Someone Has to be the Family Historian

(Virginia Allain wrote this 4 years ago shortly after her mother’s death)

When the keeper of the family history dies, it puts at risk the accumulated knowledge of many generations. Who will carry on the family stories, preserve the family photographs, and track the important family dates?

Although I’ll get some help from my sisters, it seems that I’m now the designated family historian. I’m honored that they entrusted me with the room full of family history files and genealogy binders and boxes of vintage photos. Our mom, Gail Lee Martin, worked diligently over the years accumulating and sorting all the information.

my writing notebooks

Gail’s shelves above her computer. Her son, Owen, built the shelving for her.

In the years before the Internet, she visited courthouses and cemeteries, wrote lots of letters, squinted over reels of microfilm and painstakingly recorded what she found into notebooks. Thank goodness I’m a librarian and fortunately, a retired one with the time to take it on. Carrying on the family history is right up my alley.

Last year I joined a genealogy club in my community and I’ve been researching with for several years. My mother and I worked on two books that I self-published for her. Three more were underway. I guess you could say that I’ve been in training to assume this role.

As I packed up her papers, I began to realize the days, weeks and years of research that it represented. Thank you, Mom, for all that you did to save the family stories for future generations.


The Martin/McGhee family history stored on shelves and in cupboards in its new home.

UPDATE: Since I wrote this, I’ve created a Martin/McGhee family blog called Then and Now. It has 58 family history stories so far that includes the Vining, Joy, Stone, Tower, and Kennedy lines as well.

This blog, Discovering Mom, was started in May 2013 and I have added 240 posts on it.

I hope to self-publish in 2017 a book about Gail Lee Martin’s 1940s years. This will include her last year of high school, the WWII years, and the first five years of marriage.

I’ve created our family tree on Ancestry so others can find the information Mom collected and what I’ve added to it. So far, it contains 4,810 people, 2,482 photos, and 230 stories.

There is still much work to do in preserving the family history and making it accessible to others.


Back to Work on Family History

I need to buckle down and delve into my mother’s genealogy notebooks. The first year after her death, I didn’t have the heart to start working on them. Over the last couple of years, I’ve dipped into them now and then, but haven’t really worked on them.

Now enough time has passed that I’m ready to move forward. My online writing on other topics has reached a plateau. That leaves me free time to transfer information from Mom’s notebooks to my tree on She worked on the family history before the proliferation of online genealogy information. Now, it’s time to make her research accessible to others through these websites, through blogs and through self-published books.


A chart in one of Gail Lee Martin’s genealogy notebooks.


Mom collected this information over years of painstaking research that involved visits to courthouses, libraries, and cemeteries. She strained her eyes to read through reels and reels of microfilm ordered from the government. She wrote to distant relatives. She visited ones within driving distance. Then, she carefully documented what she learned.

I have several contacts asking for family records, so that will spur me into researching those requested topics. I also need to contact older relatives for information they may have.

I hope to assemble photos and stories from Mom’s charts and notes into blog posts on our family history site on WordPress. The name of the blog is Then and Now but mostly it is about the past. Drop by now and then to see what I’ve posted recently.

If you have a membership to Ancestry, my profile name on there is vallain159.

N is for Never Ninety

I wanted my mother to live forever, I guess. Even though I knew that wasn’t realistic, I was hopeful that she’d live well into her nineties at least. After all, her grandmother lived to be 91 and great-grandfather lived to 92. Her Aunt Bertha lived to 96 and Aunt Vina to 94.

Those are all from the Tower line in our family. It’s pretty remarkable for people born in the 1800s to live that long. I was hoping that those Tower genes would carry Mom along into the nineties too.

We had worked together to complete the two books, Mom’s memoir and the collected stories about Dad’s life. I’d hoped the three works-in-progress gave her some incentive to hang around. I really needed her input on our Civil War ancestor’s book and on Aunt Bertha’s biography.

The book includes her prize-winning essay on "My Mother's Apron."

My mother’s memoir.

They say that having a passion for something contributes to longevity. Sadly, she did not regain her zest for writing and research and genealogy after Dad died. Her health issues and missing her spouse of 67 years dragged her down. She died of a broken hip followed by a heart attack at 88.

