18 December 2011


Reflecting pool at Temple Square Photo by Lesley Stubbs

The trees in my yard are white with frost, each small branch outlined. It makes me want to stay indoors, snuggled up with someone I love, with a good book or with a pen and paper. Thursday at Temple Square in Salt Lake City, I saw trees outlined in a different way, each one lighted with white or colored lights. The cold chills my fingers and toes and makes me draw my scarf tighter around my neck, but I cannot deny the wintry beauty of this season. It is the season of storytelling. Thursday night the stories of Oliver Twist, the Little Match Girl, and Ebenezer Scrooge were brought to life at the Dickens Christmas Festival. My husband and I and two of our granddaughters were carried back in time by a carriage ride and hot chestnuts roasted over an open fire in the streets.

“Once upon a time is now, and ‘our happily ever after’ will come at the end of a Christmas story that only we can tell.” So began Jane Seymour and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as they brought us Good King Wenceslas and his page in story and song at the Tabernacle Choir concert. I never heard the sweet story of that Christmas song so clearly before. Later, our own Christmases past came to light as we walked among the brilliantly decorated trees and talked together.

The winter season and winter holidays bring family and friends together to visit and to reminisce. The greatest story ever told is repeated over and over. We remember days gone by and family members who are no longer with us. These days it’s easy to pull out the cell phone or digital recorder and capture some of these memories. Grab a handful of photos and pass them around, letting story spark story as we record captions on pictures and stories on our mobile devices. Christmas is just once a year. Write some family history this year. 

01 December 2011

The Importance of Review and Revisit

After the Christensen book project was finally finished, our family history committee breathed a sigh of relief. Days of intense research, writing, publishing and distribution were finally finished. My sister who serves as the treasurer of our group had also taken on the job 10 years ago of sorting my grandmother’s photos for scanning. She was cleaning out her cupboard and found the orphan box of “unidentified” photos. My archive room is the repository for such things, so she brought them over, but recommended throwing these “useless” photos away. I couldn’t. I tucked them into a box identified with their source and thought about putting them on one of the online sites for such John Doe photos, in hopes that someone would one day see and recognize them.
Tintype photo of Jane Johnson
Unidentified tintype photo, possibly
Laura Georgina Johnson
A “someday” job at my house rarely gets done, and when my daughter came home at Thanksgiving time from college, she was enthusiastic about her photography class. She had learned about the various types of historical photographs and the different styles of photography she may use in her future photographic art. “I have some old photos,” I told her.

We pulled out the box (and a similar one that I inherited from my husband’s family). She was interested and even excited as we pored over each one. I saw some new clues to identify a couple of them. Looking more closely, we spotted some dark writing on a dark background on one picture. Another photo was one I had seen another copy of and I knew it was of my great-grandmother when she was younger. Then I found the one of the little boy labeled “Aunt Olive’s baby,” again very hard to read on a dark background. “Frank” was written on the front. “I wonder,” I said to my daughter, “if this is the little boy who was burned with hot coal oil? He and his mother were coming home just as his father threw some burning oil out the front door of their small Idaho home. Both Aunt Olive and the little boy died and Uncle Joe was devastated for years afterwards. “ We both paused a moment to consider this tragedy of long-ago.
Frank Johnson
“Sisters married brothers,” I told her, “so Olive and Joe Johnson were the sister and brother of our great-grandparents, Harriet and James Johnson. “ A quick computer look-up determined that the 4 year old who burned to death was named Frank. I found Frank Johnson’s death date was just a few days before his mother’s. “Poor little boy,” my daughter and I sighed, looking at the old-fashioned photo of the baby wearing a dress and petticoat. In the photo, he is propped up against a fur-covered chair. We wondered about the likelihood that this was his only photo.

Then we examined the prize pieces of my little collection. I had two small tintypes. “These are beautiful,” my daughter said. I thought so too. I had wished ever since I got them that I knew who they were. In fact, it was these two photos that prompted me to bring out the boxful to show her. I knew she would like them.
“I guess you could keep them to show students in a photography class,” I said. “They are good samples of a tintype, even though we can’t identify them.” I paused, thinking. “The only other family tintype I’ve seen is one that my mother’s cousin has of my great-great grandparents, Jens and Marie Jorgensen (James and Mary Johnson).  They are the parents of James and Joseph Johnson, you know.” I was beginning another story, this one familiar. “Remember when they came across the plains in their handcart; Jens was lame, and the buffalo . . . Wait a minute.”

Jens and Marie Jorgensen
(James and Mary Johnson)
A sudden flash of inspiration had come to me as I remembered another story posted on a distant cousin’s website. Jens and Marie had a young daughter, Jane, who mentioned a doll her father gave her. I had just been looking at the doll the little girl in the photo was holding.  And what about the bead necklace she wore? Jens and Marie were said to have hosted the local Native Americans in their home.  The second tintype was of a young woman who had the same severe hairstyle as Marie did in the tintype I had seen at my cousin’s. Her dress was also very similar. “Jane and Laura!” I exclaimed. “I bet these are two of Jens and Marie’s daughters—Jane and Laura!”

