11 February 2012

Time Is Short

Crystal Hood-Pawlak 5/25/80-2/6/12
On Monday, February 6, 2012, my cousin Crystal passed away. At a mere 32 years of age, with a loving husband and five beautiful children, she was taken from this world by a heart attack. She was planning a renewal of her vows. Had even picked out a wedding dress. The last Facebook post I saw from her was Saturday. She was excited about possibly getting her federal tax return and finally purchasing a house after many setbacks. We laid her to rest today. Gathering as a family, some of us not seeing each other except for funerals and weddings, put us all in the mood to remember the fragile threads that hold us to this life. I had talked with Crystal about sitting down to get her story for my family tree, but we hadn't picked a time. It seemed that this week was too busy and next week was always just around the corner. There are things she'll never share with any of us, and the loss is profound.

If you have been doing any sort of genealogy for more than a year, you should have a great number of photos and stories from your relatives. Your tree may have some dead ends, but mostly it flourishes and grows almost every day. And yet, how much information about yourself have you documented? Do you have a journal? Do you keep records of your moves, your jobs, your interests? Even if it's not online in your tree, do you have birthdays and anniversaries for yourself and immediate family written somewhere? And what of your extensive research into your family's past? Can someone pick up right where you left off when you shuffle loose the mortal coil? Or will all you've done be lost and forgotten?

In order to protect our privacy, U.S. Census records aren't published until 72 years have passed. Now, you may think, "I'll be in my 70's or 80's, but still around. How cool!" But in reality, you may not be. How not cool. Other records in different states and countries around the world are kept private for 100 years (sometimes more) to protect the living. How long will your grandchildren have to wait for the answers you are able to supply right here and now? If you could talk to your ancestors, what questions would you wish you could get answered? Answer them now for the next generation.

Ancestry provides blank templates for censuses up to 1940. The U.S. Census Bureau has a great read called Measuring America: The Decennial Censuses From 1790 to 2000. This can provide you with information of every census and what was asked. Take the time to make a "report" of your life for these censuses so that your family won't have to wait 72 years to know who you were! And go beyond a census, write a journal if you can. Use a digital recorder or camera to record yourself and your life. Tell your story to people not yet here. Let them see and hear and feel who you are. I have always said that the only way to live a life without regret is to never let a secret lie buried, a hurt unhealed, or a thought unsaid. Even if you can't let those who know you now know something about you, it could be the answer your great great grandchildren will need.

My grandfather Gibson kept a daily record of most of his adult life. He could tell you how much he paid for anything to the penny. He wrote about birthdays, anniversaries, funerals, weddings..... heck, he wrote about how many tulips were planted in my grandmother's garden! These were little, inconsequential things. And they were priceless. I can hear his voice when I read his words. And while my children will never meet him, never hear him, they will know him. The essence of his life is in those books. My father has recently started writing things down. In my opinion, he edits too much. It's not because he's worried what people will think when he's gone (he'll tell you to your face what he doesn't like about you), he just doesn't think it's at all important. It's hard to get him to understand, it is very important. I gave him a voice recorder so he could tell his stories in a free flowing way. That way he doesn't have to think, just talk. And those stories can be saved and played back after he is gone. No one tells his story like he does, and it'd be great to keep that alive. Whether he's using it or not, I have no idea. I don't pester him. It has to be something he wants to do.

The records of our life go beyond us, of course. You've been researching your family and there is a lot of detail that may be lost if it's not organised properly. How is your organisation? Do you have your photos labelled with who is in them and when they were taken? Are your sources documented so people know what you have found and where you have looked? If you handed over everything you have today to someone else, can they follow your lead? Do you have your passwords for your membership sites listed so they can access your information when you are gone? If you can't answer these questions with a sense of security that your passing will not mean a loss of all that you've spent your time on, then you need to get cracking! Don't expect to live, or be able to research, forever. Eventually you will have to pass the torch on to someone else. And don't hoard what you find. Share it with anyone in your family that's interested. Start grooming your "successor" while you're still around to insure they'll not screw up all your hard work.

I know one day, Crystal's youngest son may ask questions about a mother he barely had time to know. I deeply regret that I know he won't get those answers from me. I mourn the fact that some answers will never be given, as no one alive knows them. It's hard to believe that we would have to be diligent about documenting the life of such a young woman. I honestly thought that I could always catch up with her later, even if that was decades from now. That chance will never come for me. Don't let that chance pass your family by.


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