Apparently one of the gifts I received when I graduated high school was this letter holder with stationary! It never got even a day of use. I found it buried in the closet in my childhood bedroom along with numerous other boxes of neglected stationary. So much stationary! Why had I needed so much?
Although I was on email for most of high school, it didn’t become the primary way I communicated until I went to college. I scarcely noticed the transition, because it seemed simply a part of adapting to college, just another way in which everything about my daily life had been overturned in an instant. Without a moment’s hesitation, I started exchanging emails with my parents and sister back home, my high school friends now dispersed around the country, and my new friends at school. Other than the historic buildings, everything about college seemed modern and efficient, and so email took its place in my life as the modern and efficient tool college provided for us students to connect to the people in our lives. The letter holder went forgotten, and soon, letter-writing, too. Continue reading →
The story of my margarine-moonshining ancestors is the genealogical gift that keeps on giving. One especially gratifying aspect is that from the beginning it has connected me to distant cousins — some of whom I’ve found, some of whom have found me, and all of us tied together not only by blood, but also by margarine.
Nikole and I posing in front of a store we just happened to walk by!
It all began with my third cousin Nikole, who Googled her great-grandfather and came across the mug shot of him which I had posted online. I’ve seen her three summers in a row during her family’s annual visit to New York, and this coming summer I will fly out to the west coast to attend her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah and participate in the service! Wouldn’t our ancestors be proud!
My talk appeared as part of the annual International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, whose program was announced in the spring. Naturally, it was primarily my fellow Jewish genealogists who saw the subsequent publicity, but through the power of Google, word of my talk made its way to a small town outside of Boise, Idaho to Zach, a great-grandson of Louis’, who was just beginning to get interested in learning more about the Jewish branch of his family.
With my newly-found cousin whom I met just minutes earlier!
Zach introduced himself to me just a few hours before I was scheduled to speak. I was almost shaking when I realized who he was, and I had to keep from bursting into tears when it became clear that he drove five hours with his wife and kids just to meet me and hear my talk!!! Throughout my presentation, I just couldn’t believe how fortunate I was to get to stand on a stage and recite to him this unbelievable chapter from our family’s past. I kept looking at him to see his reactions to each crazy twist and turn in the story of our great-grandfathers’ butter partnership. The talk would have been fun to give regardless, but having Zach there made the experience so much more meaningful.
Cover of the indictment for our great-grandfathers
Afterwards we discussed the whole affair at length. I showed him all the records I had accumulated and explained all the smaller details that didn’t make it into the talk (three and a half years of research just can’t fit into an hour!). I was thrilled that he was clearly as into the story as I and excited to get involved in the research himself. And best of all, I got to meet his wife and kids the following morning to continue getting to know this part of the craziest branch in my tree.
I gave this talk because the story of the moonshiners is an entertaining case study in researching for color and context. I never dreamed that it would serve as cousin bait, but wow, nothing could have made the whole research journey more gratifying.
I’m excited to share that I won popular genealogy blogger DearMYRTLE’s 2nd Annual Share a Memory Contest! My entry was the informal picture from my grandparents’ wedding (below) that I thought we had lost until my cousin pointed it to me out over Thanksgiving weekend. It’s ironic that of all of the formal, posed pictures of my grandmother in her veil and my grandfather in his top hat, it’s this candid shot I treasure most. Click below to read my winning story about why this picture is more sentimental to me than all the others from that important day from my family’s history.
Towards the beginning of tenth grade English, we read The Joy Luck Club, interlocking stories of how values were transmitted from Chinese immigrant mothers to American-born daughters in four different families. It was an unusual choice for a curriculum that otherwise focused on the Western canon, but appropriate for a class with many first- and second-generation, Asian American students. Much of the plot concerned the daughters’ assimilation, which was both encouraged and denigrated by their mothers, and as a fourth-generation American obsessed with how my family’s original culture had faded across the generations, the stories of the mothers’ incomplete transmission of culture to their daughters fascinated me.
In my essay on the book I alluded to these preoccupations, though I had to skip a generation in my family to attempt the comparison:
The generational and cross-cultural tensions were also real to me. However, they are more like my relationship with my grandmother, who remembers what it was like to live under the shadow of values from another world. Like the mothers in The Joy Luck Club, my grandmother cannot always understand why certain things matter to me, and how her children have progressed so far from the old ways.
