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Family History: Lessons Learned

Updated: Feb 23, 2019

Clan Forbes Society invited professional personal historian Anne Bolen of Anne B. History, LLC, to share some of her lessons learned from helping individuals preserve their family histories.

Anne Bolen, Owner of Anne B. History, LLC
Anne Bolen, Owner of Anne B. History, LLC

I make my living as a personal historian for hire. I help individuals and families preserve their experiences and memories so that the next generation can understand what shaped their personalities and the mindsets of other times and other places.

That really is what family history is all about, trying to envision our ancestor’s lives. As I look over the stories I have been privileged to hear over the past year, I have learned some wonderful lessons. Let me share them with you.

1) The recurring theme of the year is that parents have fascinating stories, but they have a hard time seeing how it would be of interest, even when their children are clamoring to hear them. Parents seem to see their stories as anecdotes too-often repeated and they think their children only want to hear the happy bits. Conversely, the message that I repeatedly heard from adult children, many now with children of their own, is that they want a record of the hard times as well as the classic family tales. We are all looking for guidance in our lives, and as we come across situations that our parents faced, we want to know how they handled those tough times. I can look at the challenges that my parents faced in their lifetimes, and it makes me want to know how world situations and family relations shaped their personality. As we examine our own strengths and stress-fractures, we naturally look to those that shaped us and wonder about the same things.

2) It’s rare that someone will fill out a questionnaire. As I have worked to spread the message of saving family stories, hundreds of people have told me that they have sent emails and books and templates to their parents or other family members to fill out with their memories and experiences. Very few ever get a response. This is why I focus my service on sitting down and coaching someone through a conversation. To quote from a diary of a woman that travelled the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon “If I get to see you again, I can tell you more in an hour than I can with months of letters.”

3) Real love stories are more inspirational than any Hollywood movie.

4) During our lives, we all casually bump up against historic moments and figures. I spoke with someone that had a German prisoner of war camp in her hometown. Another woman met the inventor of UNIVAC. One man stood at the crater of the Nagasaki atomic bomb site. A man drafted to serve in Vietnam was caught in the midst of the Tet Offensive. And each of these people thought that their stories were “just not that important.” Luckily, the family members of these remarkable storytellers reached out to me to have their stories recorded, but not usually because of momentous events. They originally just hoped that I could capture the details of everyday living. Many didn’t know how enmeshed their family was in world events.

5) Monetary prosperity does not create happiness. Poverty can create drive. People used to accept that life was going to be really hard work. Hard work at an unglorified task was the norm.

6) Behind every goofy grandpa and sweet-tempered grandma is someone that has overcome unbelievable odds.

7) You may assume a lot of things about your family and their experiences, but be prepared to hear something surprising that may not make sense to your modern opinions. Those that lived through the Great Depression often look back on their childhood as happy and joyful. Those that protested the Vietnam War or fought in the 1960s for the rights of blacks or women or Native Americans still have the hope that they can change the world. They did. And so far 100% of them agree that things are crazier now than they were in the 1960s.

8) No matter age or generation or gender, people have always worried about not fitting in. As cultural expectations change, it can be just as hard to be labeled as too smart as it is to be thought dumb.

9) Those that love genealogy and family history often forget to record their own story.

10) It’s a lot harder to capture the sense of someone’s personality when you have to recreate it after they have passed away.

Make a point this year to capture a story within your own family. Maybe it will be your own. I eagerly look forward to another year of learning life lessons. Never think that your story doesn’t matter.

Anne Bolen of Anne B. History is the current Co-Chair of the Scottish-American Women’s Society of Washington, D.C. Stories from her great-grandparents, Edith & Donald McLean, helped inspire her to help families preserve their stories for the next generation. If you would like to learn more about personal history interviews, please check her website

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