Give Your Family A Gift That Money Can't Buy

Give Your Family A Gift That Money Can't Buy

By Jeffrey A. Bockman

Originally published in Everton's Genealogical Helper November/December 2007, page 54.

Whenever someone becomes interested in learning about the history of their family the first thing they are told to do is to contact the older family members and record what they know about their parents, grandparents, and family traditions. Too often people do not become interested until after they have lost a parent and find themselves in a position of being one of the "older" family members.

About ten years ago I began giving lectures to encourage seniors that were not interested in doing research to at least record and preserve the information that a future researcher would need and appreciate. Over the years the lecture handouts grew into a booklet and now it has become a book titled Give Your Family A Gift That Money Can't Buy.

The lectures and the book outline five basic concepts: Recording the Basic Facts, Gathering Home Sources, Documenting Photographs, Preserving Them All, and then Telling the Family Stories. The book is also a good tool for anyone who is interested in starting to research their family's history. Experienced researchers in their quest to find more and more ancestors often overlook a few of the concepts, especially the one about telling their own family stories.

Basic Facts

The two basic forms: Family Group Sheet (FGS) and Ancestor Chart are introduced. While creating classroom lesson plans it became obvious that the Family Group Sheets should be filled out first since they contain all of the information necessary to complete portions of an Ancestor Chart. The information about all of the siblings is very useful and often provides a path to get around a research brickwall. It is also a good idea to get as much information as possible during an initial interview to prevent the need for follow-up calls or visits or the possibility of losing the contact.

  • Record and Preserve Your Family's HistoryThis article explains why I wrote the book by the same name, and covers the major items included in it. Too often after we become "Experienced" we forget about a few of the basics learned along the way. Besides recording the basic facts it also covers identifying photographs, basic preservation, and most importantly, telling family stories.

    • The book and my lecture also include examples of personal home sources and family stories. If you find this article interesting I am sure you would enjoy the book. Click to the right to order it or ask you local library to add it to their collection.

    • "A Gift That Keeps on Giving - Mr. Bockman explains how and why we need to leave our priceless memories and artifacts for those who come after us." - Leland Meitzler's introduction to the article.

For information on my "A Gift That Money Can't Buy" Lecture

The basic forms can be found online, including: Family Group Sheet & Ancestor Chart

Often overlooked, not always completed, nor fully appreciated are the many extra questions on a FGS such as: Places of Residence, Occupation, Church Affiliation, Military Service, and Other Spouses. The answers to these questions can often provide the clues needed to find other records. The residence and occupation can often help to differentiate between multiple people with the same name. Their religion can lead to church records. The names of their other spouses might provide the information necessary to find the death, burial and an obituary for a female that married again after being widowed or divorced. The marriage record or a newspaper articles for one of the other marriages might provide additional information. Jane West Demary had previously been married to a Morris Raworth. The New York City newspaper entry dated May 7, 1883 showed "Sunday Rev Edward Mitchel, Morris Raworth, son of late Dr Raworth of Leicester England to Jane dau of Jared Hamilton West of this city." That was the only public record that I could find to confirm her father's name. These items are often overlooked entirely when data entry is done directly into a family tree computer program.

Everyone is encouraged to complete a family group sheet for the family that they grew up with and for any families that they have had. This would provide information on four generations and it would be a great starting point for any future researcher.

Home Sources

With the access to many vital records becoming more restricted, home sources may provide the only accessible copies in the future. I owe most of my interest and experience in family history research to both the abundance of documents and photographs left by my mother's family and the almost total lack of information left by my father's family.

Too often when "downsizing" from the old family home into an apartment, condo or retirement community people throw out valuable documents that a future family historian would treasure. Having the names and dates is good, but it is the home sources that can provide the proof that is needed. They also provide a lot of interesting information, clues, and insights about the people.

Family members are the ones most likely to keep copies of records or newspaper articles unless it was about the arrest of a loved one. However some other family member might have it hung on the wall. Home sources can include everything from a family bible to copies of vital records, newspaper articles, correspondence, photographs, business documents, diaries, hospital birth records, or even a birth crib card.

