Friday, November 24, 2017

Holiday Afterglow


I'm not sure I'm ready for this yet...but cue up the Christmas tunes, grab a peppermint mocha and a box of Christmas cards, and let the season officially begin.

I'll let the holidays officially evolve in that more traditional and mellow mode, rather than jostling with the crowds to scramble for a bargain. My shopping style is more incisive, anyhow: dash in, grab, pay and go. Easy. It'll save for a Monday morning early in December.

As much as I struggle with Thanksgiving Day, itself, I'm quite at home with the fact that it ushers in such a pleasant season. I hope yours was a memorable Thanksgiving Day, and that you have bright plans for this holiday season, as well. Whether your traditions have you firmly tied to the twentieth century, or suited up to do battle on this Black Friday, may this bring the peace and fellowship you are hoping for in the upcoming holiday season.



Above: Charles Auguste Romain Lobbedez, "Family Time," oil on canvas; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Giving Thanks, No Matter What


It may seem like today is a day all Americans are occupied with preparations for the traditional turkey dinner of our national heritage—flanked, of course, with the cultural mandates of football and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. Yet the day has a softer side that often gets hidden in the rush to attend to all the details of the big event: the opportunity to pause and reflect on our blessings.

Being thankful for what we've been given can be a touchy subject. Just this past week, my daughter had been reflecting on how odd it seems that, among those of her friends who come from families relatively well off, it is not unusual to hear the complaint slip from the lips of these favored sons and daughters about how they are so "poor"—when that is hardly the case. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I've heard the observation from some people who grew up in a truly deprived setting that they thought life was like that for everyone; to them, poverty seemed to be the norm.

Perhaps it is hard for us to see our true condition—a merciful handicap, to be sure, for those less fortunate, but a mockery when it becomes the complaint of the favored. And yet, no matter what our condition at the moment, if we take the time to consider it, we can think of something from which we've benefited at the hand of others.

Being able to see—or at least sense—our blessings in the midst of hardship can bring a feeling of peace, a thought that "it's going to be alright" to those in the midst of struggles.

Whether your family's story shared a lot in common with the pilgrim narrative we celebrate today, or whether your ancestors' arrival on these shores came long after that 1620s event—or long before it—the members of your family do share a detail of that history in common with America's Thanksgiving narrative.

You, for instance, likely had ancestors who faced hardships in their homeland and made the painful decision to leave all that was familiar to them. You came from a hardy stock of people who endured trials and deprivation to make a long and risky journey. Those people had to spend a long stretch of time facing strangers on a daily basis—neighbors and bosses and others who spoke a strange language and whose lifestyle and customs were so different from those back at home. It's likely that, if there weren't compassionate people in this strange new land to lend a helping hand at the right time, things would have turned out much worse for your family.

Whether talking about the Pilgrims or subsequent immigrants, that journey narrative has become part of the national story. If you descend from ancestors who came to this continent we now call North America, you realize we all echo that narrative in our own family history. It doesn't take long to realize that story line includes not only hardships but blessings.

There is something about the ability to see blessings—especially in the midst of hardships—that can lift a person up from the negativity of those surroundings. Seeing blessings can actually become a way of life. Being able to do so bestows a strength and resilience, but in some way it also provides a sense of peace.

Whether you are in the midst of a day full of the activities of preparing a sumptuous feast or far from the America you call home, my wish for you is that you find a momentary haven to rest and contemplate how you've been blessed. That momentary recharging can be just the boost you need if your life is still in the midst of replaying your own American drama.



Above: "The Peale Family," portrait by American artist Charles Willson Peale, circa 1772; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain. Though time and customs have changed, the family "portrait" during holiday gatherings appears to be still much the same.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Weaving Community Partnerships


It's now official: as of January, next year, I'm in as the new president of our local genealogical society. As much as I hate to see my predecessor step down—and to follow in the shadow of the sparkling Sheri Fenley—rules are rules and bylaws are bylaws. Ours said the third time was a charm; after four times, an officer is termed out.

Naturally, I've had plenty of time to contemplate my fate. On one hand, I'm stepping into a position which has been filled, for the past four years, by a go-getter. Our society has made great strides during her tenure. On the other hand, there is so much yet to accomplish. As Sheri herself has often said, there are more family history enthusiasts in our local area than attend our monthly meetings. The challenge is to nurture an organization compelling enough to entice them to join us.