The next morning I popped into my daughter’s room to wake her with the exciting news. I had received an email answer from the cousin with the website. Yes, she had seen the photo of that little girl before and did I notice the bead necklace that the Indians had given her? She was grateful to know who had the original of this valuable photograph. It was indeed her great-grandmother, Jane Johnson. My daughter’s pleasure and patience in looking at the photos and listening to my stories had yielded an astonishing serendipity. We had discovered the identity of an important piece of history. 

PS A slide-show tribute to my grandmother Hazel Johnson Christensen is found here.

15 November 2011

Another Wedding Quilt

Nate and Kat: First married kiss
The wedding was wonderful! My son and daughter-in-law were married on the beach in Florida with a reception following in the Jupiter Civic Center just a few steps away. It was just as romantic as it sounds. We ate and danced and hugged and laughed. I loved having so many family members there, but before the night was over, I felt that everyone there, all friends of the bride and groom, were family.

The date was November 5th, 2011. I suppose they could have joined many others in getting married the following weekend on 11-11-11, but I feel very satisfied that they chose the 5th. November 5th is my grandmother's birthday. You can read about her here. She was born in 1899 and died in 1993, but she seemed very present to me that night. Last spring, before I realized the double date situation of her birthday and the wedding, I felt strongly that I wanted to make the bride and groom a quilt. Not just any quilt, but an heirloom quilt. Kat's wedding colors just happened to coincide with the colors used in the quilt Grandma made for my mother for her wedding day in 1946.

Top: 2011 version; bottom:  1946 quilt
Mom died in 1981, and my sister has inherited this quilt, still in good condition. I told her excitedly about my plan and she tried to discourage me. “I tried to copy this quilt and couldn't do it even when I had no deadline. I don't believe that women in our time are able to do work of this difficulty.” Since this sister is a master quilt-maker, with much greater skill than I have, I wondered what I could do to simplify the process. But I still had a strong desire to use Grandma's quilt as inspiration for Nate and Kat's quilt. Now I wonder if my mother and grandmother had already realized the “coincidence” of dates and relationships and were encouraging me in spirit.

I decided not to make as many appliqued daisy squares as Grandma had and to position them in a way that I thought would be easier to piece together. The quilt I was making was quite a bit bigger than my mother's quilt. My sister was still shaking her head, but she brought the quilt to me this summer to inspire and instruct me. Another sister, living closer, but also a master quilt-maker, agreed to mentor me through the process. I spent 6 weeks this summer in Florida with my husband and granddaughters as they attended a drama camp that our engaged couple taught. I didn't have my sewing machine there, but I bought the fabric and commenced the applique by hand. I had never done hand applique before, but my sisters predicted that I would be an expert before the quilt was finished. It was slow starting, but their predictions came true by the time the last square was appliqued.

Joy and the quilt at the wedding party
My mentor helped me piece it together (she was at the machine and I was pressing), and then came the quilting. After all the hand-applique, I really wanted to hand-quilt it too, but time was running short. In a marathon quilting bee, I received help from my sisters, my daughters and daughter-in-law and even my grandson and at the end, my husband, who took pity on me. My sister mentor bound it all together and I flew an extra suitcase to Florida with the quilt inside. I was still finishing some of the detail work, but it was all finished by the big day! They tell me they love it. I feel satisfied and happy, especially when, on their wedding day, I realized it was also Grandma's birthday. I feel loved and supported by those whose heritage I am celebrating as well as the children and grandchildren who have come after me.

27 October 2011

My Mother's Voice

Anne Whitney-1980
I have a wonderful mother and I've been thinking about her this month. On 24 October she would have been 85 years old. Sometimes I look at older women and wonder what Mom would look like if she were still alive now. I never saw her when she was old because she died when she was only 54. That seems very young to me now that I'm 10 years past her high water mark. Mom isn't forgotten though. She's still alive in her children's hearts, all 10 of us. Many of her grandchildren weren't alive when she died, but they wonder about her too. This month my sister and I dedicated our third family history podcast to her. You can view it here.

In my sociology studies, I focused on "voice," specifically women's voice--how we are allowed to or take the opportunity to express ourselves. I've been thinking about my mother's voice. Though she was "only" a stay-at-home mom, she had a strong voice. It is because of that strong voice that we still remember her and know her today, 30 years after her death in 1981. I wonder if I will be remembered. I wonder if my voice reflects who I am and what I think, feel and believe. When I write the stories of my life and the lives of my family members, my voice is heard, and it will continue to be heard.

21 October 2011

I haven't gone away--Just thinking

My son is getting married in 2 weeks. I'm excited for the trip to Florida. I'm working day and night on his heritage quilt that I'm making. (More about this in another blog--with photos) But I'm here. My head is also in my family history writing. I'm pondering the list of babies I just transcribed for Family Search indexing. In 1871 they were in prison with their mothers. I'm answering emails from inquiring cousins. I'm doing some copy editing for a blogging friend.

I'm reading a wonderful book by Tristine Rainier called Your Life as Story. This is an older book, available as a bargain book from Amazon. I love it. I'm reading it with one of my writing friends and we are discussing it. I wake up in the morning with my head buzzing with writing ideas.

My sister is taking a class on family history writing from the university and I want to take it with her. In the meantime, I found this free course on writing family history from BYU.http://is.byu.edu/courses/pe/999015075002/public/start.htm. There are several free courses there. They look luscious. There are also numerous free courses at FamilySearch.org, with some interesting things on family history writing. Oh my, I want to investigate these further. Only 24 hours in a day????

