Editor’s Note: The following post is by Joe Roop Brickey, originally entitled “Adding Another Dimension to Your Genealogy.” This article originally appeared in Heritage Quest, 16, no. 3, issue 87 (May/June 2000). It is reprinted here by permission of the publisher. Joe Roop Brickey is a familiar face in the Genealogical Publishing Company’s booth at national conferences. She is a former board member of the Federation of Genealogical Societies [FGS] and is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries Scotland. She resides in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Faded photographs are among a genealogist’s treasured possessions. A picture of a family gathered on the front porch of an old farm house, or gathered around the Thanksgiving Day table, may be fun to have, but identifying everyone and establishing when and where the picture was taken can be difficult tasks. When my parents were visiting a few years ago, we sat down with some of the mystery photographs and in the process of identifying who, what, when and where, began talking about the houses and farms – the physical location of the events preserved in the pictures.
Out came a pad of graph paper and pencils. Let’s see, Dad said, You came into the entry hall and the steps to the upstairs were straight ahead, the den to the left and the parlor to the right? Stories came pouring out of my parents. Memories long forgotten came to light in drawing the walls that surrounded them. Before long, both of my grandparents homes were committed to paper, my great-grandparents’ farm came to life, and the town where my father was born and raised had been recreated.
This project is easy and inexpensive. It takes paper, pencils, a BIG eraser, and time. Add a tape recorder for the stories and you are all set. My mother and I began with the home she grew up in. She did not worry about exact room dimensions, but rather the layout of the rooms in the home. The front right corner was the living room where the piano sat on the inside wall. Her parents bedroom was in the right back corner. On the back of the house were the bathroom and a small den. The steps to the basement were off of the kitchen which sat in front of the den, and the dining room was in the middle of the left side, with a small parlor on the left front. “Remember when your grandmother tried to brush her teeth in the dark and put BenGay on the tooth brush?” (Sure I do; Grandmother’s howl could be heard for blocks!) “There was a lilac bush on the corner of the house outside their room.” Yes, soon you are drawing in the yard and before long the names of the neighbors get filled in.
An added plus for this project is that friends have tried it with relatives who have claimed to remember nothing. Something about making a drawing of a childhood home, the street you lived on, or the family farm brings even the “I don’t remember anything” unclear memory into focus. Knowing where the table that now graces my living room sat in my grandparents’ home adds to my enjoyment of the piece. Having a clear picture of the great-grandparents’ sheep ranch makes the stories told about summers there more meaningful because I can “see” it better.
Homes, streets, farms, the list is endless as to what you can create with your pencil and pad of paper. I drew the school where I went to first grade. In the process, the name of my teacher surfaced along with names of long forgotten classmates. Mrs. Perkins was my first grade teacher and she lived just a few blocks from the school. On nice days we would walk to her house and have a picnic in her backyard. Since moving every few years was a part of my childhood, finding a trigger for these memories has been great! I have placed my drawing in the file with the class photograph, along with the things that I remember about going to first grade. Maybe I’m writing my life story without realizing it!
So, when you are talking to a relative, or even a neighbor, feeling a bit stuck, or in a rut with your research, try adding this new dimension to your genealogy. Your best memory of a house can be sent on to a cousin to add details and stories, an aunt may remember a house that is no longer standing, and just maybe, if you are very lucky, someone will finally remember who is the third person from the left in the picture of the family on the front porch. At the very least, now you know about the house behind the family.
Arthur, Stephen and Julia, Your Life and Times. This oral history handbook is a guide that will help you record your life experiences on tape simply by answering questions that will lead you, step by step, through the precious moments of your life. When finished, you will have completed the oral history of your life and times–a treasure for yourself and a gift of love for your family and its future generations.
Image credit: Drawing of a house, By Attributed to James G. Jones (active 1860s) (artist, Details of artist on Google Art Project) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.