The Darndest Things – Are We Recording Them?

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The Darndest Things – Are We Recording Them?

As the old saying goes, “Kids say the darndest things!” Many of us older folks also say and do amazing things. Are we losing them as soon as they happen? Or are we recording them to preserve our own histories?

A year ago I wrote my goal to spend 20 minutes a day journaling, so that I would have a good history to pass on. I did badly! A more realistic goal may be 20 minutes a week. It’s less time, but it’s more likely to happen.



As we spend holidays with family and relatives, let’s also spend time writing down not only Grandma’s stories but our own as well.

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself or others. The sample responses are from my own journal.

Journaling Questions

Where were you today? Describe what you smelled, felt, heard – the full experience.

(Example.) Today was another day at work. The day passed by quickly. I was excited to get home as there are only a few more days until Christmas and since it’s the weekend my wife and I planned on going Christmas shopping. We have intentionally delayed our shopping trips this year as we have been fixing up some areas of the house that have waiting way too long for some upgrades. Our worn out carpet has been replaced with some nice but inexpensive laminate wood flooring. Our Formica counters in the kitchen are no more. My wife and I had a great 20 hours or so building our own one of a kind granite counters. We love them. The whole house looks much better.

Today our youngest said the funniest thing! He shares a room with our 16 year old son and being much younger he sometimes likes to sleep in his second bed – the loft bed we made a while back in his closet. Its not as warm in the loft so when I found him there I asked – oh, why are you in here? He thought about it and said – Well, I just decided it was time to move back in. At six that was pretty cute. Read more »

Four Ways to Keep Distant Family Members from Being Strangers

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Growing up, I lived within an hour’s drive of all my cousins. So I grew up really knowing them, and my aunts and uncles. They were a regular part of my life. I saw them at nearly every holiday and even ran into them at concerts and sporting events. I loved it! We all did. I think I took this for granted — that this is how it is for everyone, and how it would be for my own little family.

For my children, getting to know their extended family will be different. I am one of six kids. The last 10 years have brought a lot of change for my family: 5 marriages, 13 babies born, and a lot of moving around! We are literally scattered from sea to shining sea, from the coasts of Oregon to Virginia, in Texas and a few spots in between. In fact, no two of my parents’ children are closer than 9 hours by car. Even Grandma and Grandpa now live 12 hours from the closest grandchild.

This is not what we had envisioned for our children. How would they get to know their cousins? We will not be attending each other’s school plays or trick-or-treating together. Family reunions are definitely in the plan, but one week every other year doesn’t feel like enough.

Here are a few of the things we have tried, with much success.

Family YearbooksFamily Yearbooks

These started out as a personalized gift for the grandparents about 6 years ago. Everyone submits pictures of their families celebrating a list of holidays (St. Patrick’s Day, the Fourth of July, Christmas, birthdays, etc.), plus any major events in the family (big trips, a new baby, career milestones). The first year we filled and printed one book. The next year we filled three. Now we fill seven, and we print one each family. This series of books has become a treasured piece of family history and a favorite story book for my children.

Family QuestionnaireFamily Questionaire

We recently had a family reunion. All 25 of us crowded into one snug little beach house. My sister sent out family questionnaires in advance by email to all the families. She collected all the answers, one page per person, in a little binder and sent a copy to each family. Each page had a photo, name, and age, and then listed 10 of the most interesting answers from the questionnaire for each person, such as phobias, favorite TV show, favorite book, and recent accomplishments. It has been fun to read and a fun reference book for my kids. It occurs to me now that this is a great way to capture a moment in our families’ history. In 10 or 20 years we can look back and get a very personal look at how we all were in 2011.

It also made for a fun family quiz game at the beach house reunion. “For 10 points, who sleeps with a stuffed raccoon named ‘Rowdy’?” You would have to read the binder to know.

Face Time

This one is a little more pricey, but you may already have the equipment. At Christmas we exchange gifts between families. Grandma and Grandpa give to all the grandchildren. It is always good to give, but it better to give and watch them open it. Last Christmas we worked out a schedule — which in hindsight was way more complicated than necessary. Everyone had an iPod Touch with FaceTime. (There are lots of other options). We set aside certain gifts until the appointed time. Grandma and Grandpa were able to tune it to watch all their grandkids open at least some of their presents. This was actually made easier by the distance. Since we were in different time zones, my kids were only just waking up in the Mountain time zone as their cousins on the east coast were finishing up.

