interviews, personal history

Where Were You?

sept 11 - 2

sept 11

History is filled with pivotal events – tragedies, disasters, atrocities, war.  Often we hear people ask ‘Where were you when…?’ questions.  Or ‘What was it like when…?’ questions.  It is common for these questions to come after many years.  They are usually asked by younger generations who weren’t alive at the time of the event in question or were so young they have no memory of that time.

Shortly after September 11, 2001, I was asked to teach a scrapbooking class about how to create a few pages for a personal scrapbook about this event. Seems like an odd request right?

As I prepared for the class I considered a few things I wish I knew.  My grandparents were in their teens when Pearl Harbor was attacked.  My grandfather ended up enlisting in the Marine Corps when he graduated from high school.  My grandmother wrote to him while he was away.  In the fall of 2001 I was suddenly very curious about my grandparent’s thoughts about the events of 7 December 1941.  Did they know this would propel America into WWII?  Did they know this would mean my grandfather would be serving in the armed forces?  How did they feel about these events?

With all of this in mind I tried to generate a list of thought provoking questions for my students to use to help them write their feelings about the events of September 11th.  We created a simple, tasteful scrapbook page with a pocket to accommodate several typed pages of thoughts.  The second page we created using images and the lyrics to the song ‘God Bless America’.

The class was a somber, respectful affair that gave us all an opportunity to consider how our thoughts about a major world event may someday help our descendants understand that day in a more personal way.

Writing my thoughts about that day was a good way to work through some feelings.  It sharpened my perspective, helped me remember the things that really mattered.  I suppose you could say it was a healing exercise.  But mostly, I hoped I was creating the very thing I wished I had from my grandparents.  Personal thoughts about a major event.

As genealogists we often lament that records can’t provide the why.  We piece records together and gain some insights and then we infer.  But we always want more don’t we?  We want to understand how our ancestors felt about things, what motivated their choices, what they hoped for, what they dreamed.

Do we take the time to record for future generations the very things we wish we knew about our ancestors?


What pivotal events – on the world stage and in your personal life –  have occurred during your lifetime?  Have you recorded your thoughts about those moments for future generations to learn from?  What record are you leaving behind?  It’s not too late to start now.



10 thoughts on “Where Were You?”

  1. Documenting our lives is just as important as researching our ancestors, but unfortunately most researchers never graze the surface of their own lives. One of the things I use is the weekly prompts called “Sunday Stories” from Saving Memories Forever.* It’s an app that lets you record stories anytime and anywhere. It covers a broad range of topics over a range of ages. I haven’t always kept up, but I do save the question for later. If you’re like me and are more comfortable writing your memories, go for it. There’s no rules when it comes to documenting your memories. Do it in a scrapbook, do it with photos, document it in writing, record it in audio. Just DO IT! Thanks for the reminder, Amberly.

  2. my pivotal events? November 9, 1989: The Berlin Wall came down. I can recall everything. the sound, the words, even the smell. September 11, 2001.. although I live across the Atlantic, I was very sure, this would change the world. July 13, 2014 Germany wins the World Cup.. sorry, but I am German AND a huge football fan 😉
    But thanks for reminding me to document it, sometimes I tend to forget that there are generations to come which might be interested.

    1. Thumbs up, Barbara, same with me – almost. I have to admit I was sleeping when the wall came down and didn’t realize it until the next morning. 9-11 gave me creeps (I was at the Versmold city hall, sitting at my desk while on a legal internship), and I’ll always remember when my significant other & I visited the WTC in December 1995 and I was a bit sulky because of a really nasty cold. July 2013 – I wasn’t even able to sit on my sofa after the 113th minute and started screaming when Götze scored (too bad I woke up the same significant other I went to NYC with, but he can deal with it). And I can tell my parents know exactly where they were when Germany won the final in 1954 (this had a really great impact after WWII) and also when Kennedy was shot in November 1963. Thanks a lot for reminding me to add things like these to our timelines.

  3. Very thought provoking. I probably wont have any children of my own but I want to try and ask my parents more questions about things they remember, like how they met, what they know about their parents and other relations, things I will never find out without asking. Perhaps my nieces or nephew might one day be interested and take over my research!

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