There are also lots of great websites to explore and use. Here are some that I read or that I want to investigate further: http://www.mapyourancestors.com/https://www.familysearch.org/techtips/http://www.storytree.me/http://1000memories.com/http://www.saveeverystep.com/default.aspx. These are just a few of the latest ones.  I'm still reading my old favorites too: Dick Eastman at http://blog.eogn.com,  Marian Pierre-Louis at http://rootsandrambles.blogspot.com/, Dan Curtis at http://dancurtis.ca (check out his list of resources too), the wonderful National Association of Memoir Writers at http://www.namw.org/, (they offer some terrific free webinars) and of course Nina Amir at http://howtoblogabook.com as well as several other places. I am taking her WNFIN challenge next month--write a book of non-fiction in November! Who will join me?

24 September 2011

The Magic of Music

Bert and Anne Whitney 1946

Are there certain songs or pieces of music that tug at your heart? Especially when that music is combined with images that are also touching? On September 11 this year we “celebrated” the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedies from 2001. On the anniversary special presented by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Tom Brokaw I watched the heart-warming footage of that year’s rescue efforts, heroism and Americans pulling together accompanied by the choir’s wonderful singing of “Amazing Grace” complete with bagpipes. (Click on Brokaw's interview on the Choir website.) Scenes from across the country accompanied “America the Beautiful” and brought forth tender patriotic feelings in my heart.
My sister and her husband singing "Devoted to You"
 At our family reunions my sister and brother-in-law always receive a request for a few songs that we all love. Their voices blend beautifully with each other and his guitar accompaniment. One of these songs is “Devoted to You” made famous by the Everly Brothers. This year when they sang the song, they dedicated it to the newlywed couples of the family who were in attendance.
Grandparents Ralph and Doris Whitney
Another sister begged them to record their singing for our family history. Since the singing duo was staying at my house for a few days after the reunion, I prevailed upon them to do just that. Later it was published as a family history podcast with photos of family couples—the grandparents, parents and children, many on their wedding day. Thanks to Facebook for the ease of obtaining these photos. The photos were simple, the program that put it together was free (Windows Live Movie Maker), but the completed podcast has a lot of impact for our family because of the music that was a part of it. The song evoked years of family reunion campfires. The photos also portrayed the passage of time and generations.
M.J. and Hazel Christensen
A great source of historical music is The National Jukebox, a part of the Library of Congress. Don't forget that no matter what family history “writing” project you do, it is always appropriate to remember permissions and copyrights.

07 September 2011

At Least - Leave a Living Legacy

With the recent earthquakes and violent storms, I’m feeling a need to be prepared for the future. However the dill pickles and tomatoes I’ve been canning this week are not nearly as significant as another type of preparation I’ve been thinking about.

Many of us (including me) think we have plenty of time to complete our personal histories. We want it to be just right. We want it to include as much of our lives as possible. But what if we don’t have time to write the big wonderful autobiography we have planned. A lesser type of personal writing is a memoir—writing about just one aspect or time period of our lives. Or what about beginning with just one paragraph or one page or just one letter?

My daughter Rachel was killed in a car accident when she was only 29. She left two little girls that will someday wish for a letter to them from their mother. My great-grandmother, Elizabeth Zimmerman Lamb, wrote a journal, beginning at age 69. I wrote about it here. My favorite part is the place where she addresses her granddaughters. She thought about me!

In the scripture, the most touching and long-lasting words are those that are recorded at the end of a prophet’s life. See these words. Or these. A deathbed pronouncement is important legally and emotionally to loved ones. After someone has died, we often long for something of that person’s to hold onto, to keep bright when memories fade. A legacy letter or an ethical will can be just such an item.

We don’t have to distribute it immediately. We can revise it later or include it in the magnum opus type history we are planning to write someday. But maybe life will surprise us and that one thing we wished we could say will already be written when it is needed. It’s easy to let perfectionism stop us from doing something as important as this. How about just a first draft? How about thinking out loud into a recorder? Let me think for a minute about my life. What is important to me? If I could only say one more thing, what would it be? How about a letter to someone we love, maybe someone we can’t talk to right now? I have done that on occasion, like this day.

An excellent 7 part “how-to” course on writing an ethical will has been posted by Dan Curtis. He reminds us that such a letter is not about getting even or giving advice to another person. It’s about me (or you) and how I feel about life. It takes some reflection and even some time, but it can be done in small segments of quiet time. Dan suggests some exercises to discover our values. He suggests that we include specific things that we are grateful for and life lessons we have learned from the important individuals in our lives. Dan reminds us to ponder the important process of forgiveness and include some of that in our writing. We have all made mistakes. Asking for forgiveness is an important part of the finishing work we are doing here. If you like, you can include regrets, achievements and hopes in your ethical will. And Dan also gives us some instructions on how to put it all together. Add some final thoughts—decide how you would like to distribute or read it to your loved one(s).

Family history writing is important. I’ve talked about it over and over in this blog. But this specific personal writing may be the most important we will ever do.  Will we do it? Will I? 

02 September 2011

Looking Back and Preparing for the Future

Today I've been migrating old family newsletters to newer formats--making a new back-up of the old scans and then spending some time word processing articles from the pre-computer days. This is important work that needs doing if we expect our histories to last. However it takes time--mostly because I can't help reading and remembering. Here are some excerpts from my account of the last Thanksgiving our family spent together before the death of our mother.

