Family History Project

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Family lasts forever, even after its members die off, but only if someone records the details. Details are births, deaths, marriages, but a life is more than facts and dates. The purpose of this post is to give you questions that go beyond the facts and investigates what your ancestors’ lives were like.

If you are lucky, you will have an older relative to interview. I was fortunate to ask some questions of my grandmothers, and later my father and mother. If you don’t have anyone left to ask, use what you already know. You can print these questions and store in a notebook. I have a notebook that includes the questions, plus some family pictures, and a section at the end where I record anecdotes. The goal is to put in writing the history but also the personality of those relatives who came before you. Consider it a social family history.

Answer the questions as fully as you can. For instance, for the question “Did anyone run a family business?” the answer “Yes” won’t share much info. A more complete answer would be “My three great-uncles ran a mercantile in downtown Chicago until the  youngest joined the circus and was never heard from again.”

If the question is about disasters (hurricanes) or movements (Great Migration) or war service, record any anecdotes or stories you may have heard about those experiences.

First, some general questions to get started:

How would you describe your cultural background? For example, I am mostly French and Acadian French on my mother’s side, and Italian and Spanish on my father’s side.

When, how, and why did your ancestors come to the US?

Who is the primary source of information about your family background?

Who is the person putting together this information? (That would be you.)

Questions about family history:

I began by asking about grandparents because mine were still alive at the time. Adapt to yourself and your family. Beginning with grandparents might be the best place because most people remember their grandparents. If you don’t, that’s okay. Record as much as you know about your grandparents, and then use these same questions to record what you know about your parents, and then the same questions again about yourself.

Where and when were your grandparents born?

What were the circumstances of their births? (Home, hospital, midwife)

How many siblings did they have?

Did all of the siblings live to adulthood?

Did any die by accident or disease in childhood?

Did anyone else live with the family (grandparents, cousins, orphaned children)

Where did your grandparents grow up?

What was their childhood or family life like?

What language/s did they speak growing up?

Did they go to school? How far?

Did any of the children have to go to work at a young age?  Why?

What were your grandparents’ professions?

What was the community/town/city where they grew up like?

Did anyone grow up in a family neighborhood?

How many places did they live as children?

Were any of those places plagued by natural disasters such as floods, tornadoes, hurricanes?

Did they play any games, sing songs, etc. that were passed on?

Who were their childhood playmates, outside of family?

Are there any family heirlooms or treasures from your grandparents?

Were they members of a church?

Was anyone in the family a member of clergy or missionary?

Did the family practice religious traditions?

Were there any other family traditions?

Are there any special recipes handed down from your grandparents?

Do you own any cooking utensils, dishes, linens, etc. handed down from grandparents?

Are there any repetitive family names? (My family is full of Stephens in different forms: Stephen, Estev, Stefan, Etienne)

Is there a reason why the name was repeated?

Were there any nicknames?

Was anyone in the family famous or renowned?

Did your grandparents receive any school or civic awards?

Were any relatives public servants or elected officials?

Were there any family scandals?

Did anyone in the family go to jail?

Was anyone in the family murdered, died suspiciously, or disappeared?

Is there anyone in the family nobody talks about?

Did anyone break social conventions (elope, divorce, children out of wedlock, mistresses)?

Was there a family rebel or black sheep or adventurer?

Were there any family feuds or estrangements?

Did the family take regular outings somewhere (the beach, the mountains)?

Did the family take vacations?

What did they do for entertainment, either at home or away from home?

Were there any entertainment traditions, such as going dancing on Saturday nights, or Friday  night card games, etc.?

Did they live through or participate in any historical events? (Great War, Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, Holocaust, civil rights movement, etc.)

Did any relatives participate in events such as the California Gold Rush, the Great Migration, the Oklahoma Land Rush, or pioneers in the migration West?

What did your grandparents look like?

Do they resemble anyone else in the family?

Is there a particular physical family trait (hawk nose, curly hair, long legs, droopy eye)?

Was anyone in the family disabled via birth defect or through disease/accident?

Did anyone survive, contract, or die in epidemics such as yellow fever, polio, Spanish influenza?

Did anyone survive or die in ethnic cleansings such as the Holocaust, the Acadian Expulsion, Armenian genocide, Native American or indigenous peoples massacres?

Did anyone in your family participate as the aggressor in ethnic cleansing or mass killings?

Were your grandparents musical, artistic, or talented in the arts?

Were any particular artistic talents handed down to later generations?

