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I Called the Operator and Made a Collect Call from a Payphone


I recently was honored with the opportunity of meeting with my genealogy society’s writer’s group. They wanted me to take a look at what they had been working on and give feedback. These stories dealt with the past and more recent family history. It was wonderful to read the stories of their families and when I was asked for feedback I gave a one-word answer.


Are you writing down your story or the story of an ancestor? What about the story of what it’s like day-to-day to live during a pandemic? In the future your family will be interested in your life and will be grateful for the time you spent documenting it. The history you leave will make more sense to them if you provide some context.

What is context? It is “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.”[1]

Context is the fashion in a period movie that make you feel like you have been transported back to the 1940s. Context is when a TV show set in the 1950s show cars uses cars from that period. Context is when you read a book and the author sets the scene in a way that helps you really understand a time that is hundreds of years before your own.

Now what does context have to do with your family history? Family history requires us to understand the lives of people a generation or 10 generations back in time. When you add context, it helps people of different generations to understand your experience and point of view. One of my friends told me a story from his childhood in the 1960s of taking the family television tubes to a store and testing them via a machine. To his surprise I had no idea what he was talking about. Why would you be carrying television tubes to the store? I had no context for this since I had never been around a television that needed that so he had to explain it to me.[2]

Now think about your own life. Most likely you completely understood the title of this article (unless you’re a generation younger than I am). When I was a teenager on a family vacation I called my boyfriend from a payphone, collect (I’m sure his parents were thrilled with that). Now if I told my sons that story they would say “what does collect mean ?” The word “collect” means something totally different to them in today’s world.

Even if you are the same generation, but living in different places, you might need context. A friend who is my age but grew up in Massachusetts relayed a set of driving directions that used a phrase that at first I thought sounded rather rude but after he explained what it meant, it made more sense. This phrase is not something we say in California so I had no idea what he was talking about. Different generations, occupations, localities have their own “slang.” And that slang doesn’t always make sense to someone outside of that experience.

Tell your story. Tell your ancestor’s story. As you write, read it for understanding. Consider your audience. Most likely they are family members you know now and those yet to be born. Ask yourself:

  • Will they understand that reference to that TV show, movie, or now-popular song?
  • Will they know what that common-place household item is in 50-100 years?
  • Will they know that Aunt Sally is really Sarah who was an older family friend and not a relative?
  • Will people understand when that historical event was or do you need to add the dates or place? (Most people know very little history and may even feel it’s boring because it was when they were taught it).
  • Will your reader understand where that small town is without a county, state, or country name or even a map illustration?
  • Will that occupation your ancestor had be virtually unknown to future generations?
  • Did you used acronyms, abbreviations, slang or jargon that needs to spelled out and defined?

This is where having someone else to ask or read your story might come in handy. Ask your children or grandchildren if they know what you are talking about when you use a specific word or describe an event or object. If you find yourself adding an explanation when you tell them the story, then you definitely need it to include it in your writing.

How do you add context? Obviously you can add some details to explain a time period, place, time, or event. However, in some cases you may not want to add a detailed explanation in the body of your text, especially if it takes away from the story. Add a footnote or endnote and explain it there (In Microsoft Word, click on Reference and then Insert Footnote or Insert Endnote). This is especially useful if it’s an explanation that not all your readers need. 

Also consider adding images, they can help explain things. For example, a map or even an annotated map with markers that show a trip or migration (you can use Google Maps or Google Earth to do this) can be helpful. Describing an item or technology that we don’t use anymore? Add an image of that not-so-familiar item to your story. If you don’t have an image, then look online at websites like Wikimedia Commons or Wikipedia where you can find public domain photos and even pages that might describe the item in detail.

Remember that even if the reader has a vague idea of what the item is or what it’s used for, they may need some additional information. My 19-year-old son has a record player. But when he bought it I had to explain how to use it. Now that sounds obvious to those of us that grew up with record players but it’s not necessarily intuitive to those who grew up with more advanced technology. Record players not only require instructions but also an explanation about different record size settings and how the record or the player is adapted to play those.

You didn’t realize playing a record was so complex, did you? Do your family a favor, when you write your story or that of your ancestors add context to help them better understand that story. Give them a real life history lesson.


[1] “Define: context,” Google ( accessed 17 June 2020).

[2] If you are like me and have no idea what it means to test TV tubes, you can read more about it on Wikipedia at


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.



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Last year I was having my furnace checked. The technician and I were talking bout what our father's did. When I commented that my father worked for the A&P, he asked what the A&P was (heart attack!).
My father was a buyer for the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company; he purchased fruits for jellies and jams. He would come home with two jars of a jam labeled A & B. One was what they were making and one was a proposed tweaking of the recipe. His children had to put each on pieces of bread, taste them and then fill out a survey. Well, someone had to do it! Along with the strawberry and grape, we tasted quince and guava.

Kind of like my explaining to my niece and nephew why we call that noise you hear when you pick up a telephone a "dial tine." They'd never seen a telephone with a "dial" until I showed them the old phone I'd saved when my father moved out of his office. (It still works.)

Thanks for this. It really takes a better understanding of life at that time in history. I have some phrases from a will in the 1600s that I’m going to looking for help with.

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