The comparison wasn’t perfect — my grandmother, daughter of immigrant parents (Fanny, who wasn’t abandoned, and Abe, who didn’t lose his pinky), paralleled the daughters in Joy Luck Club, not the mothers, but my teacher caught my meaning well enough. The essay was not one of my better efforts — honestly, I recall just typing up what was in my head and submitting it with minimal editing, which was really asking for trouble from a teacher who was such a notoriously tough grader — except she proclaimed it “Excellent.” It was only after speaking with her after class that I realized the way I saw the world — had always seen the world — through the lens of genealogy was not prosaic to her. Really, people don’t see their own lives in the context of the generations that came before? It sounds silly to say now — I’ve been doing genealogy for far too long not to realize that much of the world is bewildered by our obsession — but at that time it came as a surprise.
This whole episode came flooding back when I bumped into her while home for Thanksgiving. I caught her up on my life since graduating high school — how Treelines not only gave me the opportunity to write code and prose professionally, but also to teach about writing family stories — and she immediately exclaimed, “I have to have you come speak to my classes when we read The Joy Luck Club.” How appropriate!
When you’re a kid it’s hard to see accurately how you are like and unlike other people. Her unexpected “excellent” allowed me to see that something I had always taken for granted about myself was actually unique and valuable, and I needed someone else to point that out to me. The story I usually tell about how I got into genealogy is much more straightforward — a family history book arrived when I was 12, inspiring me to start my own research — but two years later this assignment pushed me along in an important way, too. Even after two decades of family history work, these fundamental questions of cultural transmission still preoccupy me.
The first RootsTech I attended took place at the beginning of a major transition in my genealogical life, from part-time hobbyist to full-time professional. After more than a decade working in technology for digital media companies in New York City, I arrived at the conference with the itch to figure out how to combine my professional talents with my lifelong love for family history. Part of the urge came from my own inability to find the software to share my family tree in a way my family would connect to. The previous year I had written the software for my own family tree website, but I continued to hunt for that elusive product that presented family trees story-first and came to RootsTech 2012 with that goal in mind. Where better to find the best-of-the-best than the conference that attracts the most technologically innovative companies and individuals in the genealogy space? And indeed, the vendor hall blew my mind. It was like walking through a candy land. But I didn’t find what I was looking for.
When I wasn’t gaping at all the exhibitors, I attended a number of sessions. I had high hopes for one in particular about technology for sharing family stories, but the speaker didn’t present anything I hadn’t already discovered in my own investigations. What did make a lasting impression on me, however, was that of all the sessions I attended, that one was by far the largest. The room was filled standing-room-only with people as desperate as I for a better way to share family stories — and it suddenly dawned on me that the reason why I didn’t find one in the vendor hall or in this session was because there wasn’t one — yet! I stayed up all night in my hotel room organizing all of the ideas racing through my mind. “EverythingWeKnowAbout.us: Curatable, shareable, multimedia presentations about your favorite family stories,” read the title page of the nineteen-slide Powerpoint I sent to friends and family before I collapsed in exhaustion. Their response was positive, so I quit my job two-and-a-half months later to make it happen!
I decided pretty quickly that I wanted to launch Treelines at the next RootsTech, and so I did — one of the proudest times of my life. The best moment was when Treelines was announced in front of everyone as the winner of the Developer Challenge, but the whole conference was a three-day high. I loved meeting so many of the conference participants, not only to see the excitement on their faces when I showed them what Treelines could do, but also when I learned from them what else Treelines should do to serve their families better.
Treelines’ Winning Moment at RootsTech 2013
Launching at RootTech and especially winning the Developer Challenge were a great way to jump-start Treelines. I knew there were a lot of people in attendance, but I hadn’t realized just how many more people were watching from home, and many of them are amongst Treelines’ earliest users, too. And I also hadn’t expected how many of the top influencers in the industry were paying attention and as a result helped me publicize Treelines. I remain so grateful to RootsTech for making it possible for an individual like me to introduce something new to a large, motivated audience. If, as I was, you are looking for a way to professionalize your genealogy activities — or just increase your profile in the community — RootsTech is the perfect place to find your niche and get your name out there. And if you’re a fellow software developer, I absolutely recommend sharing your efforts through the Developer Challenge — I can think of no better way to have launched Treelines.
I’m proud to say that this year will be my third time attending RootsTech, my second as a speaker, and Treelines’ second as an exhibitor. As the date draws near I’m starting to feel the same excitement I had two years ago before my first RootsTech — to see all the cool, new products on the vendor floor, learn from my fellow speakers, and get to know more genealogists. I’ve never left RootsTech without my head exploding with ideas — not just for new genealogy software I could build, but also for new and better ways to research and share my family history. I wonder what inspiration I will leave RootsTech with this year… can’t wait to find out!
