Ten Genealogy Lessons I Learned from My Mother

My mother was not a genealogist, but she was largely responsible for helping me to become one.  On this Mother’s Day, I thought I would share some of the life lessons Mom taught me and how I have been able to apply those lessons to my personal family history research and in my career as a genealogy professional.

Anna Alzo, 1943

1. It’s all about family. Anna (my mother) was the oldest of seven children, and was the “mother hen” to her three sisters and three brothers. She also assumed a primary caregiver role for her parents (my grandparents) during their respective illnesses. She carried out her responsibilities fully, lovingly, and without complaint. She was also a devoted wife and mother and she took a sincere interest in her relatives whether they lived nearby or far away. She had a deep love for her family, and she had a tender way of making everyone who knew her feel special. She was someone who really listened to what was going on in your life and she worried about you—your well-being and safety, whether you had to travel across town or around the world. While I spend a lot of time chasing down ancestors who have long passed away, I am often reminded that it is important to cultivate my relationships with living relatives.

2. Don’t just talk to your relatives.  Really listen to them. Beginning genealogists are always advised to “talk to their relatives” to gather information about names, dates and places. My mother always took time to listen to her parents, siblings, and cousins.  She remembered their stories and she was able to tell them to me when I became interested in learning more about our family’s background. Some of the times I enjoy most at family reunions are those times we can just sit and talk…and listen.

3. Save important items. My mother was a packrat. This was both a blessing and a curse.  After my parents passed away, the burden for cleaning out their house fell solely on me since I am an only child.  I sorted through dozens of vases, boxes of old unused greeting cards, and endless supplies of pens, key chains, and so many other miscellaneous items I would never use.  However, I also found my grandparents’ baptismal certificates, their passports, boxes of family photographs, and other items of great genealogical value. As a family historian I was lucky to find so much information right at home.

4. Keep good records. My mother was an excellent record keeper. Her “Bridal Book” has complete names and addresses of all the guests who attended her wedding and what she received from each person. Mom also saved important information, such as paperwork related to my grandparents’ house, and detailed receipts from medical appointments, including my health and immunization record book (this comes in really handy to have now with all of the news of adults needing to ask their doctors about getting booster shots for diseases like mumps or whooping cough).  Keeping good records is essential in the genealogy field.

5. It’s all in the details (they matter).  Because my mother was so meticulous, I have some really great resources that help me to learn more about her.  I have her autograph book she had in high school and it offers a glimpse into how her peers viewed her. Another treasure is a little notebook where she lists every item she or my Dad purchased for their wedding in 1947, and how much each item cost (from the wedding rings to the blood test to how many pounds of ground meat used for the holupky (stuffed cabbage) prepared for the wedding reception. I love to sort through the details I find in records and then select the best ones to include when writing family histories.

6. Respect others. One of the biggest lessons my mother taught me was to respect others.  When I was a child she made sure that I showed respect for the adults in my life (aunts, uncles, teachers, neighbors) and taught me the value of things that she bought me. Respect goes a long way in the genealogy community—whether you are requesting help from a county court clerk, a priest, or a colleague.  I’m not perfect, but I try to remember what my mother taught me about respect.

7. Pass on family recipes and traditions. Mom was a master cook and baker. She flawlessly prepared all of the traditional Slovak foods our family enjoyed, and her Lady Locks cookies were family favorites.  She passed on the recipes she received from my grandmother.  I have collected and preserved these recipes in my book, Baba’s Kitchen: Slovak & Rusyn Family Recipes and Traditions.

8. Be patient. As genealogists we need to be patient as we search the many online databases for a glimpse of our ancestors, or as we wait for vital records certificates or pension files to arrive in the mail. I wholeheartedly admit that patience is not a virtue I practice well and I often find myself asking my mom to help me be patient with a person, situation, or a research problem.

9. Be yourself. During her life my mother met many people who had more money, better jobs, better houses, and other advantages. She wasn’t fond of people who tried to be something they were not and she told me to just be myself. Mom was a lovely woman, and yet her true beauty was on the inside. She was generous and kind—always giving to those around her without expectation of anything in return. In today’s world there is always pressure to do this or that, say the right thing and to put on a face to the world and to “reinvent” oneself. We can often lose ourselves in the competition of the professional world where there are only so many slots on conference speaking schedules, or other limited opportunities to develop a niche or specialty. I have to remember to be just “me”—someone who has a unique skill set and personality.

10. Never give up. As genealogists we often hit “brick walls” in our research. We also encounter many obstacles in real life. In both instances, it is often tempting to give up when the going gets tough or a task seems impossible to accomplish.  My mother taught me to never give up and to just do my best and things will work out.

My mother was a very smart woman, and while at the time I couldn’t fully comprehend the lessons or principles she was trying to teach, I can truly appreciate them now.

Today is the 15th Mother’s Day since my mother passed away, and while I can’t physically be with my mother today, I want to thank her for helping me become a devoted genealogist, but more importantly for teaching how to keep striving to be a better person.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!


6 thoughts on “Ten Genealogy Lessons I Learned from My Mother

  1. I was fortunate when my dad cleared out my grandmother's house and found a series of postwar letters he gave to me. Unfortunately, Grandma didn't write down her recipes. She made delicious, unusual dumplings impossible to replicate!

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