Was anyone in the family a professional entertainer?

Did anyone work or start a family business that lasted generations?

Did anyone start a new business or was an entrepreneur?

Were there any financial catastrophes, such as losing everything in the 1929 Crash, Dust Bowl, or Black Monday?

Did they belong to a particular group of workers, such as fishermen, coal miners, farmers, mill workers, doctors, teachers?

Did anyone in the family have an unusual occupation, such as lighthouse keeper or town sheriff or rodeo clown?

Is any building, street, town named after a relative or the family?

Were there any early working women in your family?

Did any women participate in the suffrage movement?

Were there any widows or widowers or bachelors or spinsters?

Anyone participate in war, social, or civil protests?

Did any of your ancestors fight in wars?

Did anyone die in war?

Were any buried away from home, such as a foreign battlefield cemetery or at sea?

Did any soldier participate in a famous battle?

Was anyone awarded an honor or medal for military service?

Did your grandparents tell stories about living during WW2 or the Depression, etc?

How did your grandparents meet one another?

What were their courtships/weddings like?

If they were married, did your grandparents remain together until death?

Were they divorced, widowed, etc?

Did they remarry? If so, was there a “second” family?

Are there any unsolved family mysteries?

Are there any anecdotes told over and over among relatives?

This is my list. What did I forget? Please use comments to add any questions you think should be included.

 

Happy Mardi Gras!

cropped-ramonalogofinal.jpgParades and carnival remind me of my Louisiana childhood, but in truth, I had two childhoods. My first was in a small town, on a street where my grandmother, two aunts, an uncle, and 20+ cousins lived. Our house as always full of people visiting, talking, eating. We evacuated for hurricanes, which is fun when you’re a little kid. When I started school, I ran for the bus from our front porch because we listened to songs on the radio until the very last second. I once burst my eardrum jumping off the front porch. A tragedy happened that I did not remember for many years. My little brother and I played in the cool dirt beneath my grandma’s raised house. It was a frenetic, busy, everybody-knows-your business way to live.

My second childhood began when I was in second grade and my father and a professional carpenter built a house “up the bayou” and out of the flood zone. It was sugar cane and cow country, vastly different from a tight-knit family neighborhood. Our new house was surrounded by sugar cane fields on two sides, a bayou in the front, and cattle pasture in the back. Our closest neighbor was my father’s grandfather. When we moved, my great-grandfather Luke was 88. I was 8. He was old but he didn’t act old. He planted a huge garden, maintained a small citrus grove, had an old blacksmith shop that terrified me, and once–in his 90s–shot an armadillo under his porch. His back yard was dominated by a massive live oak that was struck in half by lightning during a hurricane.

My parents worked, so my siblings and I were on our own after school and all summer. We played together, settled our own disputes, rode our bikes on tractor paths, and spent long, lazy afternoons reading and watching TV. It was the total opposite of living in a family neighborhood.  My two very different childhoods prepared me for life as a storyteller, though I didn’t know it at the time.angel

Back to Grandpa Luke. I went off to college, and while I was gone, Grandpa Luke passed away. He was 100 years old. He was raised speaking French, spoke English as an adult, but reverted back to French when he was elderly. Though I had many memories of him from when I was young, I didn’t know a lot about him. I’m ashamed to say that, as a young adult, investigating my family’s past didn’t hold a lot of interest for me.

I moved away from Louisiana when I was almost thirty. I have never returned, other than for visits, and in stories. As I got older and my relatives began to die off, the storyteller in me began to realize that, with each lost relative, part of our family history was disappearing. There was no real family historian, so I decided to take on that role. I was late in starting, but I was determined to recover and preserve what I could. I started with the oldest relative I had known–Grandpa Luke. I interviewed my father and gathered as much information–backstory for you writer types–as I could. Now my father is gone. If I had not done that interview, what he told me about Grandpa Luke might be lost for good.

Why the walk back to the past today? Every year, I do a project during Lent called 40 Days of [something]. I’ve done 40 days of book reviews, 40 days of worksheets, 40 days of writing questions, 40 days of submissions. This year, I’m not going to do a 40 Days project, but I will do a short version. Return tomorrow and you’ll find out what my 40 day project will address. If you haven’t already guessed, the hints are right in front of you.

Also, if you are interested, PBS’ American Portrait is a new initiative that celebrates PBS’ 50th anniversary by preserving and sharing stories from everyday Americans. Why don’t you add one of yours?

