Do you have storytellers in your family? