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How Will You Document Your Life?

I love reading old diaries and letters. There’s nothing that makes for a great research day like reading what other people experienced 50, 100, even 200 years ago. Give me the opportunity to research women’s letters or diaries describing their life experiences and I am one happy researcher.

As family historians, we are passionate about the past. But for future genealogists, we need to leave something about our own lives. Letters and diaries provide historians a look at what everyday life was like generations ago. It provides important historical context no matter who is leaving that legacy of personal writings. I always hear people lament that their ancestor didn’t leave a journal behind so why wouldn’t we? Don’t we want that for the family historians of the future?

Dairy with open diary by angela rodesky
Used with permission Angela Rodesky

Believe Me, My Diaries Are Not Great Literature

I kept a diary off and on through my teen and young adult years. The other day I came across one that I kept when I was 14 to 16 years old. I didn’t write every day so there are huge gaps. But one thing is certain as I re-read those passages.

I was a nincompoop.

Really. I’m serious. It’s embarrassing. Most of the passages deal with whatever boy I had a crush on at that moment. And there were a lot. I think about my sons finding those diaries when I’m gone and my first thought is that I need to burn them ASAP.

I’ll admit I feel cognitive dissonance knowing that personal history needs to be preserved and feeling really embarrassed at my over the top teen angst. I’ve always been a believer in journal keeping and I hate to destroy the evidence of a younger me, but it feels like it would be for the best. Let’s just say that those journals don’t house the thoughts of a great thinker or my higher level musings on saving the world.

But as I contemplate by diary bonfire, I wonder how many of those letter writers and diary keepers that I’ve read and learned from felt the same way? How many times have I winced at hearing about someone destroying all of their or their families personal writings?

Have you felt this way? What is a solution to leaving a legacy even if what you have written isn’t what you want people to see?

What is you considered curating your papers? Maybe leaving everything feels uncomfortable. What if instead you did an annotated or even an excerpted version of your personal papers? That way you could later destroy them if you don’t want your descendants to read about those youthful indiscretion?

Entry from Gena diary
A closely cropped entry from Gena's diary so you don't see any of the embarrassing stuff. 

As I read through my teenage diary I noticed it mentioned some genealogically relevant information that would be important for my descendants, sprinkled between all the embarrassing crush-of-the-month mentions. Some of the following information could be used to create a timeline for my life or add social history to my life events, such as:

  • My paternal grandfather’s heart condition
  • My paternal grandmother’s hospitalization and death
  • The names of maternal aunts and uncles
  • Cousins’ names
  • My hire date at my first job
  • The amount of my first paycheck
  • Getting my driver’s license at age 16
  • Birthdays

I could create a timeline or individual narratives involving quotes from my diary augmented with my memories of that time, biographical information (names and dates for my paternal grandfather and grandmother), and even newspaper clippings. I could also take these excerpts and add them to the facts in my genealogical database.

I may not want my descendants to read my teenage diaries but I can use them to enhance my life story and information about the “ancestors” I knew.

How Will You Document Your Life?

No diary or journal? What about emails? Have you considered taking information from emails you have sent or received from family and friends to create a “journal.” I have a friend I email almost every day and in those emails we talk about family, and what’s going on with work and home. My intention is to take passages from those emails and create a journal (including information about living through a pandemic).

So will I eventually destroy those diaries? Maybe. I think it is important for future generations to understand that their ancestors were real life people with some of the same thoughts and issues as they have. However, I’m not so sure they need to learn that from my writings. I will wait to decide what to do with those diaries but in the meantime, I will work on taking the best of that information to augment my family history.

You are important. You will be immensely important to those who will be part of your family in the future. They too will want to know about your life and your experiences. Chances are you you tell stories to your kids and grandkids about growing up, why not leave something more permanent?


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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I have to confess my diaries as a teenager was all about boys. I remember burning them when I turned 18. Other diaries have some substance, so I pulled specific pages and currently working on highlighting them like a scrapbook with photos and sketches to tell my story.

