Tuesday, October 13, 2020

If You Don't Ask, the Answer Is No

Way back when I was a little girl, my mother taught me that if I wanted to learn something, I should be willing to ask questions to find my answer.  If I wasn't willing to ask, then the answer to my question was automatically no, because I couldn't find the answer that way.

This is particularly pertinent in genealogy.  If you don't want to ask family members what they remember about older relatives, or how the family fared during the Depression, or what happened at your cousin's wedding that everyone still snickers about, then your answer is no.  You most likely won't be able to find out.  Even if you think that your aunt probably doesn't know, until you ask her, your answer is already no.  So why not go ahead and ask, and maybe that no will become a yes?

When I was researching my ex's family, I had made some good progress, but I had lost track of his maternal grandparents.  I knew they had moved from Massachusetts to California, but I couldn't find them after that.  My ex was convinced that they had returned to Massachusetts and died there, but I hadn't found records to verify that.  I had searched through several indices and had not found their names.

So I tried a different angle.  My ex's brother is two years older than he.  I figured two years was enough that he might remember what happened to the grandparents — when they had died, or moved, or something.  My ex didn't want me to ask, insisting that his brother couldn't possibly remember anything he didn't remember himself.  So my answer was "no."

But I kept working on him, and finally he relented and gave me his brother's e-mail address.  And lo and behold, what do you know?  Yes, indeed, he did remember.  The grandmother had died in California, and then the grandfather returned to Massachusetts and died there.  And he had a pretty good idea of the years, also.

Now that I had years to work with and could narrow my search, I found the grandmother's death in California and the grandfather's death a few years later in Massachusetts.  Both names had been indexed poorly, and I hadn't been able to pick them out because I was searching through too many years and overlooked them.  But now I had them!  I turned the no into a yes simply by asking.

Another time I was willing to ask questions was a little more daunting.  I was doing research on a man who had lived in San Francisco for about six years and had owned an automobile repair garage.  I had been asked to find a photograph of the garage.  I had determined the address but had discovered that the building was no longer there.  In its place were parking spaces in front of a gas station convenience store, part of a larger piece of property which included the gas station itself.  After more research, I figured out that the same gasoline company had had a gas station on that corner property for more than a hundred years, including the period during which my guy had owned his garage.

Logically, at some point the gas company must have bought the lot which had the garage and added it to the gas station.  It seemed that asking the company about the history of the proprty might be a useful step.  But who goes around asking gas companies questions like that?  They seem to be pretty protective about their information, especially in a city like San Francisco, where gas companies are not held in the highest esteem.

But if you don't ask, the answer is no, remember?

So I looked up the phone number of the administrative office of the gas company.  I explained I was researching the history of the property and was wondering if the company might have an archive of some sort with information about the company's history.

And it did.  (By the way, this is a relatively common thing.  If a company has been around for more than a century, it probably has an archive.)

Not only did it have an archive, the archivist was friendly and helpful!  She was able to find a little bit of the history of the property.  She even found two photos of that specific lot!  Unfortunately, they were after the garage had been torn down, so I didn't get the photograph I wanted, but I did have some additional information, including verifiying that the gas company had bought the land where the garage used to be.  And I confirmed the lesson I learned from my mother all those years ago:

If you don't ask, the answer is automatically no.  But if you ask, you might just find out something.


  1. Great article. Your blog is great. Nice to see it in Randy Seavers post this morning. Sue

    1. Thank you! I didn't even know that Randy had mentioned my post!

  2. I asked some questions when my grandmothers were still living, but do I ever wish I had asked many more! Contacting the gas company isn't anything I would ever had thought of to learn more about a property. It's even more amazing that your gas company has a historical archive.

    1. As many questions as I asked my parents and grandparents, I still didn't think of everything. I come up with new ones every day, but it's too late.

      And once you know that the gas company is Standard Oil/Chevron, maybe not so surprising that it has a historical archive?


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