Memorial Day is the perfect time to remember the importance of genealogy and family history research
Next, I went a spare bedroom dresser. As I went through the drawers, I found them all empty except for a larger drawer that Mom had filled with paperback books she had read. I pulled out half the books, became frustrated, and put the books back in the drawer, thinking that there was nothing there. As I stood to leave, the thought came to look again. I returned to the drawer again and removed all the books. At the bottom of the drawer was a sack filled with Mom's important papers, such as her birth certificate, marriage license, photographs and other documents.
Throughout the night, I went from room to room, having the same experience of knowing where to look in each room. My brother and I worked and packed until just before dawn. I privately asked for the last time, "Where else should I look?" The answer was a total sense of peace. We were done.
As the morning progressed, I became grateful that I had heeded the promptings of the night before, as my sister made it clear that my brother and I were no longer welcome in what was now her home and that we would never receive any of mom's pictures or records.
Experience 2: 'Tell the children about me'
Three weeks to the day after Mom's passing, I had a dream where I heard a knock at the front door. When I opened the door, I saw my mother. She asked me to take a walk with her. We came to an outdoor cafe, where we sat down and ordered a soft drink. During the conversation that followed, Mom reached out and held my hand and said, "Barry, will you please tell the children about me?"
I replied by saying, "Of course, Mother, I will do that." At that very moment, I awoke. I woke my wife and told her of the experience. We both found the dream somewhat odd, since during my mother's life, whenever she was asked to tell us more about her life, she would usually respond with, "It was hard; that's all you need to know."
I pondered the dream until it was time to rise to get ready for work, trying to make some sense of what I had experienced. I had no answer, so I discarded the experience as an interesting dream with little or no meaning.
Experience 3: 'Tell the children about me — now'
Three more weeks passed. During the night, the same dream I'd had three weeks earlier began to unfold exactly as it had played out before. This time, however, when I was asked, "Barry, will you please tell the children about me?" I responded with irritation in my voice, "Mother, I told you I would."
Mom responded with an emphatic voice, "Tell the children about me — now."
This time, I awoke immediately. My mind began to fill with names, with the instruction that I should talk to and record my interview with each person. I turned on the computer and began typing the five names as they appeared. At that point, I thought, "Well, if I am going to talk to these people, I should also talk to..." and I began to brainstorm other names. Then my mind went blank. I felt the most empty feeling I had ever experienced.
I immediately erased what I had added to the list and then knelt in prayer. After about 20 minutes of prayer, the first five names reappeared in my mind, followed by five new names. When I was through, I had five people I knew and five that I didn't. My instructions were to contact each person and conduct oral histories in regard to their relationship with my mother.
In the year that followed, I was able to meet with and record oral histories with each of the 10 individuals. Each one of them was able to reveal a unique chapter of my mother's life that spanned the 65 years she had lived. In addition to the oral history, I received memorabilia that represented their relationship, such as cards, letters, photographs, documents and more.
Oh, how I wish I had come to know the mother they described when she was still alive. I had come to know her now through the eyes and experiences of her friends and family. It was the first step in what would become a connection to the generations before me.
The meaning of 'tell the children about me'
In the beginning, interviewing Mom's friends and family was the limit of my intended participation in fulfilling the solemn promise I had given my mother in my dream. Genealogy and family history were not in my vocabulary. In fact, whenever I heard the words, I would usually find a good reason to leave the room.
Since Aug. 3, 1998, I have had countless experiences that have forged my path as a genealogist. From conducting oral histories to searching the lands of my ancestors, I have become the keeper of the record. It is much more than searching for names and connecting one generation to the next. It's realizing that I am the total sum of all those who came before. I am a chapter being written in a legacy to which I will humbly add my name.
As the keeper of the record, I seek to fulfill my role by carefully using the time I have available to record, manage, organize, extend and expand my family tree. I have come to understand what Mother meant when she asked me to "tell the children" about her. It's simply that she and those who have tasted the end of mortality live on. The family tree is a living bond that extends beyond mortality. And no one in that link shall be forgotten.
Barry J. Ewell is author of "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips and Tricks for Discovering your Family History" and founder of MyGenShare.com, an educational website for genealogy and family history. To download a free PDF version of "Family Treasures," email him at
email@example.com and put "Free ebook" in the subject line. He will reply with a link to download the pdf.
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