December is a time when many of us are fortunate enough to gather with our friends and family. I encourage you to take this opportunity to talk to your family members, especially elders, about their memories from growing up. Who is the oldest ancestor they can remember? What is the ancestor’s name? How are they related to you, maternal or paternal branch? What did you learn from them? Ask questions, but also let them talk and share whatever moves them. Does anyone have an interesting given or nickname? What is that name and why were they given it? Do any other people in the family share that name? What would they tell their younger selves? Obtain a family tree chart and ask them to fill it out or fill it out for them. When completing the chart use birth (i.e. maiden) names for the women of the family, if they didn’t choose to maintain their birth name. This allows you to connect them with their nuclear family. The full names of their spouses can be denoted when showing a marriage. Many people are married several times, so this can make it a huge challenge to track women, if the birth name isn’t identified.
In the African American community many elders are called “aunt” and “uncle” if they aren’t blood relations as a term of respect and endearment. How did they become a part of the family? Were they someone’s best friend or neighbor? This is also a part of the rich tapestry of your unique family.
While researching my various family branches over the last few decades, I’ve noticed naming patterns. A particular ancestor was often revered, and that person’s name is shared widely. What qualities did that person possess that endeared them with so many people?
Make the time to take photographs and recordings. I really enjoy taking a group picture of everyone in attendance to document the day. There might be some pushback. Ignore them (with love) and get everyone in the photo. They will love the finished project. Photo tip — Encourage people to smile. Take multiple photos. If you have time, take photos of nuclear families (mom, dad, children) especially if there are adult children with their parents. It’s also good to take some candid photos. Grab a few of the people cooking, playing cards. When you take a group photo print them out (yes, you can still print photos!) Document the names of the individuals on the back and where it was taken. On at least one of the recordings, have people share their name and how they are related to the group that is present. Share the recording and photographs beyond the social media platforms. Share it with all the family members (present and absent). Your descendants will appreciate you.
Another great idea is to pull out pictures from previous gatherings and point out relatives. Pass them around and see what memories come to the surface, especially with young members of the family. In my family there are many elders who transitioned to be with the ancestors before I was born. However, I feel as if I know them because they are discussed, and their pictures are shown. If you have older photos and only one family member has possession, ask if the pictures can be scanned. If you don’t have access to a scanner, taking a picture of a picture (using your smart phone) will also work. Again, share the pictures widely. There should never only be one person with all the stories or paperwork for the family. We can scan, copy and share quickly and inexpensively.
Consider having a book where people can jot down a family memory. Do you have a recipe that has been passed down for many years? Share that with the other family members and tell them who it came from and why it’s special.
Create your own game. Who can pick out ancestors when they were young? Who does this ancestor resemble?
Two branches of my family are from Louisiana, the Curtis family (St. Mary Parish) and the Cleveland family (Rapides Parish). For the last several years we’ve had a themed Christmas dinner, “A Louisiana Christmas.” We serve gumbo, jambalaya, shrimp étouffée, tur-duck-en, etc. Gumbo made from scratch is a labor of love. The family looks forward to coming together and fellowshipping. During the day we talk about our ancestors, where they lived and show pictures. Why they moved to Indiana as part of the “Great Migration.” This is a great way to teach the family history and keep everyone connected. Each person and family are part of history of our country or state and our city.
Enjoy the closing of 2019 and beginning of a wonderful new decade 2020. Happy New Year!
Nichelle M. Hayes is a native of Indianapolis. She is an information professional, a genealogist, civic leader and a lifelong learner.