Family CalendarsCalendars

For years we have been making family calendars, which include everyone’s birthdays and anniversaries. This used to be a tedious job for me. Rounding up all the images and all the dates took days. I would then do custom layouts for each month. (After all, I’m a graphic designer.) They turned out great, but took me hours! But that was then. This year I logged on to and had a calendar done in just minutes! I wish that product had existed 6 years ago. It would have saved me a lot of headaches.

None of this is quite the same as piling into the car for a short drive to visit aunts, uncles, and cousins. But for us, scattered as far as we are, it keeps distant family members from feeling like strangers.

Using Military Records

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Finding and Using Military Records

We honor armed forces everywhere and their families. Thank you for your sacrifice.

Military service produces lots of records. Genealogists love records.

Draft Records
Even without enrolling in the armed forces millions of people are part of their records through draft registration cards. For example, in the US all men, with very few exceptions, are required to register with Selective Service, even though the draft is not currently in effect. Such registrations are the first of many sources of military data in the United States.

I found my colleague’s grandfather, a WWII flight engineer, at in our WWII army enlistment records collection.

At WorldVitalRecords we have many military collections. These records include information from many wars.

A closer look -

Upon release from active duty the military service member will then be eligible, as a Veteran, to apply for benefits. The benefits to the soldier are many and varied. From health, education, housing, emotional support, and many other services the veteran will be creating a massive paper trail that becomes part of his Veteran status.

From recruitment to training and active duty records are created. Eventually all personnel become veterans. Each step brings more records.

Unique Military Record Collections

With nearly 300 million military records WorldVitalRecords provides some very interesting and unique source of military history and data. Here are some example collections and information:

Air Force Register Extracts
I have a living distant relative who is an Air Force Veteran
Using the WVR Air Force Register Extracts I can find out a lot about his military service including:
Full Name, Service Number, Promotion List Number, Perm Grade (pay grade), Date of Permanent Grade, Promotion List Service Date, Date of Birth, Temporary Grade, Date of temporary Grade and Pay Date.
While not all of this information may be useful to my genealogy it can certainly add color to a family history.

Record of Service of Connecticut Men in the Army and Navy of the United States during the War of the Rebellion
With a title like this you’re bound to find some great stuff in these records.
While not every genealogist will have tie in to this war, otherwise known as the civil war, those that do will find a historic listing of the relative fighting in an epoch time in our nations history.
The information included in these records are:
Company, Regiment, Name and Rank, Date of Enlistment, Date of Muster in this Organization, also includes remarks which include such items as death information, discharged, sickness desertions and more.

Military Records versus Veteran’s records
In searching for my Grandfather in the WWII archives I could find only his WWII enlistment record. He enlisted in Los Angeles on February 12, 1943.

In 2005 I attended the funeral and military salute for my grandfather. He was buried in a civilian cemetery in Idaho. I tried to find him via the national cemetery locator tool, and had no luck, probably because the cemetery is not an officially recognized veterans cemetery. Using the locator tool I was able to find the grave of his father at the Los Angeles National Cemetery, an official Veteran Cemetery.

I have often desired to know more about my Grandfather’s military service as well as that of his father. Requesting those records can be done by the next of kin – if within 62 years of military discharge. (Next of kin meaning within the same immediate family – spouse, brother or sister – son, daughter.) I cannot request his records as a next of kin – but since it was over 62 years since discharge I can follow the public records process.

Standard Form 180 – Public Records Military Request

Standard Form 180 – yes, really called that – can be found by going to this link, This form is required to request the military history of anyone discharged more than 62 years ago. The request is not lengthy but will require some dates and military information in order to have better success in locating the requested service member’s file.

Also after the 62 year mark the records go from being free to having a charge. I called the National Archives, NARA, and was told that I should fax my request form – Standard Form 180 – which I have done and that they would send me an invoice. They expect the cost to be between $25 and $70. I’ll have to wait up to 14 weeks to find out. Once I pay the fees I will receive the files in another few weeks.

