Your family is your very best genealogy resource, in many ways.
With the holidays approaching, this is the perfect time to talk to your family about family history. Often, we think about family history in the sense of genealogy, meaning names, birth dates and death dates. But there is more to the story – a lot more. Or maybe better said, there are many stories to flesh out your genealogy.
It’s those stories that you want to hear and the holidays when family is gathered provide perfect opportunities. You just have to get the ball rolling!
I discovered over the years that people react better to questions that are open ended and encourage them, and others in the room, to talk and reminisce.
Questions I asked my mother that produced very interesting answers were questions like:
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in your lifetime?
For mother, it was electricity in her home. It had never occurred to me that she had lived in a home without electricity before that conversation. The discussion then progressed to things like, “how did you preserve food without electricity,” “how did you have light in the evenings,” and “how did your parents heat the house,” especially since I don’t remember a fireplace in my grandmother’s home. The discussions that followed were very interesting and would never have happened without that single topic-opening question.
For example, I learned that the bedrooms weren’t heated, and the “bathroom” didn’t need to be heated since it was the outhouse. That means bathing was with a cloth out of a wash basin or tub with water heated on the wood stove.
Another question that might produce some wonderful stories is to ask about “once in a lifetime events.”
My mother recalled a family trip to the 1933 World’s Fair in an old Model T Ford to see her grandmother, Nora Kirsch Lore McCormick’s quilt displayed in the Sears Pavilion.
In my case, one of those (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime events forever seared in my memory is the 1965 Palm Sunday Tornado which cut a wide and devastating swath through central Indiana. I didn’t realize what I was seeing, but I saw that tornado move across the southern part of the city where I lived. A tree fell on the house and in an instant my mother grabbed me and we ran for the basement – her half dragging me all the way.
Another time, Mother, my daughter and I were in a van in Illinois one beastly hot June day and after watching a wall cloud overtake us, a tornado picked the van up and moved it some 20-30 feet off the road, sitting it back down right side up, amazingly enough. We were all fine that day, albeit terrified, but others weren’t so lucky.
Another very memorable and somewhat surreal event, as an adult, was unexpectedly seeing the Hale-Bopp Comet from an airplane.
A humorous episode occurred when mother’s uncle died in the middle of a paralyzing blizzard and they put his body in my grandfather’s garage. That was the family joke for years, ribbing my grandfather, but what else were they going to do?
“Remember when” stories like these may never surface if you don’t prompt with questions – and the answers in terms of your family and also in terms of what was happening in society – like radio, TV, electricity and the space race – at that time in history are all part of your family story. Those things would clearly have affected everyone one way or another but the personal stories of how they directly affected people in your family will never emerge unless you ask those leading questions – and record them for posterity.
Of course, it goes without saying that you might want to take some DNA kits along to family gatherings, just in case. I always have a swab kit in my purse or in the car, or both.
Your family is also your best resource for genetic genealogy as well. Different family members can provide haplogroup information for ancestors whose haplogroups you don’t carry.
Family members often can and will gladly provide this genetic information for the family, but they don’t realize they carry these genealogy gems, gifts directly from the ancestors passed down the direct paternal and direct matrilineal lines. For example, your father and his siblings can provide the mitochondrial haplogroup of your paternal grandmother (red circles on the chart below), something you don’t carry. Of course, the blue squares on the chart below represent the direct patrilineal line for males which is both the path of the Y chromosome and the traditional way surnames are inherited. Your father will carry the family surname and Y DNA, but your mother’s father or brothers will carry the Y of her birth surname. There’s lots to be discovered!
If you’d like to see an example of how to build a DNA pedigree chart, above, by collecting the haplogroup information from all of your ancestral lines, click here.
Let’s face it, both Y and mitochondrial DNA haplogroups are the only direct line periscope we have back in time more than the few generations provided by autosomal testing. Autosomal DNA is divided in half in each generation, but Y and mitochondrial DNA is not, and is passed intact, except for mutations that might occur, generation to generation – making Y and mtDNA extremely valuable resources to the genealogist.
Haplogroups, discovered through Y and mitochondrial DNA testing, are invaluable historical resources revealing your deep ancestry and not utilized nearly enough. We simply don’t know what we don’t know and testing the right people is the only way to find out.
In terms of autosomal DNA testing, anyone that is a third cousin or closer is used in Family Tree DNA’s phased family matching to indicate which side of your family your matches originate from, as shown by the little blue male, pink female and purple “both” icons shown beside matches, below.
The only way to divide your matches into maternal and paternal sides, without both parents, is by testing other relatives. If you’re lucky enough to have both parents, that’s wonderful, but the only way to divide your parents’ results is by testing other relatives as well.
You can purchase the DNA kits on sale and save them until you need them. You can fill in the name of the tester when you determine who is going to take the test, but be sure to let Family Tree DNA know the correct gender at the time the test is submitted if it is different than the gender indicated when you purchased the kit. The actual swab kit is the same for both genders, but gender verification is part of quality assurance for the various tests. Listing the wrong gender will delay your test results – and no one wants that!
When I find a willing candidate, I have them swab right then and there, on the spot, and I mail the kit back to Family Tree DNA myself. That way, I know the swabbing gets done and the kit doesn’t take up residence in their junk drawer or under the front seat of the car forever! In one case, family members found a used swab kit in the glove box three years later, after the person died – and amazingly – it was still good! However, mailing the kit back yourself avoids these situations.
Enjoy your holidays, take DNA kits along, and ask leading questions. You don’t know what you don’t know and you’ll never find out if you don’t ask those questions and DNA test your relatives.
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