I cannot stress enough that genealogy research doesn't start with a subscription to Ancestry.com. It also doesn't begin with a DNA test. When a potential client contacts me to conduct research on their family tree, I always begin with the same question: What do you already know?
This is not only important from a cost perspective (do you really want your professional genealogist to waste precious hours on the information you already have?), but also provides the opportunity to tap knowledge from the best resource possible-your family.
Let me provide a personal example. Recently, I called my 90 year old first cousin once removed who lives in Long Island. I've actually never met her before, but knew that if anyone might be able to crack some brick walls concerning my great-grandfather, it would be her. I caught her right before she was off to the theater and asked her what she knew about my paternal line.
Based on records I had already collected, I knew that this relative had lived with my great-grandfather. I was unaware, however, that he had lived with her for 13 years, and she was quite heartbroken at his passing in 1942, since he was like another parent to her. She described him as short, gray-haired, and "zaftig." He was religious and would don his tefillin everyday to say his prayers.
She could not recall if he ever mentioned exactly where he was from beyond Belarus or "White Russia." My research has pointed to my great-grandmother at the very least emigrating from what today is Sudilkov, Ukraine, what was in the Volhynia region on the border with Belarus, the same region my great-grandfather was also probably born.
I asked for any photos she might have, and she said she would look, and I promised to send her the photo of where my great-grandfather, her beloved grandfather was buried. I wasn't sure I would learn any additional information until my cousin mentioned, "Did you ever hear the story about his second wife?"
"He had a second wife?!" I asked, shocked, as this had never come up in stories or records I'd seen. My great-grandmother died when most of her children were quite young, and I had wondered why he had not remarried, as this was not out of the norm.
"Yes, I'm not sure who told me, but apparently she was so overwhelmed by all the children that she packed her suitcase and went out the window."
I thanked my cousin for the information and promised to send a photo of my great-grandfather's grave (she didn't know where he was buried), and I immediately called my father who had never heard this story.
So I went looking. In the 1920 census, my great-grandfather was listed as married, but no wife to be found. I figured this was just an error of the census taker, but now I thought differently.
Using Ancestry, I searched the Massachusetts Marriage Index and came up with two potential dates for my great-grandfather's marriage, either in 1916 or 1919. Discouraged that I might have to order the record and be patient, I then turned my attention to the site FamilySearch.
I had clearly not checked FamilySearch because I quickly found the marriage record for my great-grandfather. They married on January 5, 1916. I learned the name of his bride, and the address listed was the same from the 1920 census. I also noted that his mother's name, Bessie, made more sense than what I had on his death record, Sarah. My great-grandparents' eldest daughter who passed six months old was named Bessie, and I had no clue after whom she might be named (as the tradition among Ashkenazi Jews is to name after close deceased relatives). Bessie also makes more sense because the information came directly from my great-grandfather, rather than my great-uncle who was the informant on the death certificate when he died.
So is the window story true? I can't prove that, but because I spoke with my cousin, I learned a new piece of information that had eluded me in my research and developed my great-grandfather's story.
Please call your relatives, especially the older generations, because they possess a wealth of knowledge. It is all our responsibility to learn more about our family history and preserve this information for future generations. And it's free!