In summary, 62 years after death or discharge records are sent to NARA. Before that they remain in possession of the military and can only be accessed only by the military individual or the next of kin.

Thank you to our US military and military around the world for their dedication and service.

The Undertaker Interviews

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It’s Halloween, and we’re in the spirit of it. As you read about our recent interviews with two morticians, you’ll see that we’re willing to be a bit morbid – without being too grim, we hope. So fair warning is given: As we share what we think is interesting information, we’ll talk briefly about embalming, share a bit of gruesome mortician/autopsy humor, and present some uses for superglue and webcams that you may find a tad creepy. Read at your own risk.

Spencer and Chris

My colleague, Mark Olsen, and I recently visited the Sundberg-Olpin Funeral Home in Orem, Utah, where a young mortician, Spencer Weeks, gave us a tour and answered a lot of questions. Then we interviewed Chris Thompson, owner of Heritage North Funeral Home in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. We didn’t visit Whitehorse to tour his facility; Chris and his family were visiting our area.

Spencer Weeks

Spencer Weeks

One of our first questions for both men was, What do you like to be called? Mortician? Funeral director? Undertaker? Spencer prefers “funeral director.” Unlike some funeral directors we know, who don’t like the term at all, Chris actually prefers to be called an “undertaker.” He explained: The word undertaker refers not to a person who puts someone under the ground, but to one who undertakes whatever tasks are required when someone has died. To him the term suggests service.

Both emphasized the great professional satisfaction of helping people through a difficult time. Read more »

Halloween: using death records

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Halloween costumes and traditions, ranging from the silly to the creepy to the gory, preoccupy Americans and some other peoples at this time of year, wherever Western Christianity has been influential.

By contrast, death records of various kinds capture family historians’ attention year-round. We’ll look at several kinds of death records and consider their strengths, limitations, and usefulness in family history.

Mortuary Tour

In a recent tour of a local mortuary (of which more in a later blog post), we were given a packet of paperwork and information that the funeral home provides to the family of the deceased. Its contents provide a good tour of the various death records that are available.

There are several pages in the packet related to funeral and burial arrangements, including prices of cemetery plots, caskets, concrete vaults, funeral services, and more. You might not think that any of these would be of genealogical interest, but cemetery plot purchase records, if you can find them, can lead to other death records and also help you locate the tombstone.

Death Certificate and Death Certificate Application

The folder also contains a death certificate application, from which an official death certificate is created. The application itself may be kept on file at the funeral home and may be useful when studying family history.
The application will vary from place to place. The one we were given asks for the following information about the deceased:

Death Certificate

Death Certificate

• US Social Security Number
• Name
• Place of death
• Time of death
• Age
• Attending Physician
• Date of death
• Place of birth
• Date of birth
• Father
• Mother
• Spouse
• Spouse – Living – yes or no, and date of death if applicable
• Place of Marriage
• Date of Marriage
• Occupation
• Church affiliation
• School year complete
• Veteran – yes or no – and branch of service
• Clubs/Activities/Accomplishments/Church Service

Read more »

What do you want on your tombstone?

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Tombstone Symbols in Boston

Tombstones in Boston

For many of us, a tombstone is our last and most durable public memento. It marks a place where loved ones can come to remember and reflect. A colleague notes that it also guarantees that, even if our loved ones don’t remember us, the person who mows the cemetery lawn will.

Tombstones may be small or large, simple or ornate. Besides marking the burial place of our physical remains, they also provide information: a name and at least a date or two, and often more.


Many tombstones include an epitaph, a few, pithy words from or about the deceased. You may want to choose your own epitaph in advance, unless you’d prefer that your family choose it for you, when you’re no longer around to disapprove.

Boston Granary Cemetery

Boston Granary Cemetery

We don’t expect good writing to be easy, but trying to summarize a long life – or even a short one – in a phrase or two is especially difficult.