Family Reunion—Thanksgiving—Farewell in November 1980
written April 1982
In September of 1980, my sister received her mission call to the Pusan, Korea Mission. She didn’t have to be in the Mission Training Center in Provo until December 1; the timing seemed perfect to hold her mission farewell over Thanksgiving weekend and have a big family reunion (with Mom, Dad, eight sisters and two brothers) at the same time.

Because of the size of our family (seven of us were married and there were 25 grandchildren), we usually held reunions on a campout basis. We decided to make an exception this time; we would all squeeze into our parents’ large home in Logandale, Nevada. The home was well-suited to the load. There were six bedrooms, four bathrooms, a huge kitchen, spacious living room and twin family room, and a playroom the same size as the double car garage above it.

Even though the house was big, we knew there would be a lot of people in one house for three days. My mother was not well; my sister and I decided to make food assignments for the Thanksgiving dinner we planned on Friday—since many of us would be traveling on Thursday—and for the other meals we would have together. We sent these assignments out in the family newsletter.

The girls still at home and my parents cleaned house and decided who would sleep where. Every family was assigned a bedroom; the three single girls slept in the living room. The only still childless couple got the family room. My family was assigned the big playroom, since we had more children than anyone else.

Because I was in charge of the turkey, I got as much as I could prepared the night before as we stayed up and visited together. Then I got up at 5:30 the next morning to stuff it and put it in the oven. Most everyone was tired; but one sister heard me and got up early with me. We had a close sisterly chat while we fixed the turkey. It was a nice quiet time for a private visit in the midst of all the confusion each day seemed to bring. As the morning progressed, each sister and sister-in-law prepared her part of the dinner. We had a lot of good girl talk in Mom’s big kitchen.

Mom was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and was always in a lot of pain. We were worried about her getting too tired, but knew how she loved to have her house full of family. She was assigned a comfortable chair in the middle of the kitchen so she could be in on everything.

She had us get out her genealogy records and showed us some additional work that needed to be done on Dad’s four generation sheets. The grandchildren wandered in and out, and we kept assigning their fathers to take care of them.

Dad had built a special cupboard in the kitchen. It had no back. Instead it had two fronts with doors. The other entrance was in the adjoining hall. This had always been a favorite with the grandchildren. This day was no exception. A constant parade of children popped out the doors into the busy kitchen.

Of course there were the babies to be cared for. If one’s mother was busy with the dinner, an aunt would tend a fussy baby until the mother was free. We had so much baby-switching, it was hard to keep track of whose baby was crying. There was always someone handy to comfort a cry. The unmarried girls did their share of tending. They got out some of their old dolls they had fixed up for the occasion. The little girls played for hours with the Pee-Wee dolls and all their clothes.

We ate dinner shortly after noon at the old Logandale School. Because Dad was the caretaker there, we were able to use the building. We carried all our goodies over in cars. The men had set up the tables and chairs that morning. When we all gathered together, it looked like a ward party instead of a family dinner. The food was delicious, and even after we all ate our fill, there was a lot left over. Dad always announces, “There’s plenty to eat, but none to waste.” This occasion was no exception.

At home again, we practiced our songs and took baths and showers, keep the water and children going in a steady stream. Some of the mothers were in Mom’s bedroom with her that afternoon, and she suggested using her Jacuzzi to bathe some of the children. The Jacuzzi was in her large bedroom suite. One sister named it the “people-washing machine.” We loaded it with little girl cousins, turned on the agitator, then drained and dried the kids and repeated the cycle with some little boy cousins. The children had been enjoying Dad’s acre of grass, sand and pomegranate trees, so the clean-up job was challenging.

Our family choir director November 1980
Dad is listening.
Mom spent most of her time in her bed, always resting for the next big event. A favorite place for a quiet mother-daughter or sisterly chat, her bedroom never lacked for visitors. She was our strength. Her love held us all together.

The next morning we were all busy getting ourselves and our children ready. Church began at 12:00 noon. That meant we had time for our last minute practices. Our sister did such a great caricature of a choir director; it was hard to keep from laughing. Because of that her husband took over as leader. His goal was to make us more serious and prepared, but he has a smile that just won’t quit; we were still pretty light-hearted.

The final thing we did before church was have a picture-taking session. As we took turns doing last minute diaper changes and hair-arranging, the various family groups had pictures taken. Then we all gathered into one large group, while a neighbor, recruited at the last minute, snapped pictures from each camera. We were told to move closer together, and we already were so close we couldn’t breathe normally. Then the toddlers and babies on the front row started to act up; one crawled away. The family mix was again apparent as a random uncle picked up a screaming nephew and posed with the yelling child and his famous smile. After much coaxing and threatening, several shots were taken. We were relieved to break ranks.

Family Photo November 1980
The family chorus sang “I Am a Child of God” for the prelude music, the grandchildren brought off “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission” with only a few mishaps. (My youngest daughter fell down on the way to the piano, and my sister had to start over on the accompaniment because no one started with her the first time.) Our other musical numbers were “Keep the Commandments” and “The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning.” We could feel the Spirit burning on our last chorus.

