Capturing Your Family’s Stories

By Meredith Holt
Illustration by Dennis Krull

You may have an idea of your heritage and your family tree, but do you know your family’s stories? Can you tell your children the tale of how your parents met? Do you know where your grandmother—their great-grandmother—grew up or went to school? Stories “help a family define their identity and stay in touch with who they are,” author Donald Davis says in his book, “Telling Your Own Stories: For Family and Classroom Storytelling, Public Speaking, and Personal Journaling.” Stories can’t be found on birth and death certificates, or in census records. They go beyond the facts.

“Your older relatives (and not-so-older—don’t forget your siblings and younger people’s perspectives) can tell you stories and share information you will never be able to find in historical records or other sources,” says Mark Peihl, archivist for the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County. “The stories may not be 100 percent accurate in the details, but they can tell us how your relatives felt about the things going on around them.”

Everyone—young and old—can get involved in a family storytelling project. The process can open lines of communication, help create bonds between family members, and bridge generation gaps.

Imagine the helpful, interesting, quirky, and delightful details you’re likely to uncover. “By exploring the lives of your parents and grandparents, for instance, you might gain insight into your family’s health history or discover talents and affinities that run in the family,” says Janette Sargent-Hamill, author of the book “Your Family, Your Story: A Guide to Digital Storytelling.” “You might also reconnect with long-lost relatives or develop a new understanding of continuity with your family.”

Getting Started
Capturing your family’s stories can seem daunting. Don’t get overwhelmed by trying to capture everything from everyone right away. The most important thing is to get started! As Sargent-Hamill points out, “When our storytellers are gone, our history is lost.”

Some people may be reluctant to talk about themselves. “It isn’t always easy to convince them that their lives are important and why,” Sargent-Hamill says. She suggests telling them, “You are a part of the history of your city, state, and county,” or “Only you can let your children and grandchildren know about the lives of previous generations. You are their link to the past.”

Begin with the elders in your family. Many will welcome the opportunity to reflect on days long gone with a captive audience. Then, work your way through the generations. Story-gathering should be a perpetual process the whole family can enjoy.

Questions Prompt Stories: Ask thoughtful, open-ended questions, not “yes” or “no” questions. Many family stories revolve around important events such as birthdays, holidays, graduations, marriage proposals, weddings, births, and deaths. Those are great places to start a conversation. Here are some more answers for you and your children to seek from family members:

• where they grew up
• where they went to school
• where they went on family vacations
• their first or favorite pets
• their most embarrassing moments
• their first car
• their first date

Keepsakes Prompt Stories: Photo albums, scrapbooks, journals, letters, or, nowadays, emails, are good starting points. Ask Grandpa to sit on the couch with the kids and go through a photo album of his younger days. The photographs will trigger memories he can share with his grandchildren and they’ll likely have questions for him as well.

Possessions Prompt Stories: Material possessions can also help open the storytelling floodgates. Where did the grandfather clock come from? Who made the lamp on the foyer table? What about the painting in the hallway? “Your things have stories to tell beyond the family photo album and family tree,” author Sultan Somjee says in his book, “Stories From Things: Write Your Memoir in 10 Steps.”

First and foremost, family stories need to be told. How you capture and preserve them is up to you. Stories can simply be handwritten or typed. If the storyteller is comfortable with it, audio, video, or digital recording is ideal. “Recorded interviews also have the added value of capturing the interviewees’ voices and, if video recordings are made, those persons’ moving images, too.

There is a thrill in listening to the actual voices and viewing the moving images of your own family’s elders,” the American Folklife Center says.

Handwritten stories can be compiled in a family book and perhaps placed in a binder that can be added to in years to come. To jazz up the book, ask artistic family members or the kids to illustrate some of the stories. If possible, audio, video, or digital stories should be edited together, copied, and shared with family members.

Whatever the topic and however you choose to capture it, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Peihl says. “So many people get hung up on trying to do things perfectly that they never get around to doing anything.” Gather those family stories now.

You’ll be thankful you did.

Meredith Holt is a copy editor and freelance writer.
She lives in Fargo.

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