H.G. Wells popularized the idea of mechanized time travel in his 1895 book The Time Machine. Ever since then, science fiction books and movies have exploded with hundreds of tales of adventurers jumping backwards or forwards through time.
I wish I could give you the secret for how to zoom to the future and bring the secrets back to the present. Or how to disappear into the past and visit with the people that lived long ago. However, since flux capacitors are in short supply, I’ll have to introduce you to a different technique.
Although we don’t have a time machine to take us back and forth through time, we do have some of the greatest information technology available that can help us connect to the past. One of the best things you can do is learn how to connect with the past — in particular, with your own family and ancestors.
I recently wrote about why we should connect with the past. I hope you’re convinced to give it a try. It’s an activity that can improve your heart and spirit. However, without knowing how to connect you might feel a bit stuck.
Let me start you with a challenge, and then I’ll give you 3 simple ways that will help you succeed at that challenge.
2-Minute, 2-Week Challenge: Find 2 minutes a day to connect with your family’s past. Do this for 2 weeks.
Step 1: A pencil, some paper, and a box
Before we delve into anything high tech, the best place to start is low tech: a pencil, a piece of paper, and a box.
If delving into genealogical charts and family trees on the internet seems intimidating, this is the step for you. Start out by getting a pencil, a piece of paper, and a box that can hold both of those items.
For day one, this might be your two minutes. That’s OK if that’s all you do.
On day two, take your piece of paper and start by writing down your name. Write down your birth date, birth place, and any other basic biographical information.
Next, expand the information to your nearest family. If you are married, record your marriage information. If you have children, write down their basic information as well. If you are younger or don’t have children, this part may go quickly. If you’re older and have grandchildren, this may take a little longer. But step by step, get down all this information.
Wait! Isn’t this supposed to be about the past? Why am I having you write down about the present?
Don’t worry, we’ll get to the past in the next paragraph. Just remember, you’ll one day be a part of the past, and you’ll want all this information compiled. Plus, by writing down your own information, you’ll create a template for what you’ll want to know about your family in the past.
The next step heads into the past. Take your piece of paper and expand your information backwards.
Write what you know about your parents. Names, birthdays, places they lived. If you’re adopted, write down birth parents as well as adopted parents. Grab more paper if needed.
After you record your parents information, write down any information you have about your grandparents. Then move on to great-grandparents. Go back as far as you can. At this point, don’t worry about looking up information — just write down what you know.
Remember, you’re just spending 2 minutes a day. While you’re welcome to spend more time, I encourage you to start off by establishing a small habit. Find a specific prompt or cue, create an easy habit, and then celebrate accomplishing the habit each day. For more about habits read You Should Do 2 Pushups Every Day for 2 Weeks or visit tinyhabits.com learn more.
You may feel an urge to engage with complicated computer software to record and organize this information. That is fine, but I really recommend keeping it simple to begin with. If you’re a beginner, before you go down the computer rabbit hole, just stick with the piece of paper. Using a notebook instead of a loose sheet of paper is fine, but don’t let the lack of a new notebook be a barrier from starting.
Remember — you don’t need to commit hours of time. You will be surprised at what you get done by just committing to 2 minutes each day.
And what about the box?
First, keep your piece of paper with your notes in the box. The box will be a visual cue of your commitment. It will show you that you’ve made time and space each day to learn about your family.
Second, use the box to gather any physical photos, memorabilia, news articles, etc. Start with any key items about yourself, and expand backwards with your parents, grandparents, etc.
Admittedly, most of our pictures and information can be stored as digital pictures (see #2 below). As a result, you may end up creating a digital file folder on your computer that represents your “box.” However, for starters, I recommend using the physical box.
Again, you don’t need to commit to hours a day. Just commit to 2 minutes and see what gets done.
Step 2: Gather information from others
After you’ve started on writing down all the information that you have in your head, you’ll eventually reach a limit to what you remember. This limit may come quickly — that is OK.
This is when you start reaching out to others.
Call, email, or text a family member. It could be a sibling, parent, aunt, or uncle. See what they know about your family’s past. Write down facts, stories, memories.
Admittedly, a call to a great-aunt to listen to stories about your great-grandma may take a little longer than 2 minutes. However, these experiences won’t occur on most days. Most days will involve setting up a time to talk, sorting notes, finding contact information, etc. These are activities that can be accomplished with just a few minutes effort.
As you contact others, you will be able to fill in the details on your family notes that you don’t yet have.
What about keepsakes? While other family members may not be willing to part with important keepsakes, memorabilia, or photos from your grandparents or great-grandparents, there is a special advantage to being in the 21st century.
Almost anyone can take a decent digital photo and send it to you with minimal effort. As you connect with other family members, see what they have and ask them to snap a photo for you. Not only does this give you a copy for your records, but it also preserves the memory from potential damage in the case of fire, flood, etc.
This can be an easy way to celebrate someone’s birthday. A quick email or text to family members like “Hey, today’s great-grandpa’s birthday. To celebrate, could you snap a photo of something he owned and send it to me?”
Step 3: Online Research
It used to be that once you had exhausted your own family’s records and memories, the only way to learn more about ancestors was by (1) researching at large genealogical libraries, or (2) traveling the world to visit sites, find gravestones, read town records, or talk to locals who may remember stories and traditions passed down in the local area.
As a result, “real” genealogy and family history research was left to professionals, retirees, or those who were crazy passionate about it and were willing to sacrifice all their free time to do the research.
While we still tip our hats to these devoted researchers of family history (and we still need their help and expertise!), the modern era has democratized and digitized genealogical records to a degree that almost anyone can get involved.
There are many sites out there dedicated to family history. If you need to get started, however, I recommend a few places to start.
FamilySearch.org is free to use and has one of the largest databases of family records from around the world. FamilySearch users crowd-source a common family tree and family information, so you can not only find records, but you can see how individuals and families are connected.
Ancestry.com is a global leader in genealogical information. Full access requires a paid account, but the extent of records is unparalleled.
Geni.com focuses on creating a world family tree and like FamilySearch, has a user-crowd sourced family tree for the world.
BillionGraves.com and FindAGrave.com might sound like a Halloween-themed site, but they are a large repository of photos of gravestones in cemeteries around the world. Rather than traveling to a rural county to find a grave site of an ancestor, a volunteer has taken a picture and posted it online for you. Take advantage!
There are also numerous online genealogy and family history classes you can take to learn more and advance your skills. The sky is the limit for what you can learn in the comfort of your own home.
A Last Word of Warning
My challenge for you was to try this out for 2 minutes a day for 2 weeks. As with my other habit challenges, I highly recommend starting off small and keeping the habit easy.
You may find that after 2 weeks, this is not a habit that sticks with you for the long term. That is OK; not every habit works for everyone at every time of life.
However, I will warn you that, for most people, once you get into the information and research, you will find it addicting! When you find a census record showing a divorced mother and two children living with her parents in rural Iowa in 1915, you will want to know more about the story.
What happened to the dad? Where did the kids end up? Did the mom get remarried? Who ended up doing most of the kid-raising work — mom or grandparents?
You will get curious about the people you learn about. What were there interests? What were their challenges? Would you have been friends with them if you had known them?
You will note the missing pieces of information and start looking for them like you search for the last missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle. And when you can’t find it, you might find yourself wishing you could go at it H.G. Wells style and build a time machine!
Help me get started!
If you’d like a little coaching to get you started, sign up here (FREE!). I’ll send you 7 prompts over 2 weeks to keep you on track with your 2 minute goal and give you ideas for what to try next. I’ll also keep you posted on other habits that will help you grow in Body, Mind, Heart, and Spirit.