We asked a few co-workers at MyHeritage’s US office, “What would you like on your tombstone?” We weren’t talking about pizza, but we might have had more responses if we had been. Apparently, a lot of people don’t want to think about the living – especially themselves – someday being, well, dead.

Our less squeamish colleagues offered a few suggestions, for themselves and for others.

Julie, whose husband is a firefighter, offered this for her husband:

“Stay out of the heat.”

Justin suggested a famous line attributed to Edmund Burke:

Paul Revere Monument

Paul Revere Monument

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

David offered two thoughts for his own epitaph that were serious . . .

“Better life beyond. See you there someday.”

“Son, brother, husband, father, and some lesser things.”

. . . and two that weren’t:

“Here lies Mr. Rodeback, dead,

In a box, with a rock on his head.
It’s too bad he never finished this limerick, because now it’s too late.”

“Check him out at”

(That’s not a real link, at least not yet.)

Clare selected this classic verse:

Here lies my wife.
I bid her goodbye.
She rests in peace,
And now so do I.

QR Codes

For myself, a name and the dates are just fine, and any great quote from scripture or a religious leader. What I really want on my tombstone is something new: a QR code. QR is for Quick Response. Visitors can scan the code and be taken quickly to a web site about the deceased (me).

QR Code Tombstone - Scan the large QR Code

QR Code Tombstone - Scan the large QR Code

The QR code can point to a YouTube video, a family tree, an obituary, or anything else you can find at a web page. It’s on a sticker attached to the stone. Some people don’t like how they look, but they’re catching on. Anyway, it must be only a matter of time before someone designs them to blend in better with the stone.

Imagine: Someone is in the cemetery, visiting my gravestone. A simple tap of a smartphone activates a link, which pulls up more information about me, the deceased: videos, memories, family trees, and more.

Scan the QR code on the tombstone picture to see how this works – I have included a large QR code to make it easy. And yes, you actually can scan this one here now on the computer screen.  Your SmartPhone or iPad will then bring up the site where I have programed this code to take you.

Don’t have a QR code reader – download one from the App store.  Here is the one I use.

Images, New and Old

Symbols on Tombstones

Symbols on Tombstones

Putting symbols on gravestones is not a new idea. In Boston in the 1700s, for example, there was often an image carved at the top of the stone – an angel, a skull, or something else – to protect the grave from various evils. (There is a lot of information online about the various symbols used on the tombstones.  Here is information from the city of Boston about the many tombstone markings found there.)

I’ve noticed many modern tombstones which incorporate images to summarize a life: flowers, religious symbols, a car or truck, a favorite team’s logo, etc. Cooper, a boy I blogged about last year, has his photo etched in bronze on his tombstone.  It’s a beautiful monument that his family visits often.

Laser engraving now allows the creation of tombstones with realistic, high-resolution photos engraved in the stone. (See a July 2011 article in The Atlantic.)

I’ve mentioned some of the possibilities. What do you want on your tombstone?

Old Tombstones found in Boston

Old Tombstones found in Boston

Death, Halloween, and Family Traditions (It’s Almost October!)

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Halloween celebrations have increased through the years, and have become more fun and less morbid. But, like family history, Halloween is still very much about the dead.

Throughout October we’ll bring you several blog posts about death and the dead, some serious and some not. We’ll talk about finding and using death records (such as the SSDI), wills, obituaries, etc., in our family history work, as well as some of the things we ourselves should not leave undone as we contemplate our own eventual deaths. In preparation, we’ve been collecting Halloween memories and traditions from colleagues, families, and friends; playfully inviting coworkers to design their own tombstones (there’s a web app for that) and write their own epitaphs; and even interviewing morticians.

All that’s coming, but first, here’s some background.

A Bit of History

The word Halloween itself is a contraction of All Hallows’ Eve — the eve of All Saints’ Day, celebrated November 1 by much of Western Christianity, especially in Scotland and Ireland. Traditionally, it was believed that the souls of the departed wandered the earth until All Saints’ Day, before moving on to the next world, making Halloween their last chance to take vengeance on the living. The living, in turn, wore masks and costumes to avoid being recognized, and used fire (which turned over time into Jack-o-Lanterns) to ward off the spirits of the dead. There are also some pagan influences.

