29 July 2012

Sentimental Sunday - Empathy for a Family's Story

I had the great, good fortune to share my work as an Archivist and Genealogist with a good friend from high school. Her parents, mom and step-dad, live part of the year in Michigan where her mom grew up. Her step-dad isn't doing well health-wise, and so earlier in the summer she asked if I would be willing to travel to Michigan to work with them. While I wouldn't normally stay at a client's home, my friend insisted. I packed up my Archival supplies and headed into what was unfamiliar territory: a pseudo-client without a contract, no knowledge of how much material they had (other than 'a LOT'), and not knowing the extent of what they wanted me to do other than get their stuff put in order. Do NOT try this at home. <grin>

I'll make this disclaimer: because I don't yet have a signed contract (she's sending it back to me as I'm writing this) I'm not going to disclose who they are, just yet. But I'm going to relate some of what transpired because not only did I help them, but they helped me to better understand the process of putting together a family's history through pictures, documents, ephemera and most of all, empathy.

When I arrived, I found they have not one but two houses. Well, one's a house and the other is a cottage that sits in front of the house right on the water. It's a lovely location. After warm greetings and getting the lay of the land, my friend took me over to the cottage to show me the 'Stuff'. You know, the Stuff that's accumulated over a lifetime. In this case, it was mostly photographs and photo albums that had been owned by my friend's grandmother and then passed to her mom. There were about four large boxes; realizing that it wouldn't take me that long to go through and do a quick assessment, I did just that. Lots of older photos, some clearly from the first half of the 20th century mixed in with more contemporary stuff from the later half of the 20th century. Photo albums with those horrible plastic pages or sticky pages; framed material that would need to be unframed. All the usual suspects.

As I was explaining some of the technical aspects of Archives to my friend, her mom came over and joined the conversation. I explained that in my experience, I can easily go through a single banker's box of documents in 6 - 8 hours; photographs usually take me less. Looking at what they had, I felt I could finish up in the two days I'd expected to be there (Saturday/Sunday). My friend's mom then divulged that, 'oh, by the way, the "good" box is up at the house.' Heh. 

We went up to the house, and sure enough, she had a nice sized box of photos, most of which were taken before 1950. There was an album from the late 1930s as well as a few documents. They started showing me individual photos, explaining who the people were in them and the events that were taking place. At some point, not long into the process, I stopped them and asked, "Do you have a family tree that's been done?" 

Nope, everything they had was verbal; stories passed down. In this case, I thought it would help me more quickly process the photos to have an outline of who was who. So, I fired up my Family Tree Maker. I put the caveat on what I was about to do by explaining what a Professional Genealogist's job is, and how having names and information from oral family history does not a genealogy make. With the understanding that we would work together to ensure the best quality information, I  started to add names into a brand new database. 

Saturday morning arrived quickly and I started the work of organizing what they had in the boxes. I was able to start  picking out individual people I recognized and put them in their proper context. As I continued to work, they joined me to tell me more stories. What amazed me was that this family had an important role in the local area and that the history of the area was intertwined with the family. As we delved deeper into the boxes, more and more stories were uncovered and shared. They laughed when, on seeing a picture of someone with a huge fish I said, "That's Calvin!" My friend's mom quipped, "You're gonna know our family better than we do." Yep, that's my job.

This particular family had an unusual thread that ran through it: in each generation there was at least one person who had married multiple times. We're not talking just twice. Three seemed to be the magic number, although there's a family with two daughters who have both been married 4 times, and they're only in their late thirties. What a complicated tree with crazy branches of multiple spouses and children and step-children. At the same time, they are a very loving and fun family.

At one point on Saturday evening after everyone else had gone to sleep except for my friend's mom and I, she quipped that she would've never been able to get through the material as quickly as I had. Having listened to the stories and thinking about my own 'Stuff' that sits unorganized in my office closet, I realized that it is so much easier to work with other people's material. With our own, there are emotions attached to the people and events, whether good, bad or indifferent, that cause us to slow to reminisce or tease out if our memories are weak. As an outsider, I can work quickly without the emotional attachment. At the same time, I realized that having the ability to be empathetic to the family, to have an appreciation for the oral history that I may be poking holes in, that it's important to be respectful of the feeling that the material generates in my clients. 

I ended up staying Sunday night in order to finish up some detail work on the newly foldered photographs. When I left, the 'Stuff' had been neatly foldered, labeled and stored in three Archives boxes. My friend's mom kept asking if I'd thrown anything away because she couldn't believe it all fit into that small space. I assured her nothing went in the bin; properly organized material takes up a lot less space. They also have the beginnings of a nice genealogy database with 85 individuals, mostly unsourced, for now. And I took a 45 minute detour on my way home Monday to head to Barry County Courthouse to pull a land record for the family. One of the cornerstone stories passed down was that their great-grandfather had purchased land from the Indians at some time after 1878, when he came to the area. I knew that it was unlikely to be true and they really wanted to know. 

Of course, the deed I pulled was a treasure trove of information that included another generation back on the tree, confirmation of that generation's State of origin and the fact that, unless the Indian's were lawyers in an East Coast State, the land was purchased from an individual who was most definitely not a Native American. 