At home again from church, many of the family were preparing to leave, and we were trying to get our last visiting done. Our three living grandparents were there, Grandma Whitney and Grandma and Grandpa Christensen. Family groups were gathered in the living room, kitchen and family room. I was in the kitchen making myriads of turkey sandwiches and carrot sticks. My assigned meal was this last one, and most of it would be taken on the road.

Then came the time when we were all called into the living room together to have our final family prayer of the reunion. After prayer we spontaneously began to sing, “God Be with You Till We Meet Again.” Emotion was at levels hard to bear. Personally, I couldn't bear it and I left the room to finish the sack lunches. 

25 August 2011

Interactive Genealogy: I am doing it!

When I heard Josh Taylor’s presentation on interactive genealogy at the BYU Family History Conference in July, I knew it was what I had been looking for. (See the PowerPoint for this presentation here.) I love the books our committee has published, but they are long enough and far enough removed from the daily lives of most of my family members that they tend to be used only as a reference. I pondered the problem. How could this wealth of material be better utilized to inspire our lives today?

Howard and Bert Whitney--1942
I suspected that many of the young people in our family didn’t really read much anymore, certainly not a thick book of history. Young people are attracted to multi-media displays that engage them for the short time they have to give before they are swept off to something new. I have known for a long time that we all relate to short meaningful stories more than complete historical timelines or biographies.  My answer was clearly to use modern technology to present the stories of our ancestors. Joshua Taylor taught me to call this “interactive genealogy.” Interactive genealogy involves the cloud, he said, and it gives the receiver something to do. Family history wikis are an example of interactive genealogy. Social interactive sites can present family history information. I was already familiar with the idea of facebook and footnote (now fold3) pages for ancestors. Obviously, I’m using a blog to interact.

Suddenly the vision of a family podcast popped into my mind, using a YouTube channel to distribute family stories and family memories. Our family reunion was coming up and I enlisted my talented sister Annalee to help me implement this idea. As we exercised together every morning, we brainstormed ideas and came up with a video podcast featuring our dad, Bert N Whitney, and his adventures in the talc mines of Death Valley. Here is our very first effort, completed in just 3 days! We used our own resources and also some on-line sources, carefully documenting and giving credit where credit was due. I believe that our family history books and the photos, videos and documents our family history committee has been collecting over the last few years will serve as a library of resources for these short 5-10 minute podcasts.

I offered a $25 grant for each script and storyboard we use in hopes of inspiring some of our young folks into coming up with their own creation. I’m into the interactive stuff—hopefully others in our family will soon be too.

30 July 2011

Map Your Family History

Preston Idaho neighborhood where Harriet Johnson
and her sisters, Julia, Olive, Susie and Elsie lived, also
James Johnson's brothers Lorenzo and Joe
Map created by Annalee Barajas

I just attended some presentations made by Dan Lynch of Google Your Family Tree fame. Dan recommended Google Maps and Google Earth to enrich our family history knowledge and our family history writing. Have you ever tried finding the address listed on a census, then switching to “street view” and looking at the house there now? My sister and I used this method to determine if the original house a great-grandmother lived in was still standing and worth a trip to photograph it. We also mapped homes on the block where another great-grandmother and her sisters lived in Preston, Idaho. From this exercise and from the letters and histories and interviews we did, we were able to draw a little map to include in our latest book.

What about mapping an address on an old certificate or document of some kind? Often, public buildings are still standing and can be viewed from the satellite or from the Google cars that photograph the readily available Google street view. Try looking at a childhood home or neighborhood and writing down memories that are evoked by seeing familiar places or buildings or noting the differences time has brought.

Map of Denmark with insert of area
in which our Danish ancestors lived
(created by Annalee Barajas)
Maps are needed to get an idea of where the next county or town begins, how close different places mentioned in a journal or letter may be, where the rivers and roads run, as well as other details that add to our understanding of someone’s story. Maps from the time period being written about are particularly useful in this regard. Of course it is important to get permission before using these maps in a written history that will be disseminated to others.

A map is not just a visual picture of the outdoors. The insides of a building can also be mapped. One interviewer asked two of her uncles to draw a map of the inside of their grandparents’ home. Neither included any furniture, but both noted the position of the Victrola. Creating such a map sparks memories as we use pencils to bring back a long-forgotten place. I recommend using maps in various ways to create a personal history as well as to illustrate it.

24 July 2011

Just Imagine!

Here in Utah it’s Pioneer Day, a state holiday that celebrates the arrival of Brigham Young and the Mormon pioneers into the state. I have many ancestors who “crossed the plains” in covered wagons or handcarts. I have several who came to the United States by boat from Denmark, Sweden and Germany. What was their life like? What did they do every day? How did they feel? In writing their histories, research is called for. The details of their lives were probably very different than the details of my life. Besides reading accounts of the everyday life of similar people, there are many opportunities to take myself back in time.

Dresses on display at Ellis Island
For me, that is the whole purpose of historical museums. I love to stand in front of a display and mentally put myself into the time and place represented. I imagine myself doing the chores, handling the objects, eating the food, just interacting with their environment. I think of a particular ancestor or two who would have had a similar environment and I can mentally put myself in their world. I often feel enthused to begin writing about their life immediately.

Visiting a place where the ancestor lived and worked can bring similar results. For a family history writer, the ideal vacation is a pilgrimage to such places. Even if the actual house cannot be identified, other homes of similar age, churches or public buildings can take us back to their life and times. Historical displays in those spots are particularly valuable.

