Who was grandma? We know her parents’ names, where and when she was born, whom she married, the kids she had and when she died. But who was she really? Was she funny or serious? What was the colour of her hair and eyes, and did she have large hands or webbed toes? Did she like to bake, read books, knit, skinny dip or garden? Did she work outside the home or belong to an organization?
More seriously, did grandma have any diseases that might be inherited?
Adding details to an individual’s file in the family tree is sometimes referred to as adding flesh. In other words, basic data such as names, dates and places form the skeleton, and physical descriptions and personal history add meat to the bones.
At times, this is impossible, especially if the individual has been deceased for so long that everyone who knew them is also gone.
But first, let’s focus on the living and those in living memory. The people you knew who have since passed on should be given first priority. Over time, memories fade and as others pass away who knew those people, history is lost.
For example, my grandmother, Primadine Appleby was a short lady but had the grit of a six-foot man. John Wayne, look out! Her favourite saying was, “Shocking” and although I don’t remember her washing my face, my mother said she was quite the scrubber. Sometimes when my nine-year-old is uncooperative, I threaten to wash his face like Nanny Appleby would and we all know what that means.
My mother, now 84, often makes her comfort food when she can’t sleep at night, but it has nothing to do with chocolate. She makes pap: warm milk or tea poured over a slice of buttered toast. As a child growing up in Lewin’s Cove, Newfoundland, her mother had made this for her.
One method for adding details to grandma’s file or another family member’s is to study their picture. Write about everything seen in the photograph. Where was she and what was she doing? Was she wearing a particular outfit or was she with a special person? Then write about everything you don’t see so clearly. What colour was her eyes, was she suffering from an illness or had she just returned from a trip, funeral, etc.
After extracting everything you can, show the picture to someone who also knew the person and ask them what they remember.
Record everything. After you’re done, you can edit it for the family tree.
Family medical history is often overlooked in family trees. Although time consuming, this can be life-saving information for a descendant. Diabetes, heart disease, Crohns and cystic fibrosis are just a few inherited diseases that can be passed through the generations.
Information for long since deceased individuals can be found in military records, obituaries, in the community news of old newspapers and local history books.
From my grandfather’s attestation papers of the First World War, I learnt he was only five and a half feet tall and weighed 112 pounds. He had black hair and dark brown eyes, and needed dental treatment.
Long after you’re gone, your ancestors will appreciate the extra time taken to add these personal details.