Recording Family Stories in “Fits and Starts” By Sherry Lindsay, FamilyLink.com, Inc.
It is never too early to start interviewing your relatives to record their histories, but one day it might be too late.
When I was a child I loved listening to my grandfather tell stories about his extraordinarily interesting life, and by the time I was about sixteen I had decided that I needed to start recording the stories-not necessarily audio-recordings, but some sort of written record of his experiences in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Mexico, Iran, and various places across the United States. Of course, I didn’t get going right away; then I started college 1,500 miles away from him, and, although I kept in good contact with him, I still did not work on recording the fantastic stories he told me.
During my junior year of college I took a class on writing family histories. Upon signing up for the class I knew that I would finally be writing my grandfather’s history. Unfortunately, within three weeks of my starting the class my grandfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I was finally struck with the realization that I had wasted a lot of time.
Of course, on the up-side, I was extremely fortunate to have about six good months where I could call my grandfather and ask him questions about his life. As I wrote his history, though, the thought that I could have known and recorded more always lingered.
My intent in writing this is not to guilt-trip you into interrogating your elderly family members until every worthwhile personal and family history detail has been extracted from their memories. Rather, my intent is to help you realize that family histories can be written in pieces, in fits and starts if you will.
Just as you log details on your pedigree chart as you find them, you can record historic details of your family members as you hear them. Next time you get off the phone or come home from a visit with a family member (young or old-the earlier your start, the more you will accumulate) take a few moments to write down any interesting stories you may have heard. With time you will find that you have accumulated a great deal of family history data, and it will be ready for a cumulative story.
If your older family members are anything like mine, you may think that you’ve heard all the stories several times before, and if push came to shove you’d be able to record them all without the assistance of your relative. But why test the limits of your own memory? Writing down these histories in fits and starts won’t take much time at all, and it will preserve the memory of those you love for generations to come.
Family Stories that Bind by AMANDA on JUNE 27, 2011
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I remember the first time I really became personally interested in the stories of my ancestors. I was a newly minted teenager when a family friend pointed out how much I resembled my great grandmother. She was referring to a picture I had seen on a shelf my whole life. I had noticed her, and probably even been interested from time to time, but it wasn’t until after that comment that I suddenly became interested in her as a part of myself. From that moment onI didn’t just look at her picture, I looked for myself there. Her long, dark hair, the shape of her lips, the outline of her face. It was suddenly not about features, but about connections.
My great -grandmother died when my grandpa was just a toddler, so my family didn’t have much in the way of memories to rely on, but what we did have were her stories. These were handed down verbally through the family, and also recorded in a journal that she kept. And just as with her picture, I began to look for myself in her stories as well.
Whether it was sharing her drive to learn as she wrote about begging for permission to leave the farm to attend college or the correlation of our tom-boy reputations, I began to have a personal connection to her stories. They became part of my personal narrative.
Strengthening Families with Stories
Researchers like Dr. Robyn Fivush are studying family narratives and the effects they have on children. What they’re finding is that the sharing of family stories and memories help as the children begin to build a sense of self and construct their own identities, and promote social and emotional well-being.
From inspiring stories about great -grandparents finding their way through the Great Depression to the familiar tale of how Dad broke his collarbone while on his paper route, the act of sharing family stories shape who we are, our personal identities, and our connections. They help us bond with our families and find our place in the grander scheme of life.
As Dr. Fivush talks about shared family narratives, she outlines two types of stories. There are the “Today I” stories as we talk about the ordinary experiences that happen every day, and also the intergenerational stories that pass verbal histories all along the family line. Both types build strong families and a healthy sense of self.
Just as the types of family narratives can vary from the ordinary to the exceptional, the ways we invite the sharing of these stories varies as well. Here are a few ideas to help you be more intentional in building and communicating your family narrative.
Share a meal. The simple act of eating meals together encourages your family to share many of those “Today I” narratives Dr. Fivush speaks of. Perhaps this is just part of why family meal time has been correlated to so many positive outcomes for children and adolescents.
Talk. My husband’s parents instituted the practice of nightly talks when their children were very young. Each child (all eight!) would get one-on-one time with a parent to talk about the ups and downs of their day. It’s a tradition that has been carried down to their children’s own families, though the grandkids still revel at the chance to have Grammy “do talks” where she spins tales of their parents’ childhoods or her own. Create spaces in the day for individual connection and conversation.
Gather. Any time my dad and his brothers got together we could be sure of one thing: they would break out the pinochle cards and laugh raucously as they playfully argued over the correct details of family lore. A gathering can be a formal family reunion, or a casual family barbecue. Whatever the original purpose, it seems to be a sure thing that when families gather, stories will be shared.
Look to the past. Connect your children to those family members who have already passed on. Having pictures of your ancestors in your home can spark conversations about their legacies and narratives. Celebrate their birthdays by sharing their stories, eating their favorite foods, or giving service to others as a way to honor them. These traditions will become like your family’s own special holidays.