Packet Ship
Sometimes it is something from my world that sends me back in time. Recently I went on a deep-sea fishing excursion. After an hour or so, the nagging discomfort of the boat turned into full-fledged sea sickness. My mind went immediately to the accounts I had read of rough seas and sick people shut below decks (for safety) for days at a time. My experience gave me a small taste of what their trip may have been like. I could still see the cityscape of West Palm Beach, but they were far out in this same Atlantic Ocean, miles and miles from any sign of land. Similarly, a camping trip, an old-fashioned food or temporary power shut-down connects me via imagination to my ancestors.

Display of trunks at Ellis Island
I recommend this type of exercise before you write about your ancestors. Find a place where your world touches theirs. Stand still and imagine. I guarantee that this connection will continue after you have pondered and labored to tell their stories.

18 July 2011

Eight Cousins

This year eight cousins in my parents' family have planned weddings. Some have already happened and some are yet to come. Two of these cousins are my sons. I’ve thought a lot about weddings this year, including my own. We have wedding traditions in our family—religious covenants, quilt-making, showers, invitations, food, cakes, and family gatherings. 

Medieval wedding: this was the theme for the
wedding of one of my sons
Thinking about these experiences in the lives of our sons and our nieces and nephews, my husband and I got out our digital recorder and recorded our memories of our wedding day—how we felt, where we ate, the family and friends that celebrated with us and our honeymoon. One of my nieces found an on-line site to record the story of her engagement and the dates and times of their planned celebrations. Another niece kept us updated each day on facebook. My sisters and I have relayed wedding news via email, phone calls and personal visits, as well as the traditional announcements. We even had a reunion-type sleepover party working on wedding quilts.

Hearing the thoughts and feelings of others has clarified some of the experiences I had as a young 20-year-old bride. Insights that I never had before have come to me. My love and appreciation for my husband of 44 years has increased. I looked back into my family history for accounts of family weddings to share. Here is what the grandfather of these eight cousins, Bert Whitney, wrote about his courtship and their subsequent wedding festivities.

When I decided to call a girl named Anne Christensen, I was very doubtful that she would accept a date with me, so I kept talking to her on the phone non-stop, and she didn't have a chance to answer me until I paused for a breath. She quickly said, "Yes, I'd love to go."  She later told she was wondering if she would ever get a chance to accept that date.  I had known Anne's older brothers for several years and also knew her father through church associations, but my friends and I referred to Anne and her friends as "The Cradle Roll." Now she was all grown up, very pretty, and had a nice friendly personality.

That first date was to go to the Lake Mead to swim and was on the 4th of July, 1946. We were together a lot from that time on, sometimes double dating or going places with church groups. There were also several dances at the church, which we attended. It was the custom at that time to fill out a dance card at the beginning of the dance so you knew who you would be dancing with for each dance (each had a number). It was also the custom for the Church leaders to exchange dances with the youth, so most of the time was spent dancing with the wives of the bishopric, the young men leaders etc., and usually only the first, last, and one in the middle with your date.
Wedding license application

On one occasion during our dating period, I was involved in the pouring of a sidewalk at a ranch called "Warm Springs," where I worked part-time. We were late getting it formed up and poured, so the concrete wasn't ready to finish until past time for a date I had with Anne that night. There were no phones in the area, so I couldn't call; we were planning to go to Charleston Mountain with a group for a cook-out. She told them to go on without us, and she waited for more than an hour for me. When I finally got to her house, she was there alone, and I was very unsure of how I would be received, but after I explained what had happened, she forgave me, and we had a fun evening playing games together.

All the time we were dating we talked about when we would get married, never if we would. We decided that I would go to school in San Luis Obispo, California and study electronic engineering on the G.I. bill (A veteran’s benefit which paid tuition and books, and a stipend of $120 per month).  We chose the date of August 20, 1946 to be married so we could pursue this goal together. The St. George Temple was closed at that time so Anne's parents and her brother Don drove us to Salt Lake for the event. We received our endowments and then were sealed (married) by Elder Mark E. Peterson of the Council of the Twelve. Elder Peterson was a friend of Anne's parents and grandparents.
August 1946: Bert and Anne Whitney at their reception

The trip to and from Salt Lake along with the other stresses of the occasion were very tiring for both of us, so it took a while to recover. We stayed about a week with Anne's parents and had a reception there in the meantime. Her parents gave up their bedroom for us so that was our honeymoon, I guess. When we loaded up our 1935 Chevy two door sedan with all our worldly goods and were on our way to a new adventurous life together, I finally had Anne all to myself. It was a great feeling. 

The experiences of Bert and Anne Whitney were different from those of their newly wedded grandchildren. Their courtship and their married life reflect their times, their culture, their families and their unique personalities. Yet this marriage had an influence on these eight cousins who have dated, played and planned with their chosen partners. A further heritage is the commitment these two grandparents had to recording their personal and family history. I think they would join me in extending best wishes to their descendants whose lives resulted from that marriage on 20 August 1946, including the families and marriage celebrants of 2011.