Learn more of the history of Halloween from this video at

The spooky side survives, now more secular than religious in feeling, but for most people Halloween is great fun, with costumes, trick-or-treating for youngsters, and parties for youth and adults. The day of the dead is alive with fun and family traditions. Read more »

Stuck Happens! 13 Things to Do When It Happens to You

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Dead endWhether you’re a complete novice or a seasoned veteran at family history, you can’t pursue this historical detective adventure very long before you get stuck. Some name or record will elude you. You’ll run out of ideas for finding it, and you’ll start to wonder if the promised rewards of your chosen hobby are worth the trouble or, on a bad day, even possible. Rest assured: You’re not the first, and there is hope.

A Common Challenge

About 20 years ago I started looking for a marriage record for my great-great-great-grandparents, Benjamin James Morgan and Mary Fischer, who are believed to have married circa 1794 in Chester County, Pennsylvania. I didn’t choose this at random. I was looking for something Uncle Shirl, Aunt Gwen, and the other family genealogists had left undone.

I used computerized resources, which were rather sparse then, and paged through microfilmed Chester County records ordered through my local LDS Family History Library. I struck out.

I’m fortunate that I had to go back five generations to find a hole other researchers had left unfilled. But I was living in graduate student poverty at the time, so I could hardly hire a professional genealogist or mount a week-long expedition to the Philadelphia area in search of the record. I needed affordable alternatives. Come to think of it, two decades later, I still do.

It helps see apparent dead ends as something else entirely: forks in the road. When stuck happens, you have at least three options:

  • Pursue the elusive record or relative with laser-like focus. This may lead to success, or it may lead to therapy.
  • Slide this one to the back burner and turn your attention to some other aspect of your family history.
  • Abandon family history in favor of another pastime, such as knitting, lacrosse, or watching reality television.

You’re on your own with the third option, but let’s look at the other two.

Dogged Pursuit

When the person or record you’re stuck on is especially important to you or your tree, you may prefer dogged pursuit. Pardon my changing metaphors, but, if a door you need won’t open, sometimes you can break it down, find another door, or even crawl in a window. Here are some ideas. Read more »

Remembering 9/11

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As I type, the names of nearly 3,000 victims of the attack of September 11, 2001 are being read from the Ground Zero site in New York City.

I found out early on 9/11 that a plane had been flown into the World Trade Center.  Soon after I was shocked to watch as another plane hit the second tower.  My parents and family across the US watched and called each other as we discussed the tragic events.  As I watched the coverage a reporter felt a huge boom and shake as he reported from the Pentagon which was also hit by a plane.

The most shocking for me as I watched from Dallas was to see one of the busiest airports in the world fall silent for several days.  Usually clogged with air traffic, the skies over Dallas fell into an eerie silence as our nation tried to determine the safety of our travel and take precautions to avoid another such tragedy. The silence was deafening as I realized we were indeed under attack.

Now 11 years later many of our children do not remember the events of that day.  If you have not yet recorded your memories and reactions to this national tragedy – now is a good time to do so.   As the years pass our memories of that day will fade, we need to record them now before that happens.

It is wonderful to see pictures of the rebuilding of the World Trade Center.  As time moves on we replace the hole left at Ground Zero and in our hearts with new hope and new buildings but never forget and honor the many heroes of that day.

Click to see more images of the Freedom Tower and Ground Zero at


Four Ways to Publish Those Family Treasures

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In 1990 my mother, my brother, and I compiled, edited, and published several of my maternal grandmother’s essays. Most were autobiographical — “My Childhood,” “My Marriage and Family,” and the like — but two were about others. One was “Our Other Grandma,” a tribute to her husband’s mother, whom she refused to call her mother-in-law, because she didn’t like all the critical jokes about mothers-in-law. The other essay she entitled, “Sheepherders I Have Known.”

The resulting short volume (about three dozen letter-size pages) was not a sterling example of the publisher’s art. I printed 15 or 20 copies on my dot matrix printer, then had them bound at a local copy center. There were no illustrations or photographs, not even a sample image or two of the handwritten originals. But it was an instant and enduring hit among its small audience.