The challenge is to meet the needs of the local genealogical community before the members of that "community" even realize they are part of the group—or admit that they have needs which can be met collectively. I've already mentioned my hunch that the linchpin of organization-building will likely be the ability to form partnerships. But these partnerships—and the impetus behind their formation—cannot simply be a repeat of the old, tired techniques organizations of the past have used.

I think that concept—seeking innovative answers to organizational issues—already resonates with others in the genealogy community. The other day, I could just hear the frustration in the sigh that must have accompanied Gail Dever's entry in her Genealogy à la carte Facebook group: "I am so over 1985." What she meant was that more than the usual-for-1985 needs to be done if we are to draw in others to our society events in 2018.

What prompted Gail's Facebook comment was elaborated in a recent post on her blog. In explaining the drawback to the approach taken by the Quebec, Canada, federation of genealogical societies—the Fédération québécoise des sociétés de généalogie—in promoting their annual National Genealogy Week, Gail observed,
Right now, the activities are similar to what people likely held in the 1980s. Open houses, presentations, and book launches are good events, but these activities need to be supplemented with more modern-day initiatives to help shake off the image of genealogy being a hobby for old folks.

Suggestions Gail made in her blog post included the advice to "start looking at how the big genealogy companies promote their products" to take cues on how to advance the positioning of genealogical societies.

This, likely, is sound advice. And there is likely more such quality input out there for us to draw on, should we be willing to enter into dialog on this quandary. After all, though we love history, we don't want to become it; we will not fulfill our mission by accelerating its extinction. On the contrary, those of us for whom such thoughts resonate should join in the conversation about how we as societies can become more pertinent to twenty first century researchers.

I've always taken the approach of thinking outside the box—or at least getting the bigger picture. While there are plenty of articles—such as those made available on the Federation of Genealogical Societies website—designed to guide boards of directors in running a genealogical society, I also expand my horizons to the wider realm of leadership in nonprofit organizations.

I follow blogs on that wider arena—such as Beth Kanter's blog, subtitled, "How Connected Nonprofits Leverage Networks and Data for Social Change." Though Kanter's most recent book, The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit, doesn't speak to an organization of our size, her previous book, The Networked Nonprofit, can open our eyes to our brave new technological world of possibilities.

While I don't see genealogical societies engaged in social change, per se, the techniques used in that arena certainly can be adapted to further our own mission and goals. We, too, are nonprofit organizations, engaged in education, outreach, and universal access. It's just that our social "change" encourages people to awaken to the value of preserving our heritage.

Though our mission may focus on history, that doesn't mean our mode must follow outdated dictates. In our own group's experience, we are awakening to the possibilities of how much more we can accomplish as an organization through the power of partnerships. Our communities are full of micro-organizations like our own, peopled by members whose wish to make a difference is outstripped by their lack of resources. Finding like-minded others with whom to partner on joint ventures is often the key to actually accomplishing what we dream of achieving. By carefully crafting a win-win partnership with like-minded groups, we can expand our organizational horizons.

I'd love to see us enter into dialog about how to go about such endeavors, whether through comments on our respective blogs, or on our Facebook pages, or even live at conferences or face to face in small meetups. I am positive there are ways for us, as genealogical societies of all sizes, to become a thriving and pertinent part of the social fabric of our communities in the decades ahead. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Surviving "Shopping"


No, not the dreaded Black Friday kind of shopping. Just shopping for our Thanksgiving dinner.

I thought I'd play it smart and slip into the grocery store early on Monday. Surely that was a recipe for avoiding the crowds.

Did I ever get that wrong. Adding to the mix was the fact that, just a few weeks ago, our local supermarket decided it would be a great idea to scramble the locations for all the usual staples of the season's big feast. The store actually had to station extra employees out on the floor to personally escort lost shoppers to the new location for flour for their pie crust, or cream for their coffee. The only constant in the layout was the place where we picked up our turkey; thankfully, the meat department was tethered to a part of the building built specifically for the butcher's duties, making it near-impossible to acquiesce to any redecorating whims.

