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I Spent a Month Uncovering My Family History, and I Found a Stronger Sense of Self


An idea seems to persist that family history, like the study of history in general, is mostly about the discovery of names and dates. But tracing your family history should be about so much more than filling in the branches of a family tree. For genealogist and historian David Allen Lambert, it’s all about the dash. “The years on someone’s gravestone are when they lived,” he told Woman's Day. “The dash represents how they lived.”

I wanted to start from scratch, focusing less on hard data than on fostering a sense of closeness and connection with the oldest living members of my family, my grandparents. I set out to record some aspects of their lives, personalities, and childhood dreams that could live on as a literary complement to my mother’s dates and records.

Write down what you know,” Lambert said, specifying names, birth dates, marriage dates, and death dates. “Then consider what parts of that tree can you find by picking up the phone. Contact older relatives. If you have a grandparent, that’s great, some people have even older relatives. And you can interview them and ask about their grandparents.”

The first thing to do when you’re conducting family interviews: Take notes. “When you write it all down, you create a time capsule for people who won’t know your grandparents in 50 years,” Lambert says on the importance of documenting your family history.