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Life sketches in Family Tree

I’ve been doing more family history lately (more on that soon), and one thing I’ve started doing is writing simple life sketches for each ancestor and putting them in Family Tree. For example, I took the data for Manuela Gandara Cobo and wrote this:

Manuela Gandara Cobo was born around 1811 in Setién (Marina de Cudeyo, Santander, Spain) to José Gandara Valdecilla of Ceceñas (Medio Cudeyo, Santander, eight kilometers from Setién) and Josefa Cobo of Setién. She was the second oldest of five children that we know of (she had an older brother, Manuel, younger sisters Nicolasa and Vicenta, and a younger brother Remigio).

She married José Fuentevilla Fuentevilla when she was 18 and he was 20, in his hometown of Polanco (around 36 kilometers from Setién). They had nine children (seven girls, two boys), three or four of which lived to adulthood. Their first child died within the first year, Josefa died when she was two, Francisca died when she was almost eight, Maria Dolores died the day after she was born, and José Maria died when he was six months old.

Her mother died at age 47 in 1836 when Manuela was 25, and her father died at age 71 in 1853 when she was 42.

Manuela was 68 years old when she died in 1879, a year after her husband José died. (Incidentally, she died just ten days after her older brother Manuel.) At her death she had had ten grandchildren through her daughters Maria Remedios and Maria Isabel.

The prose is far from poetic, and it’s just a restatement of the basic facts of her life (and as you can see, the information I have is somewhat death-heavy), but I think it has a couple benefits: it’s a story, so it’s more parseable and memorable, and including ages and context makes the dates more meaningful. For example, seeing that Francisca was born in 1835 and died in 1843 doesn’t convey the same weight for me as reading that she was seven years old when she died.

I’m haven’t added these for very many ancestors yet, but I plan to do it for all of them, even the ones we know next to nothing about.

Update: My friend Barney Lund recommended adding world events as well. I haven’t done this yet, but I like the idea a lot. I’d probably add a paragraph at the end listing the major events that happened during Manuela’s lifetime (and probably how old she was and what her family composition was at that point).

On interviewing family members

I’ve got this itch to record as much of the stories of my family members as I can — particularly the histories of my parents and grandparents who are still around. They’re all getting older and memories are fading and at some point relatively near in the future they’re each going to go full incommunicado. At that point, family history research gets harder, working in the realm of conjecture and secondhand reporting. Much easier to talk to primary sources while they’re still alive. (Sounds coldblooded when you put it that way, though, doesn’t it.)

Yet in spite of these lurking deadlines (literally), I hardly ever actually talk to my parental and grandparental units about their histories.

It’s a pity. Every time I do talk with them, it’s wonderful, and I learn things about their past and my past that make my life more meaningful and that help me relate more to them, especially now that I’m a father. Tonight, for example, we visited my parents and somehow ended up talking about one of my younger brothers who was born at only twenty-one weeks along and passed away when he was forty-five minutes old. I sort of knew the story from when it happened, but I was only seven at the time and my memory’s fuzzy. Now, though, I’m an adult with two children of my own, including a daughter with some fairly severe medical issues. It wasn’t till I heard my parents talk about it tonight that I really even understood what losing their son must have been like. And now I’ve got the story recorded so I can refresh my memory later when my kids are old enough for us talk about it, and even better, they can hear it from their grandparents themselves. That’s worth a lot to me.

The thing, too, is that it’s far easier to record these things now than it ever was before. I have a phone in my pocket almost all the time. That phone has a microphone and can record audio to MP3s, which take up so little space that I can store hours and hours and hours of conversations on my phone. It’s amazing.

Now I just need to figure out a way to remind myself to do more of these oral interviews before it’s too late…