In Part 1 of her guest post below, Linda Gartz, who writes the ambitious and impressive Family Archaeologist blog, shares the intriguing story of her research into her family’s history and the discoveries she’s made. Part 2 offers tips to others interested in documenting their family histories.
After my mom died, my brothers and I sorted through a lifetime of memories in the sprawling Victorian house we had lived in for almost thirty years. In the attic we discovered letters, diaries, mementoes, and documents that dated back to the late 1800s.
My grandmother had also saved passports and scores of letters from Europe—a mystery for thirteen years after their discovery because they were written in an old German script that few people can read any longer.
Two years ago I found a 90-year-old woman in Germany who could decipher them. I mailed her printed copies; she decoded the handwriting and emailed me the modern German, which I translated into English. (I majored in German.)
What a treasure these “mystery” missives turned out to be! I discovered love letters between my grandparents, diaries each had kept of their separate journeys to America, letters from family and friends in “the old country,” and more, each adding a piece to the puzzle of who they were and what they sacrificed to come to America. It was like entering a time machine.
I’ve posted their letters, diaries, and other documents as an ongoing story on my blog. They represent the immigrant dream.
So many revelations were buried in these letters and diaries. Through the 240 or so World War II letters, I met Frank, my father’s younger brother, whom I had never known. My grandmother, who was rather distant and cool to her grandchildren, wrote letters to Frank during the war that were so filled with love and deep anxiety for her son, they completely changed my opinion of her. I’m like the proverbial fly on the wall. Through diaries and letters, I learn details that help me understand those pesky family dynamics we all live with.
I have the thrilling experience of reading my parents’ diary entries made when they were very young, a time in their lives so different from when I knew them. I even read Mom’s delicious descriptions of falling in love with my dad!
I plan to publish my family history, but just getting through the thousands of pages of material makes it difficult to pare it down to its publishable core. I’m not sure if it will be a full family history or a series of memoirs, each focusing on a different theme. Finding focus is the hardest part and I’m still working on that. (See the various topics, revealed in the letters and diaries, at Welcome to Family Archaeologist.)
I admire the bold action my grandfather took in coming to America at such a young age. I’m touched by the sweetness of naive young love, and saddened by the train wrecks I see coming through diary entries. I’ve become more empathic to my family members as I grasp more fully their emotional states and unfulfilled expectations.
Come back to read part 2 of the guest post by the Family Archaeologist.
To find out more about family histories, follow Linda on Twitter @lindagartz
Join me, Lynette Benton, on Thursday, September 29, 6 – 7:30 p.m. for a lively presentation on Life Story Writing at Minuteman High School, in Lexington, Mass.