Most of us eventually regret not listening more intently to family stories. Often, we don't take the time to wonder about our relatives' lives until they are gone—their priceless histories with them. What we wouldn't give for another chance to glimpse their tales from the past!
I'm always thinking of new questions to ask my deceased grandmother. I wonder: What sort of girl was she? How did she meet my grandfather? What were her thoughts when she held her first grandchild? And my list goes on.
None of us can go back in time. The best we can do to preserve our family histories is tap into what's available now. We can listen to our elderly relatives and friends and document their stories. We can approach each family gathering with a sense of responsibility to collect as much of our family histories as we can. But there's often one small problem: It's not always easy to get these folks to talk.
My friend Donna expresses the frustrations of many: "I wish I had more time to spend with my dad. When we are together, he either says he has forgotten what happened in his childhood or he just doesn't feel like talking about it."
Some people feel a sense of privacy about sharing stories of their earlier selves. One woman shared this insight: "My parents came to America from another country. They were different, and people made fun of them, so they were eager to shed remnants of their former culture. I wish I could get them to talk about their childhood years in Lebanon."
On the other hand, many older folks enjoy sharing their memories, especially if it means they have your undivided attention. The key to successfully gathering your family history lies in how you approach the task at hand. HERE ARE eight steps to get you started on the investigation trail.
1. Be Prepared
If you live close to your elderly relatives, carry a tape recorder wherever you go. It would be unfortunate to visit your 96-year-old uncle without a tape recorder and catch him in the mood to reminisce.
Keep an ongoing list of questions you'd like to ask your relatives. Now and then, slip a question from your list into informal conversations, either in person, via e-mail, on the telephone or in letters.
2. Visit a Relative's Hometown
Familiar surroundings are often helpful in triggering memories. I live in the same community where my dad spent his childhood. One day I invited him to visit, and we drove around town perusing the places where he lived, went to school and played in the 1920s and '30s. He had a story to tell at every corner, and I recorded all of them.
If traveling is not an option, improvise. Maybe your grandmother spent a lot of time on the Florida coast when she was growing up. Even if you live in Maine, take her to the nearest seashore, and see what memories are revealed. Perhaps your great-uncle had a horse when he was a boy. Visit local stables, and see if he'll talk about his own equestrian experiences.
3. Plan a Family Reunion
Invite everyone—aunts, uncles, cousins and step-family members. Bring a camera, a tape recorder and plenty of film, tapes and batteries.
Spend the weekend breaking into conversations. If the folks aren't reminiscing, plant a seed. Say, for example, "Do you ladies remember when you used to play together as children? Who was the bossy one?" That ought to get a conversation started. Or ask a group of men who are standing around, "Which one of you handsome men always got the girl (or caught the most fish or drove the nicest car)?"
Encourage others to help you collect bits of your family history. Give willing volunteers the name of a family elder and a list of questions.
Before the reunion is over, have everyone sign a guest book so you can keep in touch.
4. Celebrate During the Holidays
Family gatherings have a way of encouraging the flow of memories. The tradition associated with the holidays should naturally prompt some reminiscing of holidays past. If you think your family will need an extra nudge to get talking, you can plan ahead. If your relatives are receptive to the idea, you can assign each family member, in advance, a subject to talk about at the dinner table.
For example, if Uncle Joe grew up in another country, ask him to talk about the differences between his holiday celebrations in Greece and those he celebrated in America. Maybe Granny Gloria is the oldest member of the family. Ask her to tell about traditions of her childhood Thanksgiving (or Christmas or Easter) celebrations, and how they have since evolved.
Bring everyone into the conversation, young and old. Each of you could share stories of your favorite holiday gifts or most memorable holiday moments.
5. Share a Common Interest
Participating together in a hobby or working together on a project is a surefire way to start the flow of life stories. My grandmother and I used to spend afternoons together sewing for my three small daughters. It proved to be a great opportunity to listen to her reminisce, and to pick up at each session where we had left off at the last one.
My friend Lori likes spending time in the kitchen with her grandmother. She says, "I asked Nana to teach me how to make some of her old Italian holiday recipes. Not only did I get the recipes, but I also got all kinds of information about her."
6. Dig Out the Old Photos
Old snapshots are natural prompts to bring stories to mind. Sit down with a box or album of old pictures and ask your relatives about each of them.
One woman I know made old photos the focus of her mother's 70th birthday party. She explains, "Instead of gifts, we suggested that family members and friends bring an old photo to share. The photos were a big hit and started a lot of storytelling."
My family did something similar for my dad's 80th birthday. We asked friends and relatives to send a picture and a story about a memorable time spent with Daddy. We compiled an album for him and were treated to additional spontaneous stories as he studied each page.
7. Use a Little Pet Therapy
If you have a pet, invite the animal lovers in your family to spend time with you and your furry friend. If you don't have your own pet, arranging a visit with a borrowed well-behaved dog or cat will suffice. Spending time with an animal might unlock forgotten corners of your elderly loved ones' minds. I once was involved with pet therapy for local assisted-living facilities. More than once, when I'd place a kitten in someone's lap or lay a puppy on their bed beside them, the stories would flow. One elderly woman talked for 20 minutes about her childhood on the family farm as she stroked the fur of a sleeping puppy.
8. Start a Family Newsletter
Solicit stories from family members, create a newsletter and send it via e-mail or regular mail to as many relatives as you can reach. This is a great way to keep in touch and to discover some of that elusive family history.
Don't let another relative leave this earth with his or her life story untold. Tap into the family memory banks now, and document those wonderful histories.
This article appeared in the May 2003 issue of Personal Journaling.