“I Never Realized…”

You don’t know what you don’t know about your family

By Kurt Rump

Kate Hellmers has been receiving a lot of emails from relatives and friends lately. That, by itself, is not surprising. Each of them expressed some form of gratitude for her efforts to capture and share family stories.  

What IS surprising is how many of those emails also acknowledged new discoveries – things previously not known to the senders – that were almost always introduced with the phrase, “I never realized…”  

What made those discoveries possible? Here is Kate’s story.  

Her mom, Mary, was celebrating her 95th birthday (wow!), and Kate wanted to do something special for her – something family related. Over the years, her mom was always the “picture taker” during family gatherings… for all sides of the family. So, Kate had a ton of raw material to work with.  

In addition, Kate and a few other family members had taken a trip to Ireland to visit the ‘old country’ where the family roots were established. There, an Irish relative gave them a historical tour of family places, so she also had those pictures and backstories to work with.  

All that was needed now was a little ingenuity and the will to getting it organized. Oh… and buy-in from her mom, who had a key role to play. After hearing Kate’s plan, Mary gave it a thumbs up.  

This was the plan. 

Kate would sort the pictures by family and place them into folders on her computer. For pictures that weren’t already digitized, she used a digital camera to “take a picture of the picture.” That was good enough for her intended use.  

At the same time, she started emailing various family groups to schedule Zoom calls. The groups were from different branches of the family – both her mom’s side and her dad’s. Even some “friends of the family” groups were assembled. She found someone in each group to champion the cause and coordinated schedules with them. Each Zoom call would occur on a weekend, no more than one per week, for an hour (though they commonly run over).  

Once scheduled, Kate handled the invitations. There was one common thread to each Zoom call – Kate’s mom.  

The calls began shortly after Mary’s birthday. The approach was simple – Kate shared her computer screen through Zoom and conducted a slide show. She would flash a picture on the screen, and her mom would provide some context: 

  • Who is it? 
  • How are they related? 
  • A sentence or two to describe them.  
  • Share a memorable story… preferably a humorous one.  

After which, conversations would ensue. Each family had their own approach. One – a “younger” generation – conducted surveys. Who was the nicest? The strictest? The best dancer?  

Another zeroed in on Uncle Billy. It seems Uncle Billy loves to dance… but can’t. It’s not exactly his gift, if you know what I mean. But that never stopped him. His dance floor moves – renowned in the family – were affectionately dubbed “the Uncle Billy.” During that Zoom call, everyone learned to do the Uncle Billy.  

Is this a fun family, or what?  

Following each call, Kate would post a link to the recorded Zoom call on a family web page, along with a link to the photos that were shown. That way, anyone unable to attend the call could catch the replay, and everyone had the option to download copies of the photos. 

But one of the most rewarding aspects of the Zoom calls has been the emails that Kate has been receiving – the ones that share their discoveries.  

“I never realized…
…that my grandmother was a twin.”
…that my grandmother had an older brother.”
…that my uncle had two kids.”
…where my great grandmother was from in the old country.”
…that a guy I play golf with is related to me (3rd cousin).”
…that my great aunt was the first woman police captain of her city.”
…that my dad liked to dance – I never saw him dance.”
…that my dad liked to have so much fun – he was always so serious.”
…that my mom was so pretty when she was young.”
…that my aunt sang professionally with Bob Crosby’s band (Bing’s brother).”
…what Mom and Dad did for fun before us.” 
…that a priest who was a close friend of the family knew Martin Luther King, helped lepers in China, and dedicated his life to great things.”  

A few of Kate’s cousins sent her some of their own photos in advance of their family Zoom calls. Families were getting a chance to see all the photos you don’t know other people have – a reflection of the truth underlying a favorite TightKnit mantra, “Everybody has something, but nobody has everything.” Even Mary – the family picture taker – was seeing some photos for the first time. One special one was a group shot of the whole family who had gathered to attend her mother’s funeral – a photo she had never seen before.  

It’s hard to overestimate the value of keeping families connected by sharing stories to learn its history. While discovering things about your family that you never knew before, you just might learn a little something more about yourself.  

And notably, Kate observed a side benefit. During every Zoom call, she sees a physical energy – a burst of youthfulness – being restored in her 95-year-old mother that lingers even after a few days.  

What a gift!  


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