Life Between the Dash

by Laura

In the last couple of posts, I’ve begun to share some of the family stories I’ve put together from my family research. It’s what I think of as “life between the dash”… you know, the “-“; the time between a birthdate and a deathdate:  1921 1999. That’s several decades of living, right there. And in the dash I am using for this example, there was a World War, a Korean police action, the Vietnam War, a wife, two children, four grandchildren, a major career change, a couple of household moves, some really hot cars…a life. And lots of it. To have this all reduced to a is a disservice to the person who lived in that space. And the curious folk they left behind.

Of course, it just isn’t possible to find every single thing that every single person did in the space of their lifetime. But it is possible to find some of it. I urge everyone reading, take the time to seek out the older people in your family (regardless of what you may think or how you may feel about them in their current aged iteration) and listen to their stories. Really listen…doesn’t matter if this is the 255th time you’ve heard this one. Just. listen. Ask open-ended questions; questions that prompt a memory or get them started down the road to a story. Record their voices. Take notes. Holiday dinners is a good place to start. Children are good at this as they ask the most interesting questions, when not shushed by their elders.

Next, national databases like census records can be really interesting. The US Census asked a lot of interesting questions over the years, besides names, ages, and country of origin. They asked about education, language spoken, work experience, previous addresses, whether native-born, immigrant (and when entered the country), or naturalised (and, again, when). On immigration status, sometimes they mentioned “first papers”. This indicates that the person still has the papers given them when they first entered the US. Every time the census was taken, the questions shifted. This gives a small historical insight on where the country was at on its immigration policy and what they deemed as important to know about who was coming in, what they were like, and how they could contribute to the nation and its overall economy.

Other documents that can give clues include death certificates. These can sometimes be hard to come by. I’ve had good luck with my birthFather’s family, in that they’ve mostly been in Pennsylvania, and there have been many, many death certificates online. The information I’ve gotten have included the name of the deceased, their parents (including Mother’s maiden name and place of birth for both parents), birthdate and place and deathdate and place, place of burial, spouse (occasionally with maiden name), and cause of death…sometimes in great detail. Oftentimes, the person giving these details is a son or daughter of the deceased. So I have their name as well, which, in the case of a daughter, gives me a married name. On more than one occasion, the death certificate will lead me to an obituary or, even, a newspaper article about the deceased…especially if the death was sudden or, well, interesting.

If you have the patience and good eyesight, newspapers are great places to find information. I found both of my maternal grandparents’ death certificates by slogging through death notices (very, very fine print) when death certificates could only be had by death dates…which I did not know. It took me the better part of ten months to find my Grandfather’s. But, once I found him, it only took a week to find his gravesite.

But that’s another story for another day.

If your family has emigrated, finding them in ship’s manifests and Ellis Island records isn’t that too difficult…IF they came after about 1828. Before that, Great Britain, in particular, didn’t have too many laws protecting the health, safety, and well-being of ocean-going folk; especially poor immigrants. So unless your forebears were part-owners of the Mayflower, you may have a difficult time finding them that way. But, that in itself, is a story!

Of course, family Bibles, letters, scrapbooks, pictures, and so on are wonderful ephemera and can tell you lots. Treasure them…and should you need a translator, they are always available in the most unlikely places, such as colleges/universities, church communities/synagogues/mosques, and Great Aunt Lettie…who remembers enough Polish to decipher the back of that photo you found.

This holiday season, see what you can dig up. Then see what you can learn about your ancestor and their life between the dash.