Home sources can often provide information about or give some insight into delicate or personal family situations. See the List of Home Sources

My grandfather Alvar Bockman left his wife having to care for four small children. My grandmother then destroyed any photographs and any references of him and she never spoke of him again. Their older children had a few memories of him but they didn't appear to be that interested about him. Unfortunately, as a result the younger children and all future generations have a large segment of their family history that is missing. I would have greatly appreciated a photograph of him and the names of his parents. He must have had some good features for someone to marry him and have four children. It would be nice to know what they were. See "Finding Alvar, a Not So Great Dane" in the July/Aug 2007 issue of the Helper to learn more about my search for him.

My mother's father died when she was only three years old so she never had the opportunity to know him. Fortunately her mother saved photographs and a variety of letters and documents. One of the items saved and handed down was a box that contained about 90 letters that he had written home while stationed in France during World War I. There was also a notebook with all of his military orders and official letters. The letters that he sent home give us at least a brief glimpse into some of his interests and observations along with telling us what he was doing.

The early letters said "Somewhere in France" and "Somewhere else in France" because all of the letters were being censored to make sure that they didn't divulge anyone's exact location. I was able to determine where the letters were written based upon the date of the letter and then comparing them to a timeline that I had created by reviewing his military orders and seeing where he was stationed on the various dates.

While growing up I was aware of my father's progressive paralysis. I had seen pictures of him as a healthy ballplayer, dancer, and doing acrobatics when he was younger but we never really discussed the time period, shortly before I was born, when he became ill.

After he had died I came across several of his scrapbooks that were filled with photographs and newspaper clippings from when he was dancing in New York City. One of the newspaper clippings told of his illness. The Broadway column by Danton Walker included "The youngsters in the ballet of "Song of Norway" are taking up a collection for one of their former members, Charles Bockman, stricken with a malady which will eventually paralyze him. Any contributions for his medical care will be appreciated." There was also a get-well card signed by many of the cast members along with The Playbill. This was part of his way of dealing with that time period.


Starting from the moment that a child is born everyone is always saying something like "the baby has their mother's eyes" or their "the father's chin." Photographs provide a chance to see and compare several generations of a family and see who resembled whom. With pictures you can often see how different generations looked at the same age.

Having all of the names and dates on a form is a good start; however it provides a very skeletal view of a person. Having a photograph helps to start turning them into a real person. Finding a photograph of people that cannot be identified or are only partially identified, for example, "Aunt Martha in 1912," is extremely frustrating. Seeing photographs where someone took the time to write the names and dates on the back sitting in an antique shop is equally frustrating. Fortunately there are websites where people try to reunite these photographs with the correct family.

Please take the time to properly identify and preserve your family's photographic treasures.


You want to make sure that future generations will be able to enjoy all of the various forms, documents, photographs, certificates, books, photographs, newspapers, etc. that you have. How you preserve and store these materials will be the way that they are kept for many years to come. If not stored properly, about the time that the value of the material is finally appreciated it could be too late.

The materials being preserved need protection from mechanical or physical damage, excessive handling, oils and perspiration, acidic fumes, visible and ultraviolet light, insects, rodents and normal decay. Prepare them for storage that makes it more usable, and limits future damage while not causing any further damage. Do not do anything that cannot be undone, such as lamination. Storage in the appropriate type of container and location to allow the desired access, protect it from hazards, and limit the expose to further damage.

Handle all items gently. Use clean light cotton gloves or handle by the edges to prevent fingerprints or hand oil stains.

Sheet & Photo Protectors

that are made from: Polyester (Mylar, Polyethylene, or Polypropylene should be used for documents and photographs. These are all odorless. Do not use PVC or anything with a "new car" smell.


Storage boxes should be "archival" quality. They should be acid-free and lignin free. There are a variety of sizes and styles available depending upon the items being saved.

Store all of the items in a safe environment:

Temperature & Humidity

: The ideal conditions are 60 degrees Fahrenheit with 40% Relative Humidity. Extreme temperature changes should be avoided. Avoid storage in a basement, attic or garage. An interior main floor closet is a good alternative.


