Potter Phillips discusses the importance of sharing information.
this sad scenario, if you will. Grandma or Grandpa have just
died. They were the only ones in the family interested in
the history of the family. They spent many hours, dollars,
and miles collecting information, documents and photos pertaining
to the family. Miscellaneous research notes and hundreds of
photocopies were happily mixed in with the family charts,
certificates and photos. To Grandma and Grandpa, compiling
the family history was a work in progress. They assumed they
had plenty of time to sort out the real family history —
the facts and photos — from the piles of research notes.
Grandma and Grandpa had spent a lifetime collecting; they
never took the time to compile the collected information into
a genuine family history. They did not expect to die.
We Lose Our Heritage
author’s 77-year-old mother, June Gurney Potter,
with great-grandsons Justin and Trevor Wood, looking
at a family scrapbook. They sit under a framed 48-star
US flag that flew over the barbershop of their Wood
grandfather in the late 1920s in Indiana.
“What is all this stuff?” asks Eldest Son when
he comes to clean out the house after the funerals. “What
a mess! I knew Mom and Dad were doing genealogy, but I sure
didn’t realize it meant collecting mountains of papers!”
“Well, I don’t have time to sort through this
mess!” says Eldest Daughter. “Let’s just
get rid of it all. After all, I have to get back to Jim and
And so the history of a family is lost. It happened because
Grandma and Grandpa, the ones collecting all the family information,
never took the time to sort and compile a family history,
and they never took the time to really share what they were
finding with their family. The big mistake was one made repeatedly
over several years. It was a mistake of omission.
Genealogy was an academic hobby for Grandma and Grandpa. They
loved visiting libraries, archives, courthouses and cemeteries.
They loved sleuthing out the answers and filling the blank
spaces on the family charts. But they seldom included the
family in their hobby; no picnics in cemeteries for this family.
The fire of enjoyment and thrill in their family history was
never kindled in Eldest Son and Eldest Daughter. Grandchildren’s
imaginations were never ignited with photos or stories. Family
history was just something Grandma and Grandpa did.
The equally sad second scene of this drama might take place
years later when Eldest Granddaughter or Eldest Grandson might
become interested in learning more about the family history.
They ask their parents. The parents vaguely remember hauling
Grandma and Grandpa’s stuff to the dump. They remember
moving those mountains of papers, and seeing some official-looking
papers with seals and funny old photos sprinkled in the piles
of papers that they were boxing up. They may or may not realize
at this point that at that moment precious parts of their
family history were lost forever.
This tragedy did not have to happen! It does not have to happen
in your family! A similar fate might await your collection
of genealogical research materials, but a disaster can be
averted by doing a few simple things.
The first and best way to safeguard your family history is
to share it, especially to share it with your family, and
especially with the younger members of the family. Children
will be interested in the family history if given the opportunity.
The best method for sharing family history with your family
is to make the items and information you collect available
to your family. Do not keep all the heirlooms packed away
in trunks, and don’t file all the photos and 19th-century
certificates away in boxes or binders. Let your children,
grandchildren, nieces and nephews see how interested you are
in these things, and how much you value these things, and
that interest will surely rub off onto them.
Here is a story to illustrate my point. My grandmother Clara’s
doll was a porcelain-headed Kestner doll, made in Germany
in the 1890s. The doll was given to Clara in 1901 when she
was five years old. As her next oldest sister had just died
from typhoid fever, the doll became Clara’s new best
friend. When Clara married, her own daughters enjoyed the
doll to the point of destruction. Sometime in the 1930s, the
doll went into a box in pieces. The two daughters, Ruth and
June, raised families and nobody knew or cared about the doll
in the box. After Clara’s funeral in 1973, my mother,
June, found the box of doll parts and memories came flooding
back. She brought the box home to me, and told me what she
remembered of the doll’s history. She was sorry that
my brothers and I had never seen the doll before, and never
heard about her from Grandma Clara herself. I had the doll
restored, and now she proudly sits in a child’s rocker
in my living room for all the family to see when they visit.
Whenever family is around, I make sure that they know the
story of Clara’s doll, and let them know how important
the doll is to our family history.
I want my children and grandchildren to realize what a treasure
we have in Clara’s doll, what a piece of personal history.
Packed away out of sight, the children would not have had
the opportunity to grow up with her, would not have developed
any attachment to her. And not feeling any attachment to her,
they might have had little compulsion to safeguard and cherish
her when I’m gone. Clara’s doll might have ended
up in an antique shop!
If you have family heirloom items, I urge you to share them
with your family whenever and however you can. Set the old
dolls and toys out. Try the potato ricer. Use the crocheted
tablecloth. Make the old scrapbook a coffee table book. Perhaps
you could set aside shelves in a special bookcase to display
family history items, things like that old music box, ceramic
milk pitcher, salt and pepper collection, shaving mug, military
emblem or a child’s handprint in plaster-of-paris sprayed
By constantly seeing these things, your children and grandchildren
will know their value to the family, and will know that they
are heirlooms to be safeguarded and appreciated. Hopefully,
your family will come to even cherish these items as you do.
Your family will never come to love and appreciate the things
they never see and learn about. It is up to you to make sure
that yesterday’s history is part of today’s history.
A parallel thing you can do to help your family understand
and appreciate their history, and the artifacts relating to
that history, is to keep scrapbooks. Whenever you go visiting,
to babysit grandchildren or for a week-long summer vacation,
take along a scrapbook to share with your family. Show and
tell them the family history.
The best way to compile a good family scrapbook is to include
everything in three-ring binders. They are inexpensive and
very available. Here’s what to do. Purchase a couple
of three-ring binders and a box or two of acid-free top loading
vinyl sheet protectors. Put the vinyl holders in the binder,
and into them will go all the family “stuff” that
you want to keep, such as grandchildren’s letters, newspaper
clippings, love notes and photographs. Put a family pedigree
chart in the front and use this as a road map to help your
family see all the relationships. Sprinkle in family group
charts to help keep the family straight.
Arrange the items in the scrapbooks by families. Group all
the things about your grandparents, for instance, behind one
tab — letters, certificates, census copies, military
papers and photos. Include everything that might otherwise
be put in a file folder, box, or trunk and lost from sight
and then memory. Do the same for your parents, including Dad’s
school report cards and Mom’s DAR membership certificate.
Start a section for yourself, your birth and marriage certificate.
Perhaps even your Chili Cookoff Award! Having all these things
in one place will make for some very enjoyable rainy afternoon
sessions with a grandchild.
Teach your family that these things pertain to their history,
too, and are not just a collection reflecting Grandma and
Grandpa’s hobby. Look at Father’s high school
graduation picture — how different from yours! That
1912 wedding picture of your grandparents — you attend
that same church! Are the report cards reflecting grades like
yours? Looking at Grandpa’s World War I papers bring
more meaning to that moldering old hat found in the trunk.
Keep the family scrapbooks up to date. Keep adding clippings,
photos and new drawings from the children. Make these scrapbooks
vital to every member of the family. A family’s history
should be something the family lives with day to day, and
not something visited or looked upon occasionally like going
to a museum. Things packed away out of sight will soon be
out of mind. Thrift stores, flea markets, antique malls and
garage sales do a brisk business in unloved family heirlooms.
And dumps are full of them.
If you are the Official Family Collector and Historian, then
do your duty properly. Arrange and organize the information
you’ve found into good order, and do it now. You may
not have a tomorrow. Stop collecting and organize what you
already know about the family into a proper fashion to pass
on to your descendants. And start aggressively sharing the
data and items with your family; teach your family their family
history. It is up to you to leave a legacy.
article originally appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of