17 July 2011

You Got Me

The year I graduated from high school I listened to a catchy Sonny and Cher song called, “I Got You, Babe.” I thought of that song as I heard another song this morning with a catch line of “Baby, you got me.” Don’t we all need each other? I spent several hours in the hot sun yesterday celebrating the marriage of a dear niece. Afterwards, nursing my sunburn, I asked myself, “Why do I like wedding receptions, family reunions and get-togethers? Why do I make the effort to attend? Why do I love my children and grandchildren to visit, even though I’m dead tired and the house is trashed when they leave?” I’m not really a very outgoing person or a good conversationalist. My strict food plan precludes many of the refreshments. But I do get something out of these events. Something that is very important to me.

The key is in the words to the song by John Batdorf and Michael McLean, “What D’Ya Got? Here is a sample: (Listen to the whole song on YouTube.)
What d'ya got when you're overdrawn?
What d'ya got when your credit's gone?
What d'ya got that keeps hangin' on for eternity?
What d'ya got when it's all a mess?
What d'ya got now that's not worth less?
What d'ya got they can’t reposess?
Baby you got me.

What d'ya got when it turns pitch black?
What d'ya got when there's no Prozac?
What d'ya got when you ain’t got jack?
Baby can’t you see?
What d'ya got when your dreams get squashed?
What d'ya got when your wires get crossed?
What d'ya got that just won't get lost?
Baby you got me.

What do we really have to give each other? Just ourselves, our love, our care and our interest. To me, that’s what family history writing, family reunions, receptions, parties and chats over the internet, the phone or in my living room are all about. “Baby, you got me.”

13 July 2011

Going on vacation is easier than coming off vacation

It's not that I didn't write anything last month during my vacation in my little beach cottage by the ocean. I just wrote about my beach thoughts and my grandchildren thoughts. (We had three granddaughters with us.) I kept reading and I kept writing, but I didn't have my regular computer and I don't have a current project or a deadline. I've been home about a week and I keep waiting for blog inspiration to hit, but today I decided I'll just freewrite. That's writing about whatever comes into your mind. 

My mind is a little tired and a lot distracted. I wonder why I am keeping a blog. I have read so many great things that I sometimes wonder what I have to offer. Maybe just that, a round-up of some of the things I have read--I love Dan Curtis's blog about being a professional personal historian. I found an article about family reunions when following one of his blog recommendations. I have a reunion coming up next month and three nieces' weddings. Two of my boys have or are getting married this year and six of their cousins are as well. Those types of occasions tend to be reunion-type get-togethers too. 

Here are some of the ideas given last year on the website, LIFE STORY TRIGGERS
  • If you are planning to hand out your own or another's history, but haven't finished yet, take a chapter to the reunion to share. Don't beat yourself up for not getting it done; just call it a preview. 
  • Take your digital recorder with you and ask for responses to a particular question like "Who in history would you like to have met and why?" or  "What would you like to ask Grandma, Grandpa, Great-grandma, Great-grandpa etc.?" or "What is the funniest story about our family?" Asking the same question to 5 or 10 people could be a great chapter in a family story. And of course you can always catch an interview with someone who may not be there next year. 
  • Don't forget a camera. Take photos of everything and everybody. Once you have your photo, step forward one step for an even better one. If you are going to a place where you have an old photo, take a copy of the old photo and try to find the same spot. (Check out Dear Photograph for some examples of this.)
Whatever you do, have some fun and make some memories this summer. Then write about those memories and share your writing with others. Get connected via social networking or a family newsletter and stay connected by adding something often.

05 June 2011

Memorial Day

"Waving flags are beautiful, the call of the lone bugle is tender, and the sharp report of a gun salute is a great honor, but to be held in sweet remembrance is the finest tribute of all."

Carl and Stephen working together
Last week this quote from "Music and the Spoken Word" with the Tabernacle Choir grabbed my heart. "To be held in sweet remembrance is the finest tribute of all." I hold many loved ones in sweet remembrance. The older you get, the more people there are to love, and many of them have passed on. As a family, we particularly remembered my daughter Rachel and her girls this year. First we had an outing at Thanksgiving Point, once again enjoying the Dinosaur Museum and lovely grounds there. It was our granddaughter Addie's favorite place to visit with her grandparents. Then we met again at the Rachel Stubbs McTeer Memorial Park. There a lovely monument stands to honor Rachel and we had some plans to do the same.

At the park's dedication in 2006, our family planted a tree in Rachel's memory. However, it didn't survive the winter. I felt that it was time to replant. The season was right and the ground has been prepared by our heavy spring rains this year. We bought the same type of tree, a flowering pear tree that will blossom in the spring, provide shade all summer and then show beautiful red autumn foliage. 

I couldn't help but ponder the symbolism of our replanting. The season of Rachel's death was difficult, but we pulled together in love as a family. The last six years have been hard on many of us and there have been heartaches and divisions. However, I believe the ground has been prepared for a season of renewing our love and family unity. I'm looking forward to basking in that love and enjoying the beautiful "foliage" of family life that surrounds us. 

Amy and Stephen compare ribbons as Tommy looks on.
An especially sweet moment occurred at the tree planting when both Amy and Stephen pulled out their pieces of ribbon from the original ribbon cutting at the park. They had each carried those little white ribbons with them for 5 years. Amy also had her little rock from that day with her. Each of us had been given an small apache tear. These little rocks look black, but when held to the light, they are transparent. This Memorial Day 2011, after the tree was planted in that beautiful spot, Jim led our family group in prayer to ask God's blessings on the park and on our family.