So, as I sit here writing this blog post to avoid delving into my own 'Stuff', I have a very happy new client. They have other projects for me to work on, and I hope that I have the opportunity to help them uncover more of the roots of their tree. For me though, getting the family photos organized and arranged was my first goal and top priority. The images we archived can now be scanned and shared with many, many others without detriment to the material. It will also be ready, eventually, to be passed to the next generation without having to be separated, which dilutes the stories they tell. Have you thought about having your own material Archived?


*Representative images; not taken at this client

25 July 2012

Wordless Wednesday - I Was Speechless

April 18, 1905, Mrs Libbie Boyle, $3.00, Sodding and Graves Lot 76 Block E

Lot as seen from top of hill. Grave markers at base of tree in center of photo.

Close up of grave markers. Note: stone at base of tree is unrecognizable; it is not known if it is a marker. Stone closest in photo is of C.H. Fletter, 8 years old; stone is on it's face and more than half-way buried. Behind it is stone of Henry Fletter; it is the only stone in relatively decent condition.

15 July 2012

Sentimental Sunday - The Simple Act of Kindness

Well, it's been a long hiatus for this Last Leaf. I wish I could say I was off on a vacation, too busy celebrating summer with family and friends or even working myself to death, but that's not the case. I'll preface this by saying that we (the hubs and I) were able to find out that our worst fear, that I might have Lupus, was put to rest. Our health, as challenging as it may be some days, is still relatively good. We just seem to have far more than our share of challenges and they just keep coming. Our counselor commented this week that he truly finds it remarkable that we've managed to keep going through the myriad oddities, or drama as I believe some might characterize it, that happen around and to us, when most people would've thrown up their hands, laid down and given up. It is a lot to take in, and I recognize that it's challenging being around someone who's life is so full of chaos. For those who've hung in there, you have my deepest gratitude. For those that had to walk away, I understand your choice.

One of those people that have hung on asked me the other day how I can be so kind when there's so much negativity around me. While it was a rhetorical question, I felt it really deserved an answer. It's pretty simple really: I live by the Golden Rule. Mind you, I'm an incredibly flawed human, but I have never wavered in sharing kindness. As much as I believe in the Golden Rule, I believe that what you put out to the Universe comes back to you three-fold. This I learned from my paternal grandmother. She may have been a lot of things, but she was very aware that her actions would one day turn on her. So it is that we may seemingly sit back while people in our lives try to tear us down; we do so knowing that their own actions will come back to them. We are not passive; we realize there is a time to take action, however the Universe seems to be teaching us the art of knowing when that time to act is, and how to act that is appropriate to each situation. So, the world around seems to epitomize the tarot's Tower: a tearing down and rebuilding of the most extreme sort.

What I have taken for granted is the fact that being kind is natural for me. It's my instinct. But not everyone has that instinct. I find it really manifests itself in my work as an Archivist. When I receive requests from people for genealogical information, I understand where that person is coming from. I know what it feels like to request information and then have to wait months not knowing whether or not you're going to get anything of value. And, what's more, knowing that the person on the other end might not understand what that 'value' is.

So it was in the beginning of June when I received a request from someone regarding information from the little rural Archives where I used to work. Technically, I'm off the payroll, but as a professional courtesy I told them I would handle reference and research requests as they received them (I'm compensated).  The request was an open one: do you have information on Mr. X? I searched the database and found a single folder that have some form of correspondence in it. I drove up to the Archives and pulled the folder: in it was a letter detailing the family business, discussing family members, etc. I grabbed the eight or so names and located other material as well as a half dozen photos from the 1880s of the family members. It's a small collection, and all told it probably took me 15 minutes to pull the material, another 15 to scan it all. I put together a quick email and sent it off. It wasn't 10 minutes before I received the gleeful response: a million thanks for photos of never-before-seen-or-known relatives!! How did I know to look for the others?!! I was the greatest thing since sliced bread!! LOL. I get it. To me it was a simple thing; to the person on the other end, it was a whole new world.

The Universe is a beautifully balanced place. As I've said, I'm very flawed. I've made mistakes small and Everest sized. So I'm aware that these things will return to me. But so will the kindnesses I extend to others. Here's my proof: on June 11, shortly after my Archives researcher received her information, I received a brief email from a woman in the Netherlands. She'd been researching a surname that is similar to one on my tree: WICART. She'd noticed I was mentioned in a blog on Dutch surnames, made the connection and emailed me information and a link to a website: this page has an image that names my ancestor Andres Wersel. We emailed back and forth several more times that day, with my final email asking what repositories I might be able to search to find out more. Then I heard nothing.

Until June 28th. I won't include all the details here; I'll save that for a genealogy specific post. What I will say is that rather than sending me the requested repository names, she included research she did on MY Wersel line at several Archives in the Netherlands. For no reason. It was a simple act of kindness.  She included digital images of documents taking me back several generations into the early 18th century. And, as I'm to understand it, she found living descendants of my 4th great grandmother Louisa Jacoba Wicart (Wiekart) in the Netherlands.

At a time when I'm struggling to understand human nature and how some people can be so incredibly nefarious and hateful, this person was the Universe's answer. There is balance. And kindness. I pray that your Scale doesn't tip as far to the extreme as mine does, but if does, remember there is Balance.