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TRACING ROOTS OPENS DOORS ON HISTORY

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"Where did I come from?"

When a child asks that question, the answer is usually fairly simple.But when you ask that question as an adult, you open a door to stories of faith, hope, challenges and courage - the stories that make up your family history.

Preserving your family history can be as simple as recording childhood memories on tape - or as elaborate as tracing your lineage back to a 16th-century village across an ocean and publishing the information in book form.

The rewards range from strengthening existing family bonds to discovering long-lost relatives to providing a new perspective on your own life.

"Genealogy is a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, with pieces scattered all around the world," says Ira Wolfman, the author of "Do People Grow on Family Trees?" (Workman Publications, 1991), the official Ellis Island handbook on tracing family histories.

"When you assemble these pieces, you assemble a picture of your own family and, in the end, of yourself," Wolfman says.

No matter what level of detail you have in mind for your family history, the place to start is with yourself.

You may not realize it, but you're probably a walking library of family lore.

The easiest way to begin is to jot down some old stories in a notebook or to sit down with a tape recorder - with perhaps another family member to prompt you - and start reminiscing.

If you find that looking at a microphone leaves you speechless, several books are available to help.

For example, "To Our Children's Children: Preserving Family Histories for Generations to Come" (Doubleday, 1993), by D.G. Fulford, a Los Angeles Daily News columnist, and her brother, Bob Greene, a Chicago Tribune columnist, lists 1,000 questions designed to unlock old memories.

These range from the obvious ("What is your name?") to the silly ("If you got a tattoo, what would it be? Where?") to the profound ("If you hold a fundamental truth, what is it?").

"Each of them is a different little snapshot that opens up a whole page of memories," Fulford says.

Many memoirs are collaborations across generations, and the rich relationships that result from bringing the past to life are as valuable as the reminiscences themselves.

Zula Stewart, 91, of Hartford, Ky., says she never realized how interesting her tales of everyday life on a rural Kentucky farm would be to modern listeners until one of her granddaughters started taping Stewart's reminiscences.

One story that particularly fascinated the little girl was Stewart's recollection of the family's first radio.

"We were the only ones in the neighborhood who had one, and every Saturday night the neighbors came in and listened," Stewart says.

Of course, there's more to your family history than just your own memories. There are also the memory banks of your relatives.

Wolfman suggests gathering a few relatives over a box of old photographs or keepsakes. "Try saying, `Tell me about this picture. Were you there that day? What happened?' "

Holidays, birthdays and other family occasions provide perfect opportunities for group reminiscing.

As you progress from collecting family stories to tracking down the hard facts about who lived where and when, you'll need birth certificates, marriage licenses, diplomas and other official papers. Often relatives can supply the missing links.

A little harmless snooping can yield invaluable documents.

Desk drawers, photo albums and boxes packed away in the attic can provide a treasure trove of photographs, passports, letters, journals and even address books.

Once you've gathered all the information you can from family members' memories and odd bits of paper, you can begin a formal genealogy.

Exploring the deeper roots of your family tree is far easier than most novices realize, Wolfman says.

"It's something that can be done in an evening or on a weekend. You don't have to be a professional, and you don't have to spend a lot of money."

Wolfman's book provides simple, clear-cut instructions on where to dig up records and how to keep track of your research.

"I started out thinking I would never know anything beyond my grandparents, who were all immigrants and who died more than 20 years ago. To my astonishment, today I know the names of my great-great-great-great-grandmother and -grandfather," says Wolfman.

"I have copies of ship manifests showing where my grandparents came into this country and a birth certificate more than 130 years old. And I was able to do all this without leaving my hometown."

Literally billions of records are available locally on microfilm or computer disk.

The National Archives, the central clearinghouse for all U.S. government records, maintains branch offices in major cities across the country.

If, for example, you know the name of an ancestor who lived in Massachusetts around 1880, you can go to the nearest branch of the archives and look him up in a microfilm copy of the U.S. Census for Massachusetts. That should give you the name and age of everyone living in his household at that time.

If your ancestors didn't reach the United States until this century, you'll be surprised at how easily you can track records from other countries.

One of the best resources for international records is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church).

Thomas Daniels, the manager of public information, says the church's Family History Library in Salt Lake City contains five centuries' worth of records from more than 150 countries, providing information on 2 billion individuals.

The LDS Church keeps the records for theological reasons, but the records are open to anyone interested in learning more about his or her ancestors.

"Our records do not go up to the present time," Daniels says. "The cutoff date is around 1910, to protect living people's rights of privacy."

When you've compiled enough information to bridge the gap between 1910 and the present day, you can visit either the central library or one of the 1,250 branches the LDS Church maintains around the country, known as Family History Centers.

All can provide indexes of the main library's resources, such as parish registers, synagogue records, military records, wills and deeds - plus nearly 200,000 books on genealogy.

Once you figure out which records you need, you can order microfilm copies, which the central library will send to your local center for use on-site.

Local libraries and historical societies also provide a wealth of information.

You can also get research tips and share information through a variety of publications targeted at amateur genealogists, such as "Everton's Genealogical Helper," a 300-page compendium of genealogy information published six times a year.

Computer software programs have been developed to help you organize and preserve the fruits of your search.

Genealogy buffs say the time and effort spent in tracking down ancestors pays off when the names and dates start coming alive.

"Last names tell us what our ancestors looked like and what they did," Wolfman says. "Russell is Old English for red hair. Schwartzkopf meant someone with very dark hair."

Information such as this can be found in "The New Dictionary of American Family Names" by Elsdon C. Smith.

To make your family history valuable to future generations, you need to put it in some kind of permanent form.

Beyond audio- and videotapes, Wolfman suggests compiling a notebook of family documents, photographs, maps and letters. You can make a photo family tree, using pictures from each generation.

The most enthusiastic genealogists pay to have their family-history books printed privately.

No matter what form your family history takes, whether it's a hardbound tome covering 10 generations or a little stack of cassette tapes, it will be an heirloom for generations to come.