Meeting Our Relatives on Paper


Members of this family compiled their history the easy way—everyone helped.

It’s probably the best idea we’ve ever had. It’s brought us closer together and has helped us get to know people we’ve never met. It’s been written and it’s been read, and it’s definitely a family treasure.

What is it? It’s the Sowby family history project, initiated to compile a brief but comprehensive history of the Isaac George and Annie Martine Nielsen Sowby family over four generations. Sound like a huge task? It would be, if it were the sole responsibility of one person. But seventeen separate families pitched in to write their individual family histories on just two typed, double-spaced pages each, and the response has been far greater than anyone expected.

To some, two pages may seem long. To others, two pages may seem inadequate to cover seventy years. But the two-page limit has some strong benefits: the history is not so long that it won’t be written, nor so long that it won’t be read! And we’ve proved that the important information and events in the life of a family can be condensed into two pages. Here’s how we did it:

We sent a letter in February announcing the family history collection, to be ready for distribution at the family reunion five months later. The letter asked that histories begin at the point the couple met, then tell when and where they married, when and where children were born, where the family has lived, what education and employment the parents have had, major events in the life of the family, and the couple’s birthdates and parents’ names. Other information suggested included church service, hobbies and interests, travel, recognitions and awards, and testimony. Single relatives over college age started their histories with high school graduation, then included later schooling and subsequent career, along with non-work activities and hopes for the future.

We cautioned writers against compiling a list of names, dates, and events resembling an obituary. “Along with the necessary information,” the letter said, “your brief history should reflect your feelings, your life-style, your problems, your joys.” We also suggested a plan for getting it done: “Set aside thirty minutes this Sunday to list what items you want to include, then decide what order they go in. Be selective, but cover what we’ve asked for. Set the following Sunday aside to type it. Proofread it, then send it in by the next Sunday.” We added a two-page history of our immediate family as a sample.

A couple of enthusiastic relatives sent theirs two weeks later. More trickled in around the April 1 deadline, and a few more were gathered after reminders via phone, letter, postcard—or all three. A total of seventeen of the twenty-two families responded.

The result is a spiral-bound book which will be a priceless treasure for generations to come. Since Isaac and Annie Sowby did not live to see their children enter adulthood, a son wrote what he remembered about them, and a grandson found their wedding photograph, which we included at the front of the book. (Our only regret is that we didn’t ask everyone for pictures.) Another grandson drew a family tree for a fold-out page showing the four sons and two daughters of Isaac and Annie Sowby and their children and grandchildren.

But the best part is the words of the posterity themselves. In them, the reader gains a glimpse of the writers—their values, their faith, their humor. Few are polished writers, yet their unique personalities shine through.

There is Aunt Anna Mae, whose simple history reflects a life of service and dedication to her family. She wrote of her gratitude to the people who took her in and raised her as their own after her parents died, even though they had five children already. Uncle Mont redeemed himself from a somewhat rambling and misspelled history with the final line: “Let me say that my daughter Karen won a national award in spelling in high school. She took after her mother, not me.” Cousin Susan’s reflected her family’s unabashed enthusiasm of moving into a home of their own after living in a small camping trailer with “wall-to-wall beds,” and expecting their second child.

This is a genealogy book, not with names and dates on family group sheets, but with pages revealing the lives of real people—our people. It testifies of the individuality of each family within the larger family organization, a book whose value is sure to extend beyond the lives of those who wrote it. It has helped bind us together. Hopefully, the ties formed by this brief history project will continue into the coming generations.

[photo] Photo by H. Armstrong Roberts, Inc.

Laurie Williams Sowby serves as a Young Women adviser and Relief Society varied interest leader in the American Fork Twenty-sixth Ward, American Fork Utah North Stake.