Showing off Treelines in RootsTech 2013’s Demo Theater
Find Treelines.com in booth 432 (right by the demo area!)
Or come to one of my classes!
Thursday, 2/6, 10:30 AM: Top 10 Things I Learned About My Family History from my Couch: A Beginner’s Introduction to Internet Genealogy (Hall E — just stay in your seat after the morning keynote!)
Thursday, 2/6, 2 PM: Family Tree Management on Treelines.com (Demo Theater)
Friday, 2/7, 1 PM and Saturday, 2/8, 10:30 AM: Family Timelines with Treelines.com (computer lab in 251EF — must reserve a spot when you register for the conference)
Friday, 2/7, 4 PM: Story by Story, Preserve Your Family’s History (Ballroom I)
If you are first generation in your country, there’s no more important story you can record for your family to help them appreciate their identity and opportunities. And we’d encourage you to share your story publicly on Treelines to enrich all of our understanding about what it means to be an immigrant — just select the “First Generation Stories” project when you publish your story.
Here’s the story of Lev, who was 11 when his family left the Soviet Union without a clear next direction.
I’m excited to present this week’s featured user, Lara Diamond, because finding her through Treelines was my first “Treelines moment,” or connection with an unrelated genealogist whose similar family background means that her stories add context to complement mine. She’s a longtime genealogist, though a new genealogy blogger, and we had fun diving into each other’s family history. Here are some highlights from our conversation:
Tammy: When we first got to talking we discovered we have a lot in common. We’re about the same age, both researching our Jewish ancestors who came here from Hungary and Ukraine, and our Hungarian ancestors even settled in neighboring small towns around Pittsburgh. But what really struck me when I first read your two stories was that we must really be on the same genealogical wavelength to have chosen the same stories to tell first — the stories of how our ancestors immigrated here. What was it for you about these stories that you gravitated to them first?
Isadore Joshowitz during WWII
Lara: As I’m recording names & dates, I always wonder about the people behind the data. Particularly for those parts of my family that came in the early 1900s, it must have been a huge leap of faith. During a time when trans-Atlantic phone calls couldn’t have been imagined, let alone FaceTime or even email, they left behind family members and the only lives they ever knew to go to America. And despite moving to a country with a new language and culture, they and their descendents thrived.
Tammy: One of the reasons why I focus on my family’s immigration stories is that transition of becoming American — all those little adaptions, either intentional or subconscious, that help them to cope and fit in. I wonder if they realized how quickly and completely they would change.
Lara: It’s actually interesting to see how they adapted in some ways, but other things stayed very much the same. I have some ancestors who became very American and others who recreated the best of what they had in Europe while enjoying the safety and freedom that was part of being American.
Tammy: From the two stories you’ve shared so far, your American family is moving between small towns and cities. How do you think small-town life shaped your family’s sense of themselves as new Americans?
Lara: My mom’s maternal grandparents went to McKeesport (he sold fruit from a truck), and her paternal grandparents went to Pittsburgh (he was in the cigar business). My grandparents’ marriage was considered a “mixed” marriage–a Russian Jew from Pittsburgh married a Hungarian Jew from McKeesport!
On my father’s side, my grandparents were Holocaust survivors who moved to a not-so-nice part of Baltimore. They started their own grocery business with the help of relatives already in Baltimore and eventually ended up in a nicer area. My grandfather’s grandfather had immigrated to America earlier, and he lived on a farm in a very rural part of Maryland (Annapolis Junction). He took the train into Baltimore daily to sell eggs from the farm and attend a synagogue. Eventually he moved to Baltimore where he could be near the larger Jewish community.
Tammy: I guess this means my father’s parents’ marriage was also “mixed” — Hungarian Jew from Homestead marrying Russian Jew from Pittsburgh — though both were American-born, so perhaps it impacted them less.
That grandfather was quite a cigar smoker — perhaps he was a customer of your Pittsburgh forebears! Which brings me to the main question I have for you, which is what anecdotes survive in your family about life in McKeesport? To me, this is the the “Treelines moment” — connecting with someone you might not have known otherwise to compare stories about similar, though unrelated families in similar circumstances.
Lara: My grandmother often told the story of when her father was paid by someone with a chicken. This was in the middle of the Depression, so the family seldom had meat. My grandmother was sent by her mother to take the chicken by streetcar to the butcher. My grandmother had the chicken in a covered basket and got on the streetcar–only to see some kids from school. She was so embarrassed to be carrying a chicken, so she pushed its head back into the basket and hoped no one saw. It pushed its head out. She pushed it back in. After a couple of iterations, she was relieved that the chicken had been taught its lesson, and the other kids didn’t seem to have noticed. But when she got to the butcher, she discovered that she’d actually killed the chicken by teaching it the lesson a bit too strongly!