I understand the psychology behind mixing things up in such familiar territory as a food market. After all, we eat something every day, and likely go to the store to pick up such essential items at least once a week (more frequently, if you are like our family). We probably don't even give it much thought that we have actually memorized the location of every item we purchase regularly. The store's layout seems to make sense to us, only because of the repeated patterns we've worn in the floor, zooming in and out as quickly as possible with our routine purchases. The store manager's hope is, by shifting locations, to induce those programmed shoppers, in their sudden confusion, to take a look around and realize what else is there to buy, as well. A sort of forced browsing. A way to put on the brakes, and in the meantime, reap a bit more profit from impulse buys.

I don't suppose anyone has ever considered the practice of working on a pedigree chart to be roughly akin to shopping for ancestors. And yet, we have developed a routine of rushing in to all our accustomed best places where we can, most predictably, snag a census enumeration, or a marriage record, or a will, and quickly be on our genealogical way. We know where to look for all the best family history bargains, and which documents will give us the most bang for our research buck. When we encounter an ancestor whose personal circumstances don't yield us any trace in all our favorite searching places, we are tempted to put up a howl of protest.

And yet, the manager's device to scramble all the go-to sources can pay off. It does, after all, make us take a look around—in confusion at first, yes, but perhaps that, too, can awaken the long-forgotten skill of opening our eyes and taking a look around.

Not that there is a "manager" trying to redecorate the family history resources we've come to rely upon the most. But occasionally, we encounter the same effect when we bump up against a "brick wall" ancestor. Take the immigrant family who arrived on American shores just after the 1880 census—and settled in a place where no state census was taken in the interim between that last available federal census of the 1800s and the first one of the 1900s. A lot can happen in a family in twenty years; those howls of protest over that missing 1890 census can be real for some researchers.

I'm going through those same howls in trying to track down my Rinehart family from Greene County, Pennsylvania. Perhaps owing to Simon Rinehart's penchant for moving to other states—first to Kentucky, then back to Pennsylvania before heading west to Ohio—he skipped town just when the usual documentation was being created for the benefit of us family historians two hundred years later. No store manager orchestrated that scrambled personal history, but I'm feeling that same sense of frustration, nonetheless.

The frustration, thankfully, prompts me to learn where else to look for all the usual traces of this family. If everything progressed exactly according to routine, I wouldn't have felt the need to learn how to look elsewhere.

If ever I've seen an excellent example of such resourcefulness, it would be among those researching their Irish ancestry. It is well known that the "store manager" exercising influence over the genealogical records layout of that nation had an unseen hand in destroying many of the most genealogically pertinent records of the early 1900s and half of the preceding century. What to do in a case like that?

Thankfully, the innate compulsion to know where we came from has superseded any external circumstances blocking research progress for those with Irish roots. The Irish have become wonderfully inventive in finding alternate resources for piecing together their family history. Though I first learned about such resourcefulness years ago, I still marvel at discovering that our Irish counterparts have learned to glean significant information, for example, from dog license applications. Could this really be true that a snippet from this document combined with a snatch from another could eventually add up to an accurate snapshot of an ancestor's place in history? That is how resourceful researchers learn to look around and combine the substitute records they've found when the customary sources aren't where they were accustomed to finding them.

It's true that we sometimes need a "store employee" to guide us directly to the new location for information we seek, and in this online era, we have assistants in abundance. Besides the blogs of major genealogy corporations, we have hundreds of volunteer genea-bloggers (and a few professionals who offer their commentary as a public service). We have digitizing services which post hundred-year-old genealogy books online for us to not only consult, but search with the convenience of a mouse click or touch screen. We have the crowdsourcing prowess of experienced peers who can be found at thousands of online forums, mailing lists, and even Facebook groups. Local genealogical societies are pondering ways to get into the act by adding digitized local resources to their own websites, either behind firewalls for members only, or on their main site for public access.

As it turns out, what was immediately inconvenient—whether at the grocery store yesterday or in my family history research last week—eventually gives way to the eye-opening experience of realizing there are other ways to achieve our purposes, whether in purchasing all the right ingredients for a Thanksgiving feast, or in locating records that will lead to the right answers about our ancestors. It's all there—somewhere—just not where we thought we'd find it.  