Now it is up to me to make those books happen. I worry that there will be gaps that I can’t fill without her knowledge of family history. I worry that I can’t tell the stories like she could.

Knowing that they won’t be perfect, I need to go forward with the projects. It is what she would want. Here’s hoping I live until 99 to complete all the family projects.

The book about Dad.

The book about Dad.

L is for Living in the Good Old Days

Sometimes people complain that life is too rushed, too complicated, too expensive now. Contemplate what your life would be like 60 or 70 years ago. Think of the 1930s, 1940s.

You were likely to be living in a rural area or a small town at that time. The children attended school in a one-room or two room school-house. There was an outhouse out back or if the area was very progressive, an indoor bathroom.

Look at the clothes. The dresses might be made from printed feedsack material sewn on a Singer sewing machine. On wash day, a wringer washing machine made life easier than the previous generation’s washtub and scrub board. If you had young children, there were no disposable diapers or diaper services. Those stinky cloth diapers had to be washed too. Everything was hung out on the clothesline even in freezing weather.

From our family album, a 1930s picture. My mother is the littlest girl standing in the doorway. The others are her cousins.  Teterville, Kansas

From our family album, a 1930s picture. My mother is the littlest girl standing in the doorway. The others are her cousins.
Teterville, Kansas

Most of your food was grown at home and preserved by canning. Putting a meal on the table might involve catching the chicken, wringing its neck and plucking the feathers before you cooked it.

A wood stove in the living room heated the house. Cutting and stacking the wood in preparation for the winter was laborious. The stove didn’t heat the whole house very well, so in the morning frost coated the insides of the bedroom windows.

Many of my mother’s stories of her childhood are lovingly nostalgic, but would she have wanted to go back to a time without modern conveniences? Would you? Tell me your feelings on this.

K is for Keeper of Family Treasures

As the generation that came of age during World War I passed away, my mother assumed the role of preserving the memories of her parents and her aunts and uncles.

A number of her elderly relatives had no children to leave their photos, diaries, and special pieces to, so they handed them along to my mother.

One of the family portraits that came into Mom's keeping.

One of the family portraits that came into Mom’s keeping.

The family treasures like Uncle Albert’s WWI diary and his military helmet were safe in her care. These were entrusted to her by Albert’s widow, Vina. Mom visited Vina in the nursing home and gathered tidbits of family history from her. On the wall of Mom’s writing room hung the whatnot shelf that Albert made.

Here's Albert Vining's shelf that he made. Mom used to keep books on it in her writing room.

Here’s Albert Vining’s shelf that he made. Mom used to keep books on it in her writing room.

When her Aunt Bertha died, Mom preserved the photo album filled with vintage black-and-white pictures showing Bertha and the Navajo children in New Mexico where she worked in 1929 and 1930.

Bertha McGhee's photo from her time teaching in Farmington, New Mexico.

Bertha McGhee’s photo from her time teaching in Farmington, New Mexico.

Of course, no one person can save everything from previous generations, but my mother made a valiant effort to gather and write the stories from earlier generations of McGhees, Towers, Vinings, Martins, Joys and Kennedys. She served as the family historian or the archivist. She published many of the stories in Kanhistique, but that magazine has ceased publication.

These issues featured Gail Lee Martin's articles.

These issues featured Gail Lee Martin’s articles.

Now the photos, the letters, the diaries and her writings are in my keeping. I’ll do my best to maintain them and feature them for others to enjoy just like my mother did before me.

Here’s where I’ve showcased Albert Vining’s WWI experience: Albert Vining in WWI. The plan for Bertha McGhee’s photos, diary and letters is to make a book with those. We started this project together, but now I must carry it on solo.

You can read more about Bertha McGhee here: Navajo School – Farmington NM 1929-1931 and Bertha McGhee – Missionary from Kansas.

I’m a Woman on a Mission

I inherited my mother’s genealogy and family history files and writings two years ago. I feel it is my mission now to get as much information and pictures online as possible for the next generation to access. These bits of paper are our ancestor’s legacy to preserve and share.

So far, I’m taking a shotgun approach, spreading the material across a number of blogs, in Facebook groups, on my web pages created on Hubpages and even some on a site called Bubblews.

The Bubblews postings were part of a 52 Ancestors challenge. I pledged to write one family history piece a week for a whole year. Sadly, I’ve fallen behind on that.

The blogs are on WordPress and have titles like Then and Now and of course, here on  Discovering Mom: Gail Lee Martin. My Facebook groups focus on specific family names and pull together my cousins to share family stories and photos. We’ve had some success getting unlabeled photos identified which pleases me greatly.

I want to complete 3 family history books with the material too. Daunting task.

To keep me moving along, I’ve joined an A to Z blogging challenge for April. That keeps me on my toes to post something new each day here matching the letter of the alphabet.

I hope you’ll be right here reading the posts and cheering me on. You can subscribe to the blog if you want to get a notice for posts.

The family archives on the shelves and in the cupboards. Safe for now.

The family archives on the shelves and in the cupboards. Safe for now.

Gail’s Advice on Getting Older

My mom, Gail Lee Martin, loved to write and loved to give advice. When she was 85, she shared what she learned over the years by writing articles for the eHow website. Many of her topics targeted a senior audience, but other ages will find tips they can use, seasoned with her 85 years of living.

She grew up in the Kansas Flint Hills at a time when water was pumped by hand into a bucket and carried into the house. Having a “can do” attitude and a practical outlook, she shared some methods that may seem old-fashioned. In a time of recession, these low-tech ideas and thrifty methods are gaining in popularity. We need to learn from our elders, so take a look at Gail’s advice below.

Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be.” That’s the poetic way to look at it. Actually growing older can cause lots of changes in people’s lifestyle. These can be coped with, if approached with some pre-planning or by taking advantage of any opportunity that comes along. I would like to show you how we handled these difficult times and even shared with our six children as they grew up.

FOLLOW YOUR INTERESTS WHEREVER THEY LEAD YOU – It took quite awhile for all six to grow up enough to get married or at least out on their own to raise families or follow their careers. By 1981 the youngest was married, and my husband and I were only 56 years old. Needing something to occupy my time until Clyde retired, I became interested in tracing family’s history. What I found in military and census records was so interesting I wanted to share with our children. So one by one I made family notebooks of the first four generations. I fancied up the notebooks with padded coverings and added an appropriate photo in matching padded frames on the front. The notebooks made great birthday gifts. You can continue making copies of the family books for your grandchildren as they get married.

Here's an example of one of the decorative notebooks Mom created.

Here’s an example of one of the decorative notebooks Mom created.

MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR TIME WHILE HEALTHY – Retirement age really isn’t so very old. At 62 or 65 years of age you have lots of years to have fun. Fishing was our first choice as we had missed doing that a lot during our working years and raising a big family. We also couldn’t seem to stop making a big garden because any garden thrived under Clyde’s watchful eye and tender care, developing into too much produce that even our family, neighbors and friends couldn’t use it all up.

KEEP ACTIVE UNTIL IT ISN’T FUN ANYMORE – We enjoyed the garden so much that we didn’t want to give it up, leading us into another enjoyable pastime when we joined a local farmer’s market. At the market we made many new friends who enjoyed our fresh produce, preserved products and baked goodies. After twenty years even that type of activity became more drudgery than fun.

Gail and Clyde Martin with their farmer's market tent.

Gail and Clyde Martin with their farmer’s market tent.

PREPARE TO PASS ALONG YOUR HERITAGE – Old age was gaining on us and who wants to read or watch television all the time? We decided to use our computer skills and label our family heirlooms, accumulated over the 63 years of marriage, for our children’s information after we are gone. Typing or writing the details (from whom and year received) on address or shipping labels and placing it in an inconspicuous place on the object passes on the history of precious items.

Mom collected vintage canning jars to display in her kitchen.

Mom collected vintage canning jars to display in her kitchen.

I have to insert a comment on this last advice. Unfortunately the household goods were auctioned after Mom’s death, so the only way her children and grandchildren could preserve the family pieces that Mom treasured was to bid for them there. It’s most unsettling to see your parents’ lifetime accumulation spread across a lawn with strangers pawing through it. Some of the items are safely in family keeping, but others are now who-knows-where.

I remind myself, that our greatest inheritance is our memories and our values passed down through the generations. Those are what I’m trying to preserve in this blog and eventually in the family books I’ll create.