made me stick out even more than I already do, being young. Although this year, I finally became an adult (30!), and the demographics of people interested in genealogy continue to decrease in correlation to advances in technology, and of course Rootstech is only half about genealogy, the other half is about technology in relation to genealogy...but anyway now I'm rambling. No way would I have taken an infant in arms to a genealogy conference.

So, anyway, we looked at our budget, and with my mom's generous offer to watch the kids while I go, coupled with the fact that I have really wanted to go for years and years, and Danny thought it would be really good for me to go - so finally, we decided to go ahead and buy tickets at the beginning of this week.

I am really excited! That's kind of an understatement. It will be really fun and interesting to connect names to faces of my favorite genealogy "celebrities". I am also looking forward to spending a little time in the FH Library. I might have to be really conscientious about making time for eating. Hahaha.

Wow, I really am a nerd.

Okay so, as I've been daydreaming about Rootstech, and going along with the mundane household chores that constantly tug for my attention, I started listening to past keynote speakers on YouTube. I listened to Steve Rockwood, CEO of FamilySearch talk a little bit about how to get people interested in family history.

Of course this topic is really important to me. I am an LDS Family History Consultant (well, I guess technically my title is "coordinator" now), and it's my job to get people to prepare names of their ancestors to take to the temple where they can do proxy temple work. It is a really fun job. I love it. One thing Brother Rockwood encouraged us to do is to stop talking about "the search" - only the nerds care about the search. Regular people don't care about the facts and figures, or "how I found Great Aunt Mildred's Birth Record!" or really, any word that ends with "ology".

What they care about are stories.

When you can tell a compelling story, you humanize your ancestors. You draw them closer to you. You make a connection to the past. They are somehow more relate-able.

Danny and I started watching this hilarious TV show called Family Tree. They do a really good job of portraying people as quirky, even to ridiculous extremes in some (maybe all, hahaha) cases. It makes me feel either really relieved that I am not as weird as any of the characters, or really worried because I can somehow relate to most (though, certainly not all) of them. One theme I really love is that the main guy is always finding out that his ancestors fell just short of being "great." A great grandfather was in the 1948 Olympic Games as a wrestler, but he was kicked out the first round. Another was the butt end of the horse in a theatrical comedy show - at the height of his acting career.

I love that the show gently pokes fun at this true concept: our ancestors were real people. Absurd, funny, ridiculous things happened in their lives. They made mistakes. They had feelings. They changed. It is fun and validating to feel that other people in the world understand this concept, and can laugh about it.

And the truth is, this is the most universal aspect of family history. This is the part that almost everybody cares about: family stories.

Another really great keynote speaker in 2016 was David Isay, the founder of StoryCorp. It was really moving to listen to the stories he shared. I agree with his assessment: "People are good."

Here's another example: on Tuesday night, I covered for Sister Neuman at the Des Moines Family History Center. I ended up teaching two people how to add photos to FamilySearch. To do so, I used my own photos and memories that I've uploaded.

I wanted to show them how to tag people in a photo. We ended up using a document for William Moroni Hansen. I started to talk about him a little, and found that I just couldn't stop.

He is probably my favorite non-Czech ancestor because I have a copy of his 8 volume journal, which is typed (on a typewriter, but still), OCR'd, and very interesting. I was able to get to know him really well. I could almost hear his voice. It has a slight Danish accent, which you can tell from the way he misspells certain words.

If I start writing about Bill Hansen, I will never stop. His journal is full of really exciting stories of faith, heartache, loss, love (he married four times!), loss, renewal, and fortitude. He is my hero, and I really love him.

If I only had a few minutes to tell a story about Bill Hansen, this is what I would say:

Bill was born in Sweden, though his parents were Danish. They immigrated when he was 4 years old to join the rest of the Latter-day Saints in Utah. He served an LDS mission in the Southern States starting in 1897 and went "without purse or scrip," which means that none of the missionaries planned for food or shelter, and relied entirely on the mercy of the people they were teaching. You have to imagine that in the South, where there were a lot of Baptists, people were really antagonistic towards Mormons. Imagine serving a mission not even a decade after the Manifesto, the quasi-end of polygamy (my understanding is that it didn't officially end until 1901 - meaning, new polygamous marriages were not completely stopped until 1901. "Polygamy" continued in the sense that husbands still lived with and provided for the wives they had married. Except for the ones that didn't).

In Bill's mission, the mission president had a rule that every Thursday and Sunday were "fast days." If I remember correctly, that meant that they fasted all three meals. So, if you combine that with the times that they did not get fed, you can imagine how emaciated and starving these missionaries must have become! Towards the end of Bill's mission, there was a new mission president who retracted that rule, and encouraged missionaries to only fast on the first Sunday of the month (which is traditionally fast Sunday for Mormons to this day).

Bill had a lot of really amazing experiences on his mission which he recorded in his diary. They really uplifted me when I first read them. I was going through surgery (nothing crazy, just my stupid gallbladder), and I was feeling very anxious and nervous. I had his journal as a PDF on my phone, and read nearly 3 volumes. His stories, especially his mission stories, were really encouraging to me. It was really neat to see how he handled difficult challenges in his life. I loved that he wrote about his feelings. It was literally as if I know him, because of the record he left.

Later, he became the undertaker for the main funeral home in St. Anthony, Idaho, from ~1920-1976! In his diary, he kept a record of every funeral he attended (2+ every week), every embalming he performed, including the names, dates, and other details. I have been wanting to make an index of this record for a long time. The record is not publicly available because it is in BYU Idaho special collections, and because he only died in 1976, there are still people living who are mentioned in it. But a derivative record of just the information about the funerals could be really helpful for somebody with Idaho ancestors!

He is my second great uncle. How I wish one of my direct line Czech ancestors could have left something like that for me to read! The crazy, insane hope that maybe they did is one reason why I find myself so compelled to learn Czech.

As I told some of the mission stories to the people I was teaching, they became really interested, and even teary-eyed. Of course, I already understand this desire, this drive to be connected; but to see it alight in someone else's eyes is really special, and renews my commitment to my calling. It reminded me that genealogy is really about people.

I sent a Christmas card to all my and Danny's aunts and uncles this year asking for the names, email addresses, and phone numbers of their kids. It might seem a little bit weird that I don't know all my cousins, perhaps less weird that I don't know Danny's.

Maybe it will be less weird if you understand that Danny's dad was one of 8 siblings, his mom one of 4 (though, Danny's mom and her sister married Danny's dad and his brother, so...double cousins), my mom was one of 9, and my dad (the Texas Czech) one of 3.

We know all of Danny's and my siblings. So that leaves 7, 2 (the sister that married the brother removes 1 potential couple), 8, and 3 - 20 couples. I think that we figured it out before - among my mom's 9 siblings, the average amount of children is 4. I believe I have something like 50 first cousins. Danny has more like 60 first cousins.

Though we know many of them, we definitely do not know all of them. But we should. So I am gathering their addresses, thanks to the help of my really great aunts and uncles.

Before Grandma Challis died, she had a tapestry in her house with the names of all of her descendants, including spouses and children. I think I was #301 or something like that, cross stitched into the family tapestry. By the time our kids came along, the numbers were in the 400's, if I am remembering correctly.

Don't you see that Grandma's tapestry itself is totally a nerdy, quirky, humanizing thing?

Family History really is not about boring lists of names. It's about people.

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree with this. It really is all about the stories for most people.