Getting to the Family Stories

Family stories are what our family members want to read in our family histories.

  • Go beyond the records by placing our ancestors in the context of their surroundings.
  • Record accurate information so your family can believe your narratives.
  • Fully document the facts and relationships.
  • Include maps, charts, and photographs that help explain the stories and add visual details.
  • Write for the non-genealogists with organized and understandable information

I found information for my family histories by reading accounts about the daily lives of Polish villagers living close to where my ancestors left. I discovered vintage pictures of the Polish towns and churches and looked through our family albums for early images of life in America. Pictures are essential when describing their lives in Poland and America.

Ask questions about what would affect their experiences in Poland and America. What challenges did they face? What did they experience on their immigration journey? Remember, you will not find answers to most of these questions. However, asking the questions will give you a better perspective of their experiences.

I try to bring my ancestors alive by adding as much social history as I can. However, I try to be careful not to fictionalize their lives by forcing them into events that were not part of their lives. For example, I included a brief history of the railroad shops in Bloomington, Illinois, to explain why they were seeking jobs there. I also described the details of the work that my grandfather did. However, I did not explain the workings of all of the various departments because it would not be relevant to my grandfather.

It is also vital we save our memories of the ancestors that we knew, especially of our parents and grandparents. I feel writing down our memories in a first-person voice seems to personalize my family histories and brings the memory to life. Here are some memories I included at the end of my grandmother’s narrative that relate directly to me.

  • “After I entered St Pat’s Grade School, I began walking with my grandmother the two blocks to Sunday mass. This walk was always pleasant, and I would ramble on with stories on various topics that she would patiently listen to before sometimes commenting. She was always very patient with me.”
  • “Dinners at grandma’s table were very basic because she did not bring any Polish recipes with her from the old country. Our meals consisted of simple meat, potato, and vegetable American-type menus.”
  • “I was picky about what I ate, and grandma would usually make something special for me. Later as an adult, I was frustrated when my children and grandchildren were picky, but I have a special love for my grandmother for spoiling me.”

Most of my writing starts in an encyclopedic format, such as:

“My grandfather Stefan Zuchowski was born on December 26, 1893, to Leopold Zuchowski and Anna Dmochowski in Dmochy Kudly, Poland.”

However, as I find more information and details, I can make the stories more interesting. Here is a later more interesting version with added details:

“My grandfather’s, Steve Zuchowski, birth was in a small cottage in the farming village of Dmochy Kudly, Poland, on December 26, 1893. The next day, his parents Leopold Zuchowski and Anna Dmochowska, carried him five miles down the dirt road to be baptized at Peter and Paul the Apostles Catholic Church in Czyzew. Steve’s parents were descendants of minor Polish nobles who had owned large estates.”

Here is where I got the details to make the story appealing:

  • Birthplace, location of the church, birth, and baptismal dates were from Steve’s baptismal record
  • Being descendants from nobility was listed in notations in the baptismal and marriage records of his parents.
  • The size of the cottage and condition of the roads came from vintage pictures of the village.

Remember, our collections of family stories, photos, and documents are incomplete unless someone writes an explanation of how they are related. The narrative creates our unique family history and is essential for the future enjoyment of our children and grandchildren. If you feel you do not have the skills to do this, who in your family can? If you like to do the research, is there someone that can work with you to write it? Also, my encyclopedic format is a simple and easy method to start writing your family history. Expand the stories with the details and make them hard to put down.  

I hope you develop the same passion for genealogy as I have, and “Remember to have fun.”

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