Park monument as it is today
We also noticed that Rachel's dreams for this piece of ground were being fulfilled. Many people were enjoying the park, its walking path, playground and basketball hoop and athletic field. It's a small park, but it has been used and enjoyed.  The monument reads "Rachel Stubbs McTeer: Alpine City Planner; A cheerful, outgoing, positive personality; Adelaide, Elizabeth (in a heart); A loving Mother." We totally agree. 

01 May 2011

You Raise Me Up

On Sunday mornings I listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir broadcast, Music and the Spoken Word. My sister is in the choir, but more than that, I just love the thoughts and music. This morning Lloyd Newell presented the idea that that we are who we are because of those who have gone before us. I couldn't agree more. In February of 1676 (Gregorian reckoning)  Isaac Newton wrote these words to Robert Hooke, "If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants." Newell quoted these words and we watched a video of a boy and his dad as the men of the choir sang a selection from their new album, Men of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Jesus Carrying a Lost Lamb by Del Parsons
(Courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints image library)
You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;
You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong, when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up to more than I can be.
(from You Raise Me Up, Music and text: Rolf Lovland and Brendan Graham; Arrangement: Nathan Hofheins)

I listened and I felt the truth of those words on many levels. I thought of the giants in my family history. I know that I am who I am because of them, because of what they have done in the past. I am filled with gratitude for their contributions to me and to my life. My tribute to these people is the retelling of their stories. Just as I have been raised up by my knowledge of their lives and their sacrifices, I would like others in my family to have those same opportunities.
One of my sons is undergoing a radical transformation in his life right now. I watch in amazement as he changes before my eyes. I know he is made of "good stuff"--his own "stuff" plus what he inherited from me and my ancestors and my husband and his progenitors. And I know that the ultimate source of "being raised up," Jesus Christ Himself, has enabled all of us to "be more than we can be."

26 April 2011

Family History Writing and Religious Traditions

Strengthening our youth is a hot topic among religious leaders today. "Why are we losing them?"  parents and leaders ask. "What can we do for our young people to help them feel connected?" BYU professor David Dollahite and master's student Emily Layton have proposed some answers. In their newly reported study asking young folks from 10-20 open-ended questions about why their faith made a difference in their lives, Dollahite and Layton found that connections with parents, Church leaders and the traditions in their religious practice were an anchor for them, even when the connection didn't seem particularly religious.

In my last post I wrote about the connection I have felt to my family tradition of reunions. I believe that when young people have the opportunity to connect with their past, when they know something of their ancestors and their stories, this also serves to bolster their family's faith traditions. When I know something about my family, I know something about me. When my love for family history is fostered, my love for myself is also nurtured. My name and my heritage gain importance and I am strengthened. I'm hoping the same is true for the young people in my family. I write and I publish for them. The books are generally sold to the older generation, but the heart of my work is bound to the hearts of the youth. It's for you, kids.

24 April 2011

My Love Affair with Family Reunions

I’ve gone to family reunions all my life. As a child and teenager, my family never missed the annual Whitney reunions at Pine Valley. We camped there over Labor Day every year and spent three days visiting, hiking, and playing. The ring of horseshoes hitting the posts brings back the sound of my dad’s laughter as he played horseshoes with his cousins and his brothers. The well-laden table for our Saturday potluck was another highlight. My grandmother hiked with us granddaughters. I played endless games with my cousins and we even staged pinecone fights with another group of kids whose family also camped there over Labor Day. I thought everyone had family reunions to go to each year, but we were the luckiest because we got to camp out for three days.

I loved to camp so much that I was surprised when I went to a Girls Camp one year in Pine Valley and hated every minute of it. Everything was familiar, but the people I loved weren’t there with me. I was miserably homesick and I never went to another Girls Camp.

Part of the reunion fun was the campfire programs and group sings every evening. I learned to sing the songs my grandparents and parents loved and introduced them to new songs. I fell in love with folk music and I never did stray to rock and roll or even the Beatles that were so popular at that time. My heart was tied to family reunion time and the music that accompanied it.

I was the first one to grow up and get married. For a time, my husband and I came back “home” for Christmas and other holidays (including the Whitney reunion). But after awhile our own family began to grow and my “going home” time was our own family reunion with my mother and father and my siblings. Our children played together and they too enjoyed the cousin time that our campout reunions provided.

I loved “living with” my brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews for a few days. The nights were often miserable with cold or midnight outhouse trips, but I dealt with that by staying up as late as possible and rising at first light. I loved being with the night owls around the campfire at night and then talking to the little early birds in the morning. It seemed idyllic to me to be out of reach of the interfering telephone and other distractions and directly in touch with God’s beautiful world and the people I loved most who lived in it for this time out of time. Although the reunions always seemed too short, the days were long and relaxing and there were plenty of occasions to talk together about things that matter.
My sister and various nieces and nephews

Listening to other people’s memories and experiences at these precious times has bonded me to other family members. It has fostered and fueled my love of family stories and genealogy and this has become a life-long interest of mine. I learned to love the cousins and extended family that I associated with each year growing up and also the extended family of my adulthood.  Even now, I love to visit cousins and extended family and learn what they have to share. I got my start at the family reunion.