I don’t know how it is with your family, but when my family gets together we start telling stories. It might be the story of that uncle’s time with the jazz band, or a grandfather’s tiger hunt, or that time when my mother gave away my dad’s only sweater to a hobo. They don’t interest anyone but us, but we love telling them. The fact is that human memory is fallible. If you don’t capture those stories, write them down, and put them where you and others can find them, they will be lost with the people who tell them.
Capture the Stories
In the last couple of years, I’ve been involved with several people and their collections of family stories. I’m using fictitious names here to preserve their privacy.
Jan’s family has been involved in owning real estate property for a couple of generations. They put together a family history, guided by the records of transactions they had across three generations. Not only does every transaction have a story that goes with it, but the memory inspires other stories. They record the stories.
Marty wanted to capture the stories of his parents who came to the United States to escape the pogroms in Russia. They arrived in the United States knowing no English, having no friends here, and having almost no money. Marty wants to get their story down so that he can share it with his children and grandchildren. He says he doesn’t want them to forget the parents who shaped his life and values and the struggles they endured so their descendants would have it better.
Fred was drafted and served in the Vietnam War. He was awarded a couple of medals. He never talks about it, but his children kept pestering him with questions. So, he decided to write a short book about his experience growing up and going to war in Vietnam.
From working with people writing memory preservation projects and from talking to others who have done it, I’ve learned some things about what the good practices are.
It’s easy to think you’ll be able to gather the stories tomorrow, or next week, or next year. But if you put it off, you might not ever do it. Start the project now. Make it something other people want to get involved in.
There are original documents that provide answers to questions you don’t even know to ask yet. I have my father’s reports to the American Church and to the Lutheran World Federation from his time in Berlin during the Cold War. I have transcriptions of many of his sermons.
The tiger hunt story was in a hand-written letter sent from India. The letter was transcribed on a typewriter. Several people have copies. Make physical and digital copies of everything you have. Save the copies in several places.
Interview people about times in their life, particular incidents, or what they think about different subjects. Record the interviews. Have them transcribed. I became involved with one family project because they thought they’d rather have a third party do the interviewing than any one of them. Fair warning, though, sometimes people will want to keep talking, so make sure you’ve got plenty of recording capacity and time.
Don’t have an end date
Make gathering the stories and the memories part of your life together. My neighbor’s family does that superbly. Every couple of years, they get together for a family reunion. Whenever they do, they have a “story session” where they record stories and remembrances of people at the reunion. Over the years this has turned into quite an impressive collection.
Today’s technology makes it easy to gather and save the stories we love to tell. Most of the people I’ve talked to about this started out by thinking that they were doing it for the next generation. They were, but to a person, they’ve said that they have enjoyed the entire process themselves, too.