With ample time in the present, many have found themselves delving deep into the past.
Family history and genealogy have become one of the most popular “Quarantine Projects” over the last several months as people of all ages found themselves with more time and the ability to pick up unfinished projects or start new “past” times.
That’s exactly what happened for Etta Rosen of the South End, who had always promised her late mother she would catalog and label the more than 100 photos they had of relatives they had visited after World War II. There, however, had never seemed to be enough time to do it just how she wanted. When COVID-19 hit in March, suddenly she was looking for something to do, and the pictures and family history beckoned.
“I inherited photos from my parents, my in-laws, my grandparents and great aunts,” she said. “They had cartons full of photos. After my brother and I are gone, I realized no one would recognize any of the people in the pictures from my family. I had the distinct advantage of having gone to Europe and Israel after World War II and meeting eight brothers and sisters of my grandfather. He had come to America before the war, but the rest stayed in Europe. We went in the 1950s, and it wasn’t so impressive to a 7-year-old, but in retrospect it was great.”
Rosen said her mother immersed her in family history in the 1980s, making elaborate family trees and always schooling her on who was in the photos she eventually inherited. It was something that, with time now, she wanted to complete. She decided she would not go on Ancestry.com to uncover any new information so as to not make it more complicated – keeping things simple and working only with what she already had and knew. So, she clearly labeled all of the photos, placed them in archival boxes and scanned some of them to be included in a detailed family tree. She said she put them in binders so her four children’s spouses could add their family stories as well. When COVID-19 restrictions relax, she said she will make nine copies of her project for her kids, her grandkids.
“It makes me sad because these were full lives and real people,” she said. “Somehow, keeping that a preserving it is worthwhile. I think in this day and age, even before the pandemic, people are disconnected. We rely so much on electronics. It’s a way of feeling more connected I think. Conversely, it’s also a way of looking into the future. They won’t forget me either. That was important to my mother, so in a way, I was honoring her too.”
Jim Power at the New England Historic Genealogic Society (NEHGS) in the Back Bay said they have had a noticeable uptick in interest for their programming and services in the last four months. That corresponds with national online services like Ancestry.com, who report a 37 percent increase in subscriptions since COVID-19 began.
“We have seen an uptick in interest,” he said. “We’ve had the program growth that has happened online virtually. We’ve seen a growth in subscriptions and memberships and that’s nothing to sneeze at. That’s important to us…We have a captive audience right now. There are a lot of people who have a lot more time looking to us and that result is certainly in our favor.”
Power said the pandemic has taught their organization that their programming – which primarily has been in their Back Bay events room that holds 90 people – can be hugely successful online to their greater, international membership. He said while their events are mostly for locals, some 90 percent of their members are from out of state. When they began producing programming online as the pandemic worsened, they were surprised to see record numbers.
“That was an unexpected result because we are a national organization and 90 percent of our members are way beyond Massachusetts,” he said. “Some 95 percent of our relationships were already virtual…Even so, we still had a big investment in the live, in-person programs with big celebrities. We were limited to a 90-person capacity. Now, we’re able to market that to a much bigger audience and we’re seeing 2,000 reservations for a 90-minute online program. It showed us what is possible.”
Like Rosen, Power suggested anyone biting off a piece of the family history project should start now with those living – or those who have the memory of people in the family tree or in family photos.
“Do it now and talk to the living,” he said. “Get the stories from them. You may not be interested. Your children may not be interested, but in 20 years everyone will be.”
Rosen said there is a silver lining to COVID-19 in that it did provide a lot of people a lot of time to do ‘Quarantine Projects’ like family history that they could never seem to finish in regular times.
“That’s the silver lining I suppose to COVID-19,” she said. “Now they will know Cousin Judith isn’t just Cousin Judith. They’ll know where she fits in the family…For me, it wasn’t so much about the why, but I didn’t want these being thrown away.”
The NEHGS is located on Newbury Street in the Back Bay, and has a website of AmericanAncestors.org.