This summer I decided to reissue the collection. My mother passed away several years ago, and my brother was busy getting married, so I did it myself. It occupied two or three evenings plus a full, long, 20-hour day off work, but it was ready in time for our annual reunion in early August.


I couldn’t find the old word processor file, so I used my scanner and the OCR software which came with it. The output text didn’t need much cleanup. I added some old photos, a name index, and a place index. I improved the front cover and the formatting generally. Then I printed about a dozen copies on my laser printer and hauled them to the nearest “big box” office supply store and copy center.

Bertha Babcock History 2nd EdI wanted a Velo binding, as we’d used before. It looks better and is far more durable than . . . anything they actually do at that copy center, as it turned out. They sent me to the local Kinko’s (officially, FedEx Office store), telling me it was the only place in town that could do that kind of binding for me. So I went; it was only about 200 yards away.

Aha! They could do it. But alas! They’d have to send it offsite, because they don’t actually do it here in American Fork. Where? I asked. To Orem, they said. So I thanked them and took it to Orem myself, since it’s on my way to work. By the end of the day, the job was done, and I was pleased with the results: a good-looking binding and a durable, frosted plastic cover, front and back. Between the binding costs and my printing costs, each book cost me about $9.00.

My plan was to give a copy to each of my mother’s six surviving siblings, and also to a couple of relatives who helped a lot with the reunion. (My sister and I were in charge this year.) I couldn’t afford to give it to the next two generations, even if my mother’s generation insisting on paying me for what I intended to be a gift.

Making money was never our object with this publication; we have just wanted to put it into the hands of lots of family members, in the hope that they will read it.


As I was planning the second edition, I realized that I now have at my disposal three relatively new ways to distribute a document inexpensively. I decided to use them all.

A PDF file of the entire document is about half a megabyte, so it is easily e-mailed. Almost anyone with a personal computer or smart phone can read a PDF file, and the original appearance is faithfully preserved. So I announced to the family that I’ll send the PDF file free of charge, upon request.


That might have been enough, but I made bigger plans. I published the book electronically at for Kindle and the various free Kindle apps, and at for Nook and the free Nook apps. I wasn’t happy with the automatic conversions, especially from HTML, but the conversions from Microsoft Word produced a tolerably good reading experience. One of these first months I’ll have to figure out their raw format, so I can exert more control over the appearance and positioning of images (photos), among other things. In the meantime, it will do.

I set a minimal price for the book at both sites: $0.99. That’s a lot cheaper than printing hard copies, and within the budget of any family member who can afford a Kindle, Nook, or smart phone, I think.

The old, the new, the Kindle app on my iPod

It’s an experiment. I don’t expect the e-books to catch on like wildfire (a painful simile this summer in the American West), but I’m curious to see how they do in the long term. So far, there have been four purchases in all, and one was mine. Twenty sales in the next year or two would delight but not surprise me.

If there’s enough interest among the family, I’ll be happy to publish some other good documents in future years. I haven’t heard of anyone else publishing for small family audiences on Kindle and Nook, and I don’t see very many genealogical works that are available as e-books. But if it catches on among my family, it will be an economical means of getting ancestors’ histories into their descendants’ hands and, one may hope, into their minds and hearts.

In case you’re curious about such things, I pledged to pass on the minimal royalties to the annual reunion fund.

FIVE (An Unadvertised Bonus)

My more knowledgeable colleague at MyHeritage, Mark Olsen, learned of my efforts and pointed out another local opportunity. It may exist in some form local to you, too.

At nearby Brigham Young University, the campus bookstore has a custom publishing service which can turn out relatively affordable soft-bound books very quickly, and pricier hardbacks less quickly. They estimated the cost of producing additional soft-bound copies of my grandmother’s essays about about $7.50 per volume. That’s roughly the same amount I paid elsewhere, but in this case for something that looks a lot like a real book.

Sometime soon I’ll give them a try. All they need is a pair of PDF files: one with the cover, and the other with the rest of the book.

Meanwhile, I’d be interested in hearing how readers are publishing family history documents these days.

As I’ve said before, as important as the names, dates, and places are, the history is by far my favorite part of family history.