: Sunlight can fade displayed photographs and documents. Display a copy or use an ultra-violet filter Plexiglas. Storage boxes can become heated if stored where exposed to direct sunlight


: Consider all possible situations and take reasonable precautions. Do not store items directly below an area with potential water damage from a roof or pipe leak or an appliance overflow. Fireplace sparks and smoke damage from a down draft should also be avoided.

My maternal grandmother had done quite a bit of genealogical research. Unfortunately I did not become really interested in research until after her death. Over the years I had to question and eventually cut down several family branches that lead back to medieval England. There were also a few other lines that I was trying to verify. I had asked my Aunt on several occasions if she had any of my grandmother's records but I never received a reply. Fourteen years later and shortly after my Aunt died my cousins gave me three large boxes that contained several books, my grandmother's notebooks, photographs, correspondence, and a variety of documents. The boxes and much of the content were covered with mold from a flood that had occurred in the basement where they were stored. . Fortunately they were stored above the water level and my grandmother had saved many of the documents in mylar sleeves. I had to throw out all of the boxes, binders, and the sleeves but they had done their job and preserved the documents.

Family Stories

Families are people joined together by shared experiences, both good and bad. A family group sheet lists only the marriage and the birth of their children between a person's birth and death. Obviously there is much more that can and needs to be told. Take the opportunity to tell about yourself and your family, especially the time period before the next generation was old enough to remember anything. Also recall any passed down stories about your parents, grandparents, and other family members.

Timelines are a handy way to start putting events into chronological order. Some of the more important events should then be expanded upon. Timelines can also be used to help document items that are of interest such as the cars that were owned, the places where they lived, where they went to school, the jobs that they held, and where they worked. Portions may resemble a resume. Like a prospective employer a good researcher will have questions about any time gaps or major changes so you might as well explain them. There are many very nice books available that provide questions about life in the "olden days" with room for you to answer. They can help get you started but they might not ask the correct questions for you to really tell about yourself and your family.

Try to write about the situations that show what you or someone else was really like. Tell about the things and events that were really important to you and your family. A story about a certain situation can often provide a real insight into a person personality. Explain the background behind those stories that cause your family to laugh at the mention of a single word or place name. Tell the stories that make your family "Your Family."

From the time that I was five until twenty years old our annual "Family Vacation" was a major part of our life. It became our life calendar and most major events were remembered in relation to that year's trip. Spending a month in a car definitely provided a lot of shared experiences. The memories, my mother's diaries, and the 400 slides that my father took every year help to keep those trips alive.

Just because someone else in the family may have told some of the stories there is no reason for you not to do it as well. You might have had access to additional information or have had a different viewpoint. Just about every witness at a car accident or a bank robbery gives the police a different description about what they all just saw. There are many ways for you to do this. It could be done with written or recorded stories, outlines, sketches, drawings, printings, or any way that you care to express yourself.

Your Turn

Your descendants can spend a lot of time doing research or hire a researcher to find out a lot of facts about you but they will not be able to really learn that much about you as a person.

The information about your family that should be recorded and preserved is not only for your children but also for their children, and their children.

Even if you did not have any children your nieces and nephews will appreciate the information. You might have knowledge of or a different viewpoint of an event than that of their parents.

While you or someone you are interviewing may want to fill out everything on a form in order, some of the names, places, or dates just cannot be remembered. Start with what you remember.

The human memory is a funny thing. Once someone's mind starts hunting around for information it usually comes up with some of the answers. It might be in the middle of the night. Everyone has experienced the "it is on the tip of my tongue" syndrome and then after a while they "remembered" the name of a person or place. After starting to recall and then talking about events from a particular time period then the other associated details will soon come to mind. The mind stores information by using associations. Be patient, it has to figure out where it stored all of that information and then begin to sift through it all since it is no longer stored in the brain's index.

Why not spend a little time and energy and give your family a gift that money can't buy? It may be time for you to record and preserve your family's history.

If you are looking for a good gift for that relative that has a lot of information that you would like to know but they have been unwilling to answer your questions consider ordering a copy of the book Give Your Family A Gift That Money Can't Buy for them. {See for details.}