Family Stories: Gather Those Stories…. plus more
I don’t live near my mother, so for many, many years I’ve called her daily… listening to her daily activities and in between, often hearing bits and pieces of stories. My mom is always full of stories, from her young years, way into her teenage years and beyond! I journaled many of those stories on a blog titled “Down on the Farm“… which is a work still in progress, as I catch up adding them online. Those phone calls led me to begin journaling our phone conversations, which I titled… Conversations with Mom, A few years ago, I began sharing them on my blog.
In talking to mama, almost daily or nightly, I often learned little tidbits that I had never heard before… and new blog posts came to light like “Just When I Thought I Knew it All.” While she only had a few details to share with me… I went in search of more information to piece the story together… of how it all happened. Even reconstructing a family recipe, which had never been recorded, led me to a story on Sweet Potato Cobbler.
When I first began researching the family history, my father and grandparents were no longer around to ask information of, or hear their stories… and I still have so many questions for them that have gone unanswered… like, how did both sets of grandparents meet? Often back then in rural communities, they met at church or local dances or even through family members. They didn’t travel far, so usually within 10 to 15 miles, they met their spouse. My grandparents grew up in the days of horse and buggy but soon moved into the early A and T models. Mama said for many years his old buggy sat in the barn, as well as the A and T model cars… but one day he finally sold them; she remembers him getting $15 dollars for one of the cars. Yikes! She and her brother used them as their playscape for years as the cars sat under the car shed! Unfortunately, I never had the chance to see them, but I did play under that car shed… the sandy floor was perfect for doodle-bugging!
In 2014 I joined a challenge to write 52 Ancestor Stories in 52 Weeks, began by Amy Johnson Crow … and currently still running. I only did it the first year, and while I’d love to again… it was a whirlwind year of every week, researching, writing, editing, editing again and finally publishing at weeks end. I think I lost that entire year of my life, but I ended up with 52 fabulous family stories which resulted in a continual blogging lifestyle. I do believe, that having a blog has tremendously helped me to continue my research and blog, and I have met some awesome bloggers, of which I’ve learned and grown from. If you’re interested in writing your family stories, I can’t encourage you enough to check out Amy’s site and jump in on this year’s challenge. It’s never too late to begin!
I had so many questions for my father after discovering that he had actually been at the bomb blasts at Bikini Atoll. While I’d heard from my mother that he jumped in radioactive water while in the Navy, which resulted in him losing his teeth at an early age… that’s all I’d heard, never enough to make me inquire. Hearing that never interested me enough as a young girl to inquire as to why was the water radioactive! Once I began researching Bikini Atoll, I was quickly pulled in… it was fascinating to know that my father was onboard the USS Blueridge while all three blasts took place. I can only imagine what he saw! If only he had told me!
If you are new to researching, I “strongly” suggest that you reach out to your grandparents and parents. If they aren’t available, are their siblings living? That’s who I turned to for much of my early information… my granddaddy Bryan’s siblings were all still living, so I called and wrote letters to them asking question after question. It was my great aunt who gave me the largest amount of info, maybe because after her mother died, she took over the running of the family household. Besides the information they offered, I also acquired new photographs, that might have been lost forever if I hadn’t begun my early searching. I’ll never forget the day when a letter arrived from Uncle Gordon Bryan (great-uncle), inside was a small photograph and a note… you should have this photograph. It was my grandfather with his brother and they were standing at a table chopping BBQ. If you knew my grandaddy, Paul Bryan, you knew how well known he was in the community and family for cooking BBQ. I had always wished for a photograph of him with something to do with BBQ… now I was doing the happy dance, as I finally had one.
Grandaddy Bryan with brother Clyde… doing what they loved best… chopping BBQ!
Many of the early names places were given to me incorrectly spelled, so that took much research in deciphering them, but they gave me the first places to start. In my case, I was pointed to the mountain town of Dahlonega, Georgia. Little did I know that… that this small gold mining community of Dahlonega was where my ancestors finally settled to live for hundreds of years, and many are still scattered all over Lumpkin County in the Blueridge Mountains.
As I had never heard of this town before, much less been there… but let me backtrack a bit. I had been there, as a young girl of probably 5 for a Bryan reunion! When I mentioned the town to my mother… she was like… “we all went up there once for a Bryan family reunion, even my parents (McKinley) came. I can still hear my father saying as we drove, “where are the cemeteries up here, I haven’t seen one yet.” And that was the first thing he asked when we finally arrived and was quickly told, “we don’t have a need for them.“
Through my research, I soon discovered, that they seemed to have lived very long lives up there in those Blue Ridge Mountains. My 3rd great grandfather, Berrian Clark Bryan, lived there until the age of 99 years old… dying just a few months short of turning 100. I recently had a cousin, Ila Stargel Sewell Jones, born in Dahlonega, Georgia who passed away at the age of 114 years young! She also held the record of being the oldest living person in the state of Georgia and the 2nd oldest living person in the entire United States… only being the second by a few days. I had the honor of meeting Ila in the 1990’s and she was instrumental in helping me discover where my 3rd great grandfather’s log cabin stood; it is now long gone, we did find the area where it once stood, near Cane Creek… and also later discovered a few ghosts in Cane Creek Church.