I have loved journaling since I was young as I was an only child & it was my only confidant. I have wanted to to this for years cutting out all the boy band & school hallway crushes also but was unsure as how to get started. Now that I'm finished cleaning & organizing these past 3 months, I think I'm going to do this thanks to your article! I collect empty journals for future use so I don't need to buy any so I have no excuse. I also have an empty blog I've never posted anything. I think I'll do that as we start a new month. This is going to be eye opening as my mom's side were all elderly & I spent my childhood in funeral homes. I never thought of my recording these things!

I had a dear friend pass away in Dec last year & we private messaged one another in Facebook since 2009 & saw you can have them send a copy of all your messages to your computer. I did it & forgot it's in my external storage. We talked genealogy as she had a tree that was so messed up & I remember sharing some of my memories of loved ones with her as I uncovered hers. Will have to go thru those again also!
I save all my emails in my Yahoo acct from family I found on genealogy message boards to me in a folder in Yahoo so I can revisit what they said. THOSE I need to look at again also!
Thanks for giving me something to look forward to doing since I can't travel. I'm so excited to do this!

A few years ago I did write a book. I intended it to be documenting my paternal family history, but I wanted it to be more of a narrative than just bare statistics. So, I started interjecting short stories from my earliest memories. Eventually I switched the focus to my own life and times -- the first 70 years -- and what was happening within my family at different time periods. Each story was typically just a couple of paragraphs. I was able to work in some "before my time" family history as well. Took a couple of years to write it. Most factoids and time lines came from my Legacy database. Turned out pretty good, I thought. I made copies for my brother, kids, and grandkids.

Have my diarys from 1970 to the present as well as my mother's from 1958 to 2005 which has a entry the morning before she passed away also my sister's for about the last 20 years , I have began writing a time line from mine and will eventually destroy them even tho I don't think anything too bad in them . My mother's is another story & my sister's

I am writing my autobiography. I took a course and without that course and the participants and instructor, I admit it is hard to stay on task and commit the time to the project. That was one of the things we were told - dedicate an hour/day but I need to write "when in the mood" - I just wish as I think of things that I made a note but I didn't want to seem rude to the people I was with at the time.

Great article and thank you for sharing it. I am struggling with this topic now as I want to leave something behind regarding my life, my career, my experiences, interests and hobbies - and core values and beliefs. So many of my ancestors left little behind regarding their daily lives and I have so many questions that will never be answered. Thankfully my father left a rich trail of many, many letters home from WWII that I have an excellent timeline of his wartime experiences and locations.

This has given me good food for thought. I haven’t kept old diaries, they were mostly full of rubbish LOL.

I have grappled with how to record my life ... and I’ll keep thinking on it. I guess what I’d like to capture is my personal experience of the world and it’s events.

Another idea though is that I’m going to start writing my memories of people in my family. Write about the things I experienced with my grandparents for example, what I know, what I remember from our shared lives and what they did. This will then be something future generations can refer back to as stories of the lives of those ancestors.

Audio is another fantastic way to record your life. Recently I came across some recordings I made of an interview I did with my uncle some years back. He passed away last year and it occured to me, he has grandkids and great grandkids that will never know or remember the sound of his voice, what a loss.
With that in mind, I made copies of the files and sent them off to his daughter to disperse throughout the emediate family members. It brought many tender tears to be able to hear his voice again, not to mention the wealth of knowledge contained in the interview.

I have read (& refer to it, when I seem to be just writing rubbish) that great works are never written, they are rewritten. It would be perfectly valid to let your private musings be a guide for writing the family history that you wish to share. It would be awful if someone just destroyed those "first-draft" thoughts without first translating/editing them into a final, sharable piece of history. I assume that this is your message for us all.
Finding old news clippings on line has given life and character to many of my relatives who were before, just a name in a list. (My parents were taken to court, 3 of my uncles and 2 aunties separately make news for minor transgressions. Their "halos" are now removed from the non-detailed family versions of who they were, but their lives are much more real to me.) Keeping history is so important.
Your children may be relieved to read how you were/are just as real as they are. You can't really learn to love someone, until you learn to love their "trivia". (I am a personal counsellor; one of my clients stated that years ago... and it has helped me to love people more.)

