As a genealogist, I’m always looking for ways to better know my ancestors. Keeping a journal of my life increased my sensitivity to their lives and their experiences. As a result, I became a better researcher.
When President Trump declared a national emergency due to the coronavirus outbreak on Friday, March 13, 2020, I had already been keeping a daily journal since mid-February. Friends had encouraged me to start writing morning pages as a way to practice observation and self-expression. Little did I realize I’d be capturing my thoughts and feelings during “The Before Times.” It’s been welcome start to my day and something that has grounded me. (If you do not have a journaling practice, its easy to start. See my post “Three Steps to Start Journaling” for some quick tips.)
Regularly going back and reading through my journal entries, a couple themes jumped out at me: the fragility of life, and my focus on local business and local government. My 21st century life had more in common with the 18th or 19th century than the 20th century.
Fragility of Life
For past three months we all lived with the anxiety of a silent untreatable disease that could infect anyone, anytime. This made me reconsider the infectious diseases my ancestors lived through. Even if they did not get infected or die of yellow fever, cholera, or typhoid, their life was still affected. Look how our lives have been turned upside down. I am now taking the time to learn about what diseases were common during PA’s history at different times.
If you want to hear what the 1918 Flu Epidemic was like in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, I read excerpts from the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography in Episode 17 of the Your Pennsylvania Ancestors podcast. The entire article are well worth a read, and can be accessed free on Jstor.
Local Government and Neighbors
Our likelihood of catching coronavirus was under control of the people in my local community more than anywhere else. National and state officials may have set policy, but it was local county government who was most influential. I knew our ancestors lived very local lives and likely knew their county officials by sight and all their neighbors by name. That was something I knew logically, and now I felt it at a gut level. The local county biographies written around the 1900’s took on new meaning for me. Most have been digitized and I’m working my way back through to read the full details of the local towns and county officials.
It’s June 25, 2020 and we still don’t have many paper towels in our county. Toilet paper is slowly making it back in stock. Meat of all kinds was hard to come by for several weeks. At one point in early April I noted that shelves were mostly bare in every aisle of our stores. Logically knowing the supply line could fail and experiencing it are very different scenarios. People in the past likely experienced more lack of products than I experienced. I became curious on what businesses supplied their towns and neighborhoods. Three resources came to me for me to study: historical maps, newspaper ads, and city directories. Especially if an ancestor owned a business, knowing more details, would help me make connections for further research.
Keeping a journal made me more aware of the details of my ancestors’ lives that I skipped over. Getting to know these details will help me to discover more about who they were, and likely break down a brick wall or two.