One of my ghostly images which was featured in the local Dahlonega Nugget newspaper!
It was through a letter written to Ila’s sister, as to how we met; discovery was through the family stories we both had submitted for the Lumpkin County, Georgia history book. Actually, Ila wrote me back, instead of her sister… and being the spunky woman she was, she said, “I’m writing you back as I know the most information on the Bryan’s.” You can read all about what she told me through the links highlighted above on her name. I treasured Ila’s letters as she told me all about the Civil War grandfather we both shared… her grandfather and my 3rd great-grandfather. I have preserved Ila’s letters in print and shared her actual hand-written letters back to her granddaughter.
Never overlook writing a letter to someone or even a letter to a local newspaper asking for information. A letter to the editor in Greensboro, Georgia gave me much general information about an area of which I was searching. A local woman wrote me much of her family history as well as the area, which helped me greatly to add to more stories.
If you aren’t a writer, pick up the phone and call… just be prepared with a list of questions and have paper and pencil nearby. Never call “cold turkey”… you need to be prepared to lead them with questions. Don’t call and lead with, “hey, tell me everything you know about the family.” That won’t result in very much information, as most often they are going to tell you, “I don’t really remember anything.” They really do remember, you just need to get them talking, then slowly ask questions about specific areas or people… and don’t try and do it all in one conversation… people often become bored with talking, but they will enjoy repeated phone calls on another day. If you aren’t good at scribbling notes and being able to later decipher those scribbles, then maybe record the conversation; always ask if they are ok with you recording them. If they are local, even better as you can visit in person… often they talk more easily one on one.
Through the years, I think I have written my mother’s entire life of stories, but every once in a while, she’ll surprise me with a new tidbit of info, and I’m like, “you’ve never told me that before”… and my brain quickly begins gathering enough info to create a story. If I hadn’t begun writing our conversations through the years I would have forgotten so many of the great pieces of her life and even mine. It’s also not just the stories I have now… I have insights into her daily activities, pattern changes, and just talk. It’s always fun to talk to mom, and it’s a way for me to know that she’s ok every night, and home safe in her house.
So gather your pencil and paper, write those letters, call those grandparents, or better still visit with them. Ask to see their photo albums… ask who’s in those pictures and pencil the names on the back, as often they might be the only ones who remember those faces. Ask if they have old family letters saved… and they might just be willing to share them. My mother broke my heart when she told me how her parents had saved all their correspondence for years in the family trunk…. but she later threw them all out after I begged for the stamps. Being a new stamp collector, I was only interested in the stamps! I still have all those stamps, but I missed the boat in the real value… those letters held all the family gossip! Mama saved a few letters and the V-Mail letters written from her brother Leroy McKinley, which I blogged on.
People wrote letters back then, back before the telephone became a feature in every home. Earlier on my grandfather’s farm, the only way to call the neighbors was the use of the farm bell. When someone rang that cast-iron bell, that stood on every farm… it signaled an emergency and the neighbors came. I am very lucky to have my granddaddy Edgar T. McKinley’s farm bell, which had been given to him by his father, Edgar Lawson McKinley. And the story was told that he had been given it by his father, Hugh Lawson McKinley…. and it had been brought to Georgia from their land in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. Now if only that bell could talk!
Granddaddy McKinley’s farm bell in my yard!
After you’ve gathered as much information through the family… you are now ready to begin searching online, visiting courthouses, the old family home and the land, family cemeteries… so much fun visiting the older cemeteries. Even my husband doesn’t mind coming, he likes to compare the dates to see how long people lived. The most awesome cemetery I ever visited, which held no family relatives of mine was the St. Bernard Cemetery in New Haven, CT. I had gone to photograph a Civil War Monument and graves for The Honor Roll project I participate in yearly. I quickly began to ooh and aah at the gravestones when I saw that these Irish gravestones also included the town names of from where they were born in Ireland. I was like WOW… I wish I had relatives here, I’d so be doing the Happy Dance!
Hope I’ve interested you to get busy, write those letters, call your relatives and begin your search to learn “your” family stories and history! Feel free to ask me any questions and do come back and let me know what you’ve discovered!
Now, go write that letter and make that call!