Monday, November 20, 2017

Easing Into the Week


It may sound strange to hear that I consider this upcoming week to be an easy one. ("What?! This week?") You may be thinking of the endless shopping list, the multi-day preparations ahead, the hordes of company about to descend on your altogether-too-small humble abode—or the many miles you will be driving (in the snow, uphill both ways). After the schedule our family has been through in the past few weeks, though, this week will seem like a vacation. And it will be.

You have to remember: I've had a rocky relationship with this holiday called Thanksgiving. Not that I'm ungrateful; on the contrary, my family and I have been overwhelmingly blessed over the years. It's just that, ever since I was a child, Thanksgiving was a lonely holiday for me. In later years, it also marked the time of sad memories of family members lost. Yet, even approaching one Thanksgiving season, there was the surprise of some particularly welcome genealogical news, when a fellow researcher pointed out my relationship to a line reaching back to the landing of the Mayflower.

Putting my Thanksgiving angst in more recent context, this has been a hectic month. Our family owns a small training company and several times in this past year, my husband has been privileged to speak internationally. The only down side is when he is gone for long periods of time to locations which are not exactly politically stable.

Let's just say it was good to pick him up at the airport this past weekend.

For just this small while—this upcoming week leading up to Thanksgiving—it will be nice to set aside all the classes that need to be taught, all the scheduling obligations, all the papers needing to be reviewed, and all those incessant meetings. While we love what we do, it's nice to have a break. Just cooking a turkey and "all the fixin's" will be a welcome reprieve.

As for our visits here at A Family Tapestry, it will be a time to sit back and relax, as well. Those frustrating Rineharts aren't yielding me anything further of interest—it is almost looking like I will have to go wrestle the truth out of that family in person, either in Ohio or Pennsylvania at a later date. Meanwhile, nothing exciting has appeared on the research horizon, as far as other family stories are concerned.

That doesn't mean I'll be doing a disappearing act, though. With the change of responsibilities at our local genealogical society, I've been doing a bit of thinking, and perhaps the fireside-chat mood this holiday week evokes will be the perfect setting to just sit back and start a conversation on the note of those thoughts.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Ahead of the Holidays


It's almost time for that dreaded event: Black Friday. Yes, I know, it would be nice to actually celebrate a holiday (Thanksgiving, in case you—like commercial America—hadn't noticed) instead of sweeping it out of the way so a more "profitable" season could be ushered in, but that is how our culture currently works.

Despite the caricature that the gift-giving season has become, I've noticed some backlash. For one thing, the stores themselves are devising ways to encourage people to get their holiday shopping done early—ostensibly so the impact of frenzied shoppers won't hit the front doors all at once next Friday. After all, this American rite of passage can't be easy on the employees, who sometimes even have to leave their own Thanksgiving dinners early to appease the "demand" for early shopping.

The other trend is that shoppers are looking for ways to escape the crush, themselves. This is, after all, an insane way to go about purchasing well-thought-out gifts for cherished family and friends.

At the same time, for a culture in which many have more than they could possibly need—or use—it makes sense to divert the gift-giving urge to items other than commodities. It's been an interesting trend to observe: that of replacing the gift of gadgets with presents providing experiences or non-consumable entities.

Perhaps that is what is behind the groundswell of people gifting each other with subscriptions to services like Ancestry.com or "unique" items like the ethnicity reports that come with DNA test results. It's no surprise to see many genealogy-related companies join the clamor with pre-holiday sales; one of my best DNA matches from last year only tested because her husband gave her a DNA test just for fun the previous Christmas—he liked the holiday commercial. She had no tree posted online, but when responding to my email (one of the rare non-tree customers who actually did respond), told me she was willing to work with me on figuring out our impossible mutual ancestry. If it weren't for the lark of giving something "different" for the holiday season, I would have lost that opportunity.

Already, my count of DNA matches has leapt almost double the usual biweekly amount at one company—Family Tree DNA. It couldn't possibly be on account of the holiday sales; that company only announced their flash sale last Sunday night. What went into that forty six person jump to give me 2,531 matches at FTDNA for today's tally? My husband's FTDNA count only went up by twenty five to total 1,613. I'm holding steady with that biweekly rate of eight new matches at AncestryDNA, as is my husband; where I currently have 769 matches, he now has 383. (I won't even go into the issue with my shrinking results at 23andMe, where once again, I lost eleven matches to drop to 1,138 matches; at least my husband only lost two this time.)

