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Genealogy & Family Reunions: Six Ideas for Making Connections

Who are these people? Still trying to find out.

Published in ChicagoNow, July 17, 2015

Bet you didn’t know that July is Family Reunion Month. Well, if you have one coming up, maybe you did. And if you are in your 30’s, 40’s, or 50’s, you are probably ready to stop reading this post (if you have even gotten this far).

I understand. The sad truth about looking for your family roots is that folks don’t really care until it is too late. In an earlier post, I shared the story of my husband’s grandmother, Pauline. She lived most of her life in a mental institution while her grandchildren and other relatives believed she was dead.

We first learned that my husband’s father wasn’t really an orphan just after he died at age 57. My mother-in-law shared some of the secret, telling us the bare bones of the story. Pauline had a “nervous breakdown,” her husband abandoned the family, and her four children were divided among relatives. My father-in-law ultimately did end up in an orphanage, so his story wasn’t a total lie.

At the time, my husband was 26 and a new father. We thought the story was somewhat interesting but had so much else to do. So, we asked no more questions and went about our lives.

The next time the story came up, my mother-in-law was quite old and her memory was failing. It was already too late to get a lot of information, and we didn’t even know what to ask. We had found the one photo of my father-in-law’s birth family labeled “Indianapolis” on the back, and she was able to tell us that they lived there when Pauline was institutionalized.

She also shared that Pauline died at an old age in 1966. We were shocked. My husband could have visited her had he known she existed. Ironically, our daughter and son-in-law lived in Indianapolis and, with a bit of detective work, we were able to find and visit Pauline’s grave.

Family secrets are powerful stuff. And this one began a quest to reunite with a branch of a family that had been buried by these secrets. Unfortunately, we began this search fairly recently and there is no one alive to answer the questions we should have asked 30 years ago.

For now, here are 6 suggestions for folks interested in genealogy and learning more about their roots:

  1. Start when you are relatively young – Don’t make our mistake. When we finally had the time and interest to pursue our pasts, the people who could have answered our questions were dead or too old to remember very much.

  2. Collect stories – My father became interested in genealogy in the 20 years prior to his death. But he only collected names and tried to place them on a family tree. It was an interesting hobby for him, but the names don’t mean much to his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. My mother’s uncle, on the other hand, dictated his stories to the local historical society. What a treasure trove those were.

  3. Search for photos – Before you consign those old shoeboxes and albums of ancient family photos to the attic, basement, or garbage, take a look. If there is someone who can identify the people, write the names on them and keep them. Scan the best ones into your computer for the day you have time to deal with them. The Internet may also yield great photos, especially of the places of birth at the time your relatives lived there. These can be really interesting, so add them to that file on your computer.

  4. Use social media – Whatever platforms you are using, try to make connections with relatives. This is a relatively easy way to gather information. And you will feel like a private detective. It’s kind of fun.

  5. Don’t be afraid to ask – Send emails and even snail mail to folks you think might be the relatives you are seeking. My husband got great results this way. The one wrong person probably got a huge laugh over his note asking if she was his cousin, but three other people were delighted to find their long-lost first cousin.

  6. Check out public records – We have been using Through that site, we found immigration records, census records (up to 1940), birth and death certificates, military records, marriage records, etc. There is also, which revealed some interesting material.

This is all way more interesting than it sounds here. As I share Pauline’s story in future posts, you will see why.


by Laurie Levy
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