Use props to pry out family stories
The true joy of genealogy isn't getting the family pedigree chart back one more generation. The pleasure is learning about how our families lived. Discovering some nifty little detail that helps us understand what it was like for them is thrilling. When I started my research, I never expected to find royalty or heroism anywhere along the lines. Both sides of my family, for the couple of generations I knew, were poor dirt farmers. This is a story about a family portrait that sat on the piano or on a living room table for the 18 years I lived with my family. Like many things that are parts of our everyday lives, eventually we all stopped "seeing" that picture. A few years ago, I went to visit my dad's only surviving sibling. Aunt Rose and I had never been close, and our chat was a bit awkward. She kept saying "I don't remember" to almost every question I asked her. Frustrated and struggling with the conversation, I looked around for something to spark her interest.I spotted that same family portrait, framed and on a table in her living room. There stood my grandparents and 13 of their children. Each person was impeccably dressed. The women wore lovely dresses with high-heel shoes and pearls, and the young men and boys all wore suits and ties. "Do you remember when that picture was taken?" I asked Aunt Rose. It was a magic question. Her eyes began to sparkle, and I could tell she was remembering a lot. Her oldest sister, Cullie Mae, was a private nurse, working for a rich family for $21 a week. She made arrangements with an area photographer to come out to the house and photograph the entire family together. She knew that being a poor farming family, they didn't have very nice clothes for the formal portrait she envisioned. She set out to change that, paying what she could from her own pocket and inspiring her siblings to put forth some effort, too. She bought the suits for the two youngest boys. Two other sisters, Ruby and Rose, and their brother John hoed cotton on a neighboring farm for four days at $1.50 a day to buy shoes. Rose wore a dress that her oldest brother, Luther, had bought for their sister Martha to get married in. Martha hadn't liked it, so she gave it to Rose. And, by the way, Martha was pregnant with her first child, although that doesn't show in the picture. Are these silly little details that don't really matter? Not to a family historian. My records already were filled with the dates of birth and death for all these aunts and uncles. I knew when each had married and the names and vital dates on all their children. But now I can see 15-year-old Rose and 13-year-old Ruby, backs bent, feet bare, in homemade cotton dresses hoeing cotton in the hot Georgia sun. And I can see them taking their $6 profits to town to buy those vampy white summer shoes. And I know my dad would have hated wearing shoes. (He often said he had to go barefoot in the cold winter because he had hidden his shoes in the woods rather than wear them in the summer.) He certainly would not have been happy about wearing that suit and bow tie. The younger kids revered their sister Cullie Mae. She told them the photographer was coming, and they WOULD behave. No one else — not even Grandma or Papa Tate — could have made it happen as she did. So you family scribes keep in mind that there probably is a story behind each photograph – just don't wait too late to ask.
Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogy questions and event announcements to her in care of Baylife, The Tampa Tribune, 200 S. Parker St., Tampa, FL 33606 or firstname.lastname@example.org. She regrets that she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching specific individuals.