All those grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins gathering to feast on turkey or exchange gifts possess a treasure trove of genealogical information and family stories.
All you need to do is ask – and perhaps turn on a recording device – and soon you may be learning about great-great grandfather’s treacherous journey across the Atlantic or Uncle Phil’s courageous actions during World War II.
“Interviewing family members is one of the best places to start when you want to learn about or write about your family’s story,” says Ceil Lucas, a sociolinguist, amateur genealogist and author of How I Got Here: A Memoir.
“Older relatives especially may have wonderful tales from decades ago involving people you never heard about. If you’re lucky, you may even learn that they have stashed away somewhere letters, diaries or photographs that belonged to those long dead ancestors.”
But be warned, Lucas says. While people dream about learning they descended from royalty or happen to be distantly related to Benjamin Franklin, genealogical research is just as likely to turn up horse thieves, drifters and scandals of every sort.
“You’re going to find stuff you might not want to know,” Lucas says. “But who knows, those might be your most fascinating finds.”
Lucas began working on her family history three decades ago, about the same time she began making notes on what would become a memoir of her childhood in Guatemala City and Rome, Italy. This upbringing left her with a sense of “I’m not from here” – “here” being the U.S., where she was born.
But her genealogical research, which revealed her first ancestors coming to the U.S. from Scotland in 1654 and England in 1679, showed her just how “from here” she is. Lucas realized that the stories of her ancestors needed to be included in her memoir and the result was a genealogical memoir.
“The thing is, once the genealogical story is learned, it simply can’t be unlearned,” she says.
Interviewing relatives between sips of eggnog is just the beginning. Lucas has other suggestions for those who want to explore their family histories:
• Check census records. Every 10 years since 1790 the census has taken a snapshot of who’s living in the United States. Valuable information can be found in census records, and you might even discover relatives you never heard about.
• Sign up for a genealogy class. Many community colleges offer non-credit courses in genealogy that will help you understand how to research your family and interpret what you find.
• Consider DNA testing. People often think they know their ethnic lineage, but discover surprises when they have a DNA test. Lucas’ DNA test revealed that she is descended not only from people who hailed from England and Scotland, but also the Iberian Peninsula.
“It also probably doesn’t hurt if you are a nerd about these things like me,” Lucas says. “I found an ancestor who was involved in the Oklahoma Land Rush, so I researched that and found newspaper articles about the land rush. I think it’s important to put your family story in the historical context, especially if you plan to write a memoir.”