A really interesting thought provoking article, with the current lock down I have just started an ambitious project using Legacy.
I am an existing user of Legacy for my family history and also recommended it to friends who wanted to start their own family history project.
However, I wanted to create a detailed story “timeline” of my life so I adapted the structure and features of Legacy to start my specific “timeline” and I created a new file naming it “Tree of Friends”. At the heart of the new file I copied and added my main family of Parents, Grandparents, siblings, Aunts and Uncles etc.
To this new tree I started to add Friends, Teachers , Work Mangers etc. and linking them to me I added Events/Fact with appropriate dates such as “Friend of Alan“, School Teacher.
By means of the tab “Chronology” on Legacy I can now see a simple timeline of my life which includes not just my immediate family but friends, work colleagues and key events.
I appreciate that “Legacy” was not intended for this, however, it is early days but it appears to work for me.
Alan Eardley

So, how are you doing this journal? Electronically or hard copy?

I've been writing extensive Christmas letters for 40 years and they are my immediate family history. I have years of letters electronically. But will it be kept by whomever cleans out the house? Probably not. My great uncle burned all his mother's family materials. I was luck an uncle saved the photo albums, books, and autograph albums. The rest was considered trash and burned.

I also have considered just sending those diaries to the landfill. I like the idea of curating the pages and keeping those that could be revealing of my younger days and interactions with people, while disposing of those that make me grimace. Oh dear, another genealogy project.

One way I plan to do this, failing the time/opportunity to do more, is with the collection of holiday letters sent over the years. I have nearly 40 years of them.

i've recently been considering starting an autobiography of my younger life. why? you ask? even if you haven't asked its because i have this feeling of a lost opportunity to have talked to my father about his life and his memories of his father. As a typical male with two sons , who are in the midst of starting and surviving their own family stories and children , we just don't talk about that sort of thing , too busy. I would like to think they too will someday wish they had asked about my life and times with my father and mother and how i survived the teenage years too. Who was that old man i called my father, other than the one i remember as a child and sort of related to as an adult they might think some day in the future as their children are moving out of their homes and starting their own lives. Maybe I need to leave them a written account of what i think was important in my life. The problem is do I have the commitment to see it through?

Thanks for this, Gena. I have been wondering how to deal with the many diaries and journals I have kept in these 68 years. This will help me.

I live in a Retirement Home, and late last autumn, I was invited to start up a Resident-led activity. This appealed to me! When I retired from college faculty, I had converted my genealogy hobby into a tutoring business with a focus on blogs, scrapbooking, and websites. For this new project, I recruited two residents to help -- one iwas trained as a Story-teller, and the other lady had been employed as a Genealogy Library Aide. About 25 people turned out repeatedly for our FAMILY HISTORY STORY HOUR. We quickly learned that people want advice about how to write stories, both about their ancestors and about themselves. Currently we're in a Pandemic-imposed "Intermission." My team is using this time to prepare guidance materials to launch a series on "How to Write Your Own Life Story." And I am working on my own Life Story! Both of my sons are enthusiastic about my project-- even to the point of mailing books to me about the subject!

My husband and I started our genealogy research some 25/30 years ago. Both of us had heard stories told of our Great-Grandparents, etc. while growing up. We joined Legacy Family Tree to record the generations passed and present at the time. This journey of research became an adventure as we located facts that some proved and disproved these stories of our passed relatives, our heritage.
My husband passed away 4 years ago. My daughter was looking through his recorded stories and found he had written a letter, “To My Children's and Grandchildren.” It was his own life story. What a treasure to read this. I have added details that were not entered bring his story up to date.
Thank you Legacy for giving this opportunity to leave our story’s to our future generations to come.

I was extremely thrilled to find this great collection of different approaches and ways to attempt to organise what I had hoped to leave for my four children, ten grandchildren and to my delight a great-granddaughter just turned five and started school.
I have tried various ways of starting, initially attending a term of Writing Stories For Your Grandchildren, then enrolling at Massey University (New Zealand) in a Creative Writing subject.
I’ve just completed three years at my local library (NZ) with a teacher’s “it’s write easy” writing group. The teacher is 93!!!
So I am on the way in a rather disjointed fashion. THANKS 😊

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