No matter how many matches I might have at a DNA company, one thing is sure: after the holiday bulge hits the lab at these respective companies, there will be a lot more matches than we've seen in the past several weeks. Sales certainly make it more interesting to explore those matches, mainly because in the increased number comes a greater possibility of finding a close family member whose tree actually parallels some of my family surnames.

In preparation for that—as well as a result of the research I've been tackling for projects on current branches of interest—I've been expanding the number of descendants' lines I can add to my database. Since I've been focused on my mother-in-law's Pennsylvania Rinehart line and its related Gordons, you'll find it no surprise to learn her tree was the recipient of most of my research attention this time. Right now, I've got 13,395 in her tree, up 186 from two weeks ago.

In comparison, my own mother's line went up a measly thirty eight to total 11,682. And absolutely nothing happened over on my father's line and my father-in-law's line. The problem with that is: if I'm hoping to find a link to help resolve those lines where I'm stalled, I'm going to need a more robust tree to start with.

In a way, right now, we are getting ready to "harvest" the holidays. Eventually, those anticipated DNA test sales will materialize as matches for all of us. The trouble is, unless we're prepared with records and tools to determine how those mystery test-takers match us, all we're left with are guesses. And I've spent a few years struggling with DNA guesses. From experience, I can tell you there's nothing more frustrating in genealogy than getting close enough to a breakthrough answer, knowing you have a DNA match but not being able to figure out why that person matches. 

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Partnering to Augment Our Reach


In the midst of the rainy weather that blew through my stretch of the west coast last Thursday, our genealogical society happened to have the privilege of hosting probably the most important speaker ever to appear in our local lineup: Crista Cowan, corporate genealogist for Ancestry.com.

Of course, we bemoaned our fate of having our biggest day turn into our soggiest day, to date, of this season. Everything we had planned so meticulously to insure we were ready for the crowd that was sure to materialize for this learning opportunity seemed futile. There's no competing with yukky weather.

Things did not bode well for us from the minute, in mid-morning, that my power went out. A weather-related outage, it was an unscheduled annoyance which wouldn't be resolved, according to the utilities company, until after I had to leave my home to set up for the evening's meeting.

On the other side of the equation, our fearless speaker, traveling to us from her last engagement hundreds of miles away, had to scramble when her flight was diverted to another airport on account of the weather—and then landed later than anticipated. Hello, Bay area rush hour traffic. This was not in the itinerary.

Still, everything worked out, and we can now safely declare the event a success. In retrospect, I'm realizing this was an occasion which could not possibly have happened without one element—and facing the uncooperative weather has reminded me of the true support which bolstered our efforts. That key element was partnership.

Here's the thing: we are a small society—less than one hundred members. We may be situated in a city of three hundred thousand, but we have a lot of growing to do. More to the point, the facility which hosts our membership meetings provides a room which holds about thirty five people. A room that size would never do for a guest speaker of that magnitude. Nor would the facility's less than adequate technological capabilities; there is no way the wifi in that building would be up to handling a live demonstration of the Ancestry website.

What to do? The answer to that question—and likely to many challenges genealogical societies will face in upcoming years—is to seek innovative answers through partnerships. I'm not talking about formal, long-term arrangements, but simply the teamwork to put together an event that meets the needs of multiple organizations.

In our case, the answer to our quandary came quickly. We are a city which celebrates its ethnic diversity, and one such group had approached our society almost a year ago, asking us to help teach their members how to preserve their ethnic heritage through the skills inherent in family history research. Now that their native-language-speaking ancestors were all but gone, this association wanted to pass their heritage down to subsequent generations before it was forgotten entirely.

Once we had shared that educational opportunity with this other organization, we got to know them better—well enough to feel comfortable asking them if they were interested in partnering with us in other educational outreaches. Can anything make more sense than blending groups which seek to preserve their heritage with genealogical societies mandated to preserve local family history?

It was thanks to this ongoing partnership that we were, months later, able to bring in a well-known speaker and host her presentation in a top-notch facility (a lecture hall at a university in our city).

Every group is different, of course, and the potential for partnership must be viewed on a case by case basis. But it is as clear to me as the next day's sparkling sunshine against the raging storm of our event's evening that the only way our event could have been a success was if we were able to pool our resources and talents with another group sharing mutual goals.


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