Setting a Happy Thanksgiving Table

It is Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and that means table setting. This is my process, developed after many years of happy Thanksgiving meals at my house:

November boy

  1. Set down the table protector. It is important to protect the table.
  2. On top of the table protector goes a plain white damask tablecloth.
  3. On top of the plain white damask tablecloth, layer (after ironing) four tablecloths of various autumn patterns. This is important because you will want to remove the top tablecloth after the meal, possibly the top two. The remaining ones are already in place for the rest of the week.
  4. If you don’t have four tablecloths, layer as many as you have that are appropriate for the season. While you are doing this, congratulate yourself for not being obsessive about Thanksgiving tablecloths like some people.
  5. Choose a runner. The one from your mother with the (hardly visible) cranberry stains? The one from your mother-in-law with the very visible burns from the Year of Too Many Mimosas? The one you inherited from your great-aunt which is not stained or burned, but ask me again after Thursday? Stains and burns can be hidden, or not. They are battle scars, reminders of Thanksgivings past—there, but you don’t have to talk about how they got there, unless it’s an amusing anecdote.
  6. Select napkins. If you do not have multiple sets of cloth holiday napkins, see #4. If you do not own any cloth napkins, buy some. Paper napkins are not an option for a holiday meal.
  7. Double check your stash of paper napkins, and plates, that you will use for leftovers. Not for the meal.
  8. Decorate the runner with your collection of glass turkeys, pumpkin items, acorns, vintage Pilgrims and/or Pilgrim hats, and at least one turkey candle. If you don’t have these, at least invest in a paper fold-out turkey from a dollar store.
  9. Place the paper turkey far away from the turkey candle. (See #5.)
  10. Going by your seating chart—which you prepared in advance, right?—place name cards. Seat small children next to grandparents so parents can have a break and grandparents can find out that, no, they actually can’t coerce a three-year-old to taste the jellied cranberries.
  11. Seat young parents near someone they can talk to, but the subject isn’t children. Don’t seat anyone who would have voted for Franklin Roosevelt next to someone who would have voted for Ronald Reagan.
  12. Stack your clean holiday dinnerware. Note the word “clean.” If it’s been sitting in the basement or a cupboard since last year, wash them, please. Marshmallows from the yams are a dust magnet. If you are using everyday dinnerware, that should be clean, too. If you are using paper ware, why are you reading this? (But see #20.)
  13. Count out flatware for place settings. Stack the forks, knives, spoons in a pile and, when your mother-in-law arrives, ask her to place the flatware. This is to make her feel needed and part of the decorating process, not because you never can remember if the knives face in or out or where the dessert spoon should go.
  14. Place a wine glass or a water glass, or both, at each setting. It is acceptable for children to pretend they are drinking wine though it’s really sparkling apple cider, just like it’s acceptable for you to pretend that overindulgent adults and children hyped up on sugar are not identically obnoxious.
  15. Plan a place for serving dishes. Will the turkey platter fit on the table? Will you use a sideboard? Serve plates in the kitchen? Pass dishes around the table? Will someone come around the table to serve, a la Downton Abbey? If so, is that person steady of hand, strong of arm, and sober?
  16. Choose serving flatware. Keep the carving knife away from children and anyone with a grudge.
  17. If you have more than six people at your table, use two butter dishes and two gravy boats. Trust me on this.
  18. Perform a safety check. You don’t want people bending over lit candles to pass the dinner rolls. You don’t want a toddler within reach of the turkey fork, carving knife, or an antique dinner bell that will cause a tantrum when you try to take it away after it has been rung, and rung, and rung. Most of all, you don’t want the paper turkey next to the turkey candle.
  19. thanksgiving-paper-plates.jpgCircle the table no fewer than three times to make sure everyone has a place; everyone will feel comfortable in that place; that place is appealing; and everyone knows their place—which is, welcomed at your table.
  20. If  you ignore all of this and use paper plates and napkins, have a great holiday. But no matter what, don’t place the paper turkey next to the turkey candle!

Happy Thanksgiving from my table to yours!

My Love Affair with Sad Stories

I have always loved tragedies. In school, when my fellow students bellyached about A Separate Peace and Of Mice and Men, I was in my happy place sucking in the human drama and pathos. I come from a culture where joie de vivre is both a catch phrase and a lifestyle, but Anna Karenina, Ethan Frome, and Madame Bovary are my people, too.

Cemetery St. FrancisIn my writing, I am drawn to sadness. Not horror or misery or lack of hope—quite the opposite. No matter the theme or plot, there’s always a thread of hope in what I write, but there’s also a thread of darkness.

Some people write about sunshine. Some people write about Icarus. I’m the latter. What happens when you get too close to the sun? You burn up. I find that fascinating and endlessly explorable.

My most recently published story came from a real visit to a cemetery. In my family, Cemetery angelwhen you say you are going to visit a relative, that person might be in a house or they might be in a grave. The only real difference is whether or not you’ll get served coffee.

Last December, my husband and I visited my grandparents. The church cemetery is old, and while we were there to put fresh flowers in the urn and a Christmas angel on the tomb, we wandered around the old part that is not aging so well. My husband took these photos, and I let my imagination skip and jump around the tombs—and the acorns.

PS_Summer_2019_Cover-200x268Philadelphia Stories is a non-profit organization that highlights the works of artists from the Delaware Valley and works to foster a lively literary community in the Greater Philadelphia Area. I am pleased that my short story “Acorns” appears in the Summer 2019 issue, both in print and online. I hope you will read it. If you suspect it might be sad…you’ve been warned.

 

Worksheets DIY Workbook

As promised!

The 40+ Days of Worksheets DIY Workbook is now available. If you did not follow the 40 Days of Worksheets blog project, here is an index of the worksheets posted then, plus a dozen new worksheets for crime and mystery authors.

As you can see, this is a true DIY project, from my document files to yours, nothing sparkly, fancy, or difficult about it. The only skills required are how to open a document and print it. If you are ambitious, you can punch holes in the pages and put them into a binder. If you are an orderly person like me, you can add blank paper after each worksheet so you can keep your worksheets and work in one place.

The printed workbook is 62 pages long, with 52 worksheets that cover writing inspiration, self-editing, goal setting, plotting, building characters, creating conflict, and other writerly topics. The cost is $10. When you purchase via the Buy Now with PayPal button below, I will email you the Workbook document as a Word doc and in Rich Text. You can then print the Workbook from your home computer.

Buy now

Any questions? Email me at ramonadef@yahoo.com

Into the Woods – Happy Anniversary!

A year ago today, the charity anthology Into the Woods was published. It was my great pleasure to edit and contribute a story to this collection of short stories, essays, a walking meditation, and original music from writers who attend the Mindful Writers Retreat each fall and spring. My header photo is from the retreat center in Ligonier, Pennsylvania.

There are many reasons to write stories and create art. The purpose of this collection was to raise money for the Children’s Heart Foundation. In addition to contributing to a good cause, the Mindful Writers tightened the bond we’d formed while spending a week surrounded by woods and positive energy. A sunrise walk, a bagpipe concert, a group meditation, evenings by the fire–these are the fun parts of a working retreat, but work is the goal. For days in a row, twenty+ writers sat in silence in the great room of the lodge, typing away, lost in our own fictional worlds. Outside were natural wonders, in the kitchen were coffee and treats, but we all managed to stay in our heads when seated in a writing chair.

The anthology is the result of that experience: work plus contemplation plus peace. I am proud of this collection and to be part of such a special group. Love you, Mindful Writers!

40 Days of Worksheets – Day 40

ramonagravitarWorksheet#40 – Wrap up

Evaluate the work you’ve done over the past 40 days of worksheets. Continue reading “40 Days of Worksheets – Day 40”

40 Days of Worksheets – Day 39

ramonagravitarWorksheet #39 – Your Artist Story

In 2015, to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the National Endowment for the Arts began gathering artist stories. The NEA selected testimonials from writers, visual artists, musicians, performing artists, etc. from each state and put together a United States of Arts map. I was happy to represent Delaware with my artist story. Continue reading “40 Days of Worksheets – Day 39”

40 Days of Worksheets – Day 38

ramonagravitarWorksheet #38 – Skill Set Checklist

Professional writers never stop trying to learn and improve. Natural talent is a boon, but developing a strong skill set requires work.

Below is a list of skills useful for a fiction writer. How would you rate yourself for each–mastered, good, developing, or weak? Continue reading “40 Days of Worksheets – Day 38”

40 Days of Worksheets – Day 37

ramonagravitarWorksheet #37 – Your Someday Story

Most authors have a wish list of work they would complete if life was limitless and we were all as prolific as Stephen King. Many of us also have one story we’d like to write “someday.” Continue reading “40 Days of Worksheets – Day 37”