Remember when you were a kid and Grandma or Grandpa would drone on and on over the Thanksgiving turkey about Great-Uncle Clem, who made moonshine up in the hills of Kentucky and had constant run-ins with the Revenuers? Or Aunt Colleen, who couldn’t cook at all when she came over on the boat from the Old Country, but eventually turned into a prize-winning baker? Child that you were, you probably tuned them out. But now you wish you could remember all those stories: Did Clem ever go to jail? And is your affinity for cake baking passed down from Colleen? The holidays, which bring families together, are the perfect time to start that long-neglected hunt for your family history. After the turkey carcass is cleared away and before the pumpkin pie is served, ask the relatives to tell you about their lives, their parents and grandparents, and any other relatives they remember. While they probably can’t give you specific dates or middle names, the information they can supply might be enough to get you started looking through steamship manifests or cemetery records. Marjorie Vargas of Canoga Park, director of the Canoga Park Family History Center, said she was the youngest of seven children in a Mormon family, and designated by her mother as the unofficial genealogist. “We (Mormons) believe there is life after death, that we are all reunited with our ancestors. And to know who they are, know a little bit about them, brings us all closer.” Many people became interested in genealogy after reading the late Alex Haley’s book “Roots,” about his own ancestors, or watching the groundbreaking TV miniseries that aired in 1977 to an entranced audience of millions. Research then was hard, time-consuming and usually reserved for those with time and money to invest in search of their history. When Vargas began to do genealogical research in 1972, she said, “it was all letter writing and phone calls. With the Web, it’s fantastic. I can e-mail Scotland or Norway and get an e-mail back in an hour.” Ginger Atwood of Lakewood got started looking for her family’s roots just a few years ago, after her four children grew up. She favors ancestry.com, a subscription Web site used by genealogists all over the world, and usgenweb.com, a free site that has endless information from each state, including data from remote cemeteries, all indexed by volunteers. But, she cautioned, make sure you get original documents detailing when your ancestors came to this country, where they lived, how many children they had. Without that, stories are just stories. “Just because it’s on the Web, that doesn’t mean it’s accurate,” she said. Atwood’s calling was in her blood. Her grandmother spent 10 years as director of the Family History Center in St. George, Utah, and she received her grandmother’s family records after she died. Now director of the Family History Center in Long Beach, Atwood said her search took her to historical records from Germany, Newfoundland, England and Norway to find out about her husband’s family, the Atwoods, and her own, the Bechtolds. Because many of the records she delved into were in German, she took a German-language class so she could read them. So far, she said, “I’ve been able to go back 10 generations – maybe it’s 12, I can’t remember … Apparently we go back to England and some knights.” Lorna Rice of Torrance, a third-generation genealogist, belongs to two genealogy societies and is director of the Family History Center in Torrance. She advocates collecting family stories, but warns that they must be checked for accuracy. Researching her husband’s family, she contacted the Maryland cemetery where she’d been told his grandfather was buried, only to find there was no record of him there. About that time, a Web site launched on which volunteers have indexed death records and cemetery grave sites. There among the records, she found his grave, right where it was supposed to be. “I think if you really want to hook somebody on family history, you have to start with original stuff,” she said. “When you get hooked is when you get an original document. If you get a death certificate, you get so much more information on that document – the person’s address, his parents’ names, his occupation, all kinds of things. … You don’t have to throw out things you can’t prove. You may eventually figure them out.” One of Rice’s favorite Web sites is ancestor.com, which is free and has 200,000 volunteers all around the world indexing original documents onto microfilm that can be read on the Internet. Two tidbits of information she’s found: Her great-grandfather came West during the Gold Rush and was killed in a mine only five days after reaching the gold fields. His body was shipped to Chatsworth, where his burial cost $5. Her own grandfather, she discovered, was a Scotsman and a shepherd, who whiled away the time with his flock by knitting. Many people who get involved in genealogy lose interest when they don’t immediately find anything remarkable. It can take years of research to put a history together, and those who stick to the work are usually rewarded. “People just don’t like the common old farmer,” Rice said. “The horse thieves are great. Everybody loves them.” Some people, wanting to find only a high-born ancestor to brag about, stop when they hit a piece of bad news, like a robber or a pirate, Vargas said. But most regard news of a scoundrel in the family as just another piece of the puzzle. “We need those to keep us from getting a swelled head,” Vargas joked. The problem, she said, is that the things families used to be ashamed of usually aren’t well documented. “They only recorded the good,” Vargas said. “They didn’t put the bad in writing. If they find a horse thief, they think that it might have sullied their (family) name. But it’s all good. It makes you what you are.” Rice, who with her cousins often gathered at her grandmother’s house to hear stories of her family members, said those tales “made them real people to me.” Research, perseverance pay off Several resources available The Los Angeles Regional Family History Center has 30,000 books, 118,000 rolls of microfilm and 100,000 microfiches, many of those records in Spanish. It also is staffed by volunteers, ready to help everybody at no charge. Center Director Richard McBride said it’s always busy, both with members and with nonmembers who want help in tracing their ancestors. “This is probably the best place outside Salt Lake City to do research,” McBride said. The center is also affiliated with Jewish, British, Polish and Nordic genealogical societies, which allow researchers to access specialized records, such as those charting Jewish and German families before World War II. Records from during the war and shortly afterward often are hard to find. African-American families have the same problem researching their family through the years before and during the Civil War, when many blacks were slaves and were listed by sex and age, but not by name. There are 4,000 smaller family history centers in the country, all run by volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including 14 regional centers in Southern California. The church, which encourages Mormons to research their ancestry, has 2.5 million rolls of microfilm containing original birth, death, census and other records, and about 85,000 volunteers are indexing those. As more volunteers come on board, the pace is picking up, he said. It took 18 years to index the 1880 census, but only 18 months to add the 1900 count. “Family history seems to be one of the biggest hobbies in the world,” McBride said. “And it’s not brain surgery – you can learn it.” [email protected] 818-713-3705 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!