At this point we started exchanging juicy family stories that were a bit more sensitive, but we concluded our conversation talking about Treelines itself.
Tammy: So, more important than the connection that we found through your family stories, how did your family enjoy reading them?
Suttleman family reunion, 2011
Lara: Treelines is a great way to share family stories I’ve discovered through my research with family members who aren’t as excited as I am by the research process. When I sent out links to my Treelines stories, I got effusive and excited replies from relatives who never really cared about seeing an ancestor’s boat record. Treelines’ way of showing them the whole story reached them in a way that dry documents couldn’t. I love reading other users’ Treelines contributions to find others with similar family stories–as well as those with entirely different backgrounds.
I’ve started to document my research process on a blog, which forces me to examine where I am on various lines and revisit gaps to see if I can fill them. There is so much you can learn about ancestors through old documents. Once a story is complete (or as complete as I can make it), it’s a perfect point to pull it together on Treelines.
A great-grandson grows up wondering about his great-grandmother’s birth parents. Fortunately he is a leading expert on genetic genealogy!
With two decades of traditional genealogy experience and a PhD in biochemistry with a concentration in genetics, Blaine Bettinger is a leading speaker and writer on the intersection of traditional genealogical techniques and modern genetic research. His blog, The Genetic Genealogist, is a great resource for anyone who wants to keep up with the latest developments on the subject.
Blaine joined Treelines early on to share the story of his Civil War forebear Remiro Spicer’s miraculous survival. He enjoyed using Treelines because it let him “share family history, legend, or stories with relatives in a meaningful way without bogging them down in too many names, dates, and places. This brings life to stories, and piques the interest of family members who may not otherwise be interested. Most genealogists would probably agree, if you can find a way to get them hooked, they’re hooked forever!” That’s what we’re hoping for, too!
You first got interested in family history when you were in middle school. What got you hooked?
We were asked to fill out a family tree as a homework assignment for English class, and I called my grandmother to inquire about her side of the family. That phone call, I realize now, changed the entire course of my life.
My grandmother was a fount of knowledge about my father’s family, and I kept taking notes as she described family members well beyond the reaches of the simple assigned chart. I still have that family tree, and it’s one of my prized possessions.
Essentially, I’ve spent the 25 years since that assignment trying to fill out that family tree (and hopefully will spend many, many more!).
Was your interest in genetics inspired by your interest in family history?
Much like my interest in family history, I stumbled into my love of genetics. While I’d studied and enjoyed genetics as an undergrad, it wasn’t until my graduate work that I truly focused on genetics. Even then, I never considered combining my love of family history and my love of genetics until about 2003 when I learned about a very early genetic genealogy test offered by a company that is no longer in business. I continued with different types of tests then started blogging at The Genetic Genealogist in 2007 to encourage others to explore testing.
A number of people searching for Andersonville, the Battle of the Wilderness, the 1914 reunion, or even Remiro Spicer himself have found your story. Why did you want to share this part of your family history publicly on Treelines?
Of all the stories I’ve uncovered I think Remiro’s is one of the most compelling, and it was a story that I wanted to share with others. He endured some truly terrible things, but after the Civil War ended he married and raised a family that now has innumerable descendants. Unfortunately I’ll never know how much the war haunted him throughout his long life, but he was clearly able to overcome it.
I was struck by the reunion Remiro attended fifty years after he was imprisoned in Andersonville. Have you been to Providence Spring or any of the Civil War sites that figured in Remiro’s life? Is there anything planned for the families for the 150th anniversary next spring?
I’ve been to the Wilderness battlefield in Virginia where Remiro was taken prisoner, and it was a surreal experience knowing that such terrible things happened in such a beautiful place. I’ve also been to Gettysburg where Remiro was badly injured and nearly met his end.
Although I’ve never been to Providence Spring, I do hope to visit someday. I don’t know if anything has been planned for the 150th anniversary, but what a great event that would be. It would be fun to track down descendents of the individuals who were at the 50th reunion 100 years ago!
How are you getting yours sons interested in their family history?
Getting the next generation interested in genealogy is extremely important, and there’s been great conversation in the community about this topic lately.
However, since my sons are so young (both under 10), I’m still starting slowly. For example, I sometimes talk about stories or ancestors that I think they would be most interested in. A few times we’ve gone “cemetery hunting,” where we hunt for a stone or name within a cemetery. I usually make a day of it, combining the cemetery hunt with fun activities so they don’t get too tired or bored.
I know there’s a very good chance that one or both of them simply won’t be interested in genealogy or family history. I think many genealogists are the exception in their family, rather than the norm. But as long as they have a healthy appreciation for where they come from and how they got where they are, I’ll be satisfied with that.
A nine year-old girl loses a beloved aunt, but at the burial she catches sight of a name…
Almost thirty years later, Taneya Koonce is now an accomplished genealogist, with a particular focus on technology and historical newspapers befitting her professional expertise in information management and organization. She blogs actively and volunteers extensively with the USGenWeb Project.
Taneya joined Treelines right after we won at RootsTech, and she wrote her first story the evening her invitation came. “It was so very cool!” she wrote. “At first, when I was faced with the task of writing a story I didn’t know what I would say. I do not consider myself a storyteller at all. But, I kept on and actually am quite proud of myself.” And we’re proud that it was Treelines’ storybuilder that changed her mind! 🙂 We admire that in both of her stories, she used small details — the names of her ancestors — as the jumping-off point to ask deeper questions.
Adorable Taneya with her aunt
You were just 9 when you had your “first genealogy moment.” What kinds of genealogy did you do when you were growing up?
Growing up, I actually did not do very many genealogy activities. Besides having a general interest in those that came before me, I didn’t seek out genealogy. Then, when I was in college, one summer (circa 1995) I decided I was going to interview both of my grandmothers to learn more about our families and their background. I don’t actually remember what prompted me to do it, but I am extremely glad that I did. By the time I decided to actively pursue genealogy as a full-time hobby in 2005, both of my grandmothers were ill, suffering from Alzheimer’s. Those days I’d spent with them 10 years earlier to record their stories made a huge difference.
As an adult you’ve become involved in just about every area of genealogy — technology, DNA, records, and lots of volunteering and writing and speaking. (Wow!) What inspired you to elevate genealogy from a childhood interest to your major hobby as an adult?
My inspiration to become super-involved in genealogy was quite gradual, but in so many ways, my genealogy interests overlap with my experiences and interests outside of genealogy. I am naturally interested in technology, was a biology major in college, and was always interested in genetics, and I have professional experience in writing and presenting. One reason genealogy has been such a perfect hobby for me is that it has allowed me to apply skills and interests I’ve already gained.
My extensive volunteer efforts with the USGenWeb came about because of the benefits I’d reaped from those who shared information on the USGenWeb sites before me, and so I had to “pay it forward,” and I’ve tremendously enjoyed helping others in their genealogy and family history searching.
One of the things I love about your stories is how you’ve gotten inspired by small details, even just the names of ancestors! Any advice for other genealogists to similarly turn small clues into larger family insights, as you have?
I personally find those small clues to be great places to start, and it’s interesting how they will lead you from place to place. In my volunteer work for the USGenWeb, I see so many people inquire with extremely broad questions on how to research their families, and my advice to them is always to start small; identify one or two things that you want to know about and then follow the clues out.
Perhaps it is also my professional training – as a librarian, we very early on learn theoretical models that apply to searching for information, and one I early on identified with was “pearl growing.” Pearl growing search strategies begin with a specific known fact/item, and you successively build on it. So, my advice for others is to think about those “pearls” you have in your family history and search for information that can help you “cultivate” them.
You’ve been a geneablogger for some time, sharing your family stories and research on your own blog. What made you want to share your stories on Treelines as well?
I started looking into Treelines after learning that you’d won the RootsTech 2013 Developer Award. Being as technically-inclined as I am, I love to play around with tools, so I signed up for an account. I read some of the other stories on the site and decided to play around with my own story. After going through that process, I definitely wanted to continue and do more. What I appreciate about the Treelines structure is the ability to present the story in a very visually appealing format and the segmentation into smaller “chunks” of information, combined with the photo integration and connection to family tree data.
Abraham Lincoln MacNair, Taneya’s great-grandfather
You wrote to us that you don’t consider yourself to be a storyteller, but you’ve shared two great stories already! How did you overcome your reluctance?
It has really been the design interface of Treelines that has helped me overcome my reluctance. The format of the site makes it easy to create and share stories. After I did my first story, I recalled so many tidbits that I’ve learned from my mother over the years about her family, and now I want to focus on working with her to capture them into Treelines stories. We all have these “tidbits” that we can use and enhance them on Treelines. I am particularly looking forward to starting to share my Treelines stories with family members – it’s just so much more interesting visually than what they would get from my blog posts, so I believe it makes a great counterpart.