Genealogy in 3D

By Richard Campbell

A family tree is more than just the trunk and branches. It’s even more than the roots that anchor your life to the past. Look at it as a billowing storyboard, filled with the lives of those past and present. It is genealogy in 3D.

Research may be a primary keyword for any genealogist but there is one other key R word and that is reflection. We need to look beyond excel sheets and data dumps to find meaning to dates and charts. Great Grandfather Thomas O’Grady may have immigrated to the U.S. in 1889 but what compelled him to leave Ireland? Who did he leave behind and why? These are parts of the O’Grady story that never got told. In the same way, when you leave your legacy behind, let it include the substance of who you were, not just a name on a list.

There is an efficient way of doing this. It includes writing nothing more than a single paragraph on each of 10 essential legacy themes. When done, you will have captured the essence of who you are and where you are heading in this lifetime. What a powerful 3D gift to future genealogists.


For each of the 10 following themes, write down a brief paragraph based on an experience from your own life story. Feel free to use notes instead. Completing the process will give you a structural overview to the life you have lived until now. Later you can flesh it out with flair and panache.


These are the key turning points in our lives. We all have several. They may include a childhood family divorce, high school graduation, a first job, a first serious relationship, or giving birth to a child. Whether a major or seemingly minor event, it will always be important to us. Which of your own forks in the road experiences stand out at this particular point in time?


We all have family. These are the people you grew up with, nurtured you, cared for you. They could have been your parents, your relatives, your guardians, or your neighbours. When you think back to your original family, what comes to mind? Were they there for you?


We all originate from somewhere. Our ancestors may have set foot in this country long ago or have immigrated recently. No matter the time-frame, traces of the past always stay with us. What significant old country customs do you celebrate today? Why do they still matter?


Our work helps define who we are. It can give us purpose, satisfy our talents, or it can simply be a matter of providing food on the table. Our life’s work can involve one job or several. It can be embraced or tolerated. How does your work impact your world view?


We live within a framework of rules. Some are state imposed but many come from our own value systems. We learn how to become members of a community through cooperation and trust. We may honour hard work, honesty, faith, patience, resilience, and service to others. What rules do you value? How did they help you navigate through the complexities of life?


When we do things we love, we feel the energy – it surges through us like a torrent. Being passionate about something helps give meaning to our lives. Whether it’s a vocation or hobby, our passions propel us through life, giving it lustre and purpose. Which ones have been most meaningful to you? Where have they taken you?


We are all achievers. After all, we are life survivors and that means we have accomplished much. Your personal achievements don’t need to be blockbusters. They are just the ones you are proud of. Raising a wonderful child counts. Surviving a health challenge counts. So do the little things that aren’t so little – making a difference to a needy family’s Christmas, or learning to drive a farm tractor. List a few of your own personal achievements.


Genealogy categorizes lists of names, places, and dates. Placing these within the context of historical moments greatly enhances a life story. Saying that you moved to Boston from Great Britain in 1964 can be linked to the great British rock ‘n’ roll invasion of the same year. Or perhaps your ancestors came to America in 1848. That was likely due to the Irish Potato Famine. What historical time period is significant for you?

FROM SECULAR TO SPIRITUAL A culture’s history is often a reflection of its beliefs. From Animism to Zoroastrianism, we often live our lives according to local and regional traditions. Many of us have drifted away from such beliefs or accepted new ones. A journey in faith cannot be captured by name or date. How has it impacted on your life?

YOUR LEGACY MESSAGE This is your life’s icing on the cake. It is an opportunity to pass along your legacy to your children, grandchildren, or community. What were your most valuable life lessons? What will your legacy be to those that matter?

TIP Finishing this writing project takes you to the perfect jump-off point. By expanding each of the above themes into short 2-3 page stories, you can create a compelling personal life story that will add power to your genealogy research. It makes a perfect gift too. Richard Campbell is co-author of “Writing Your Legacy: The Step-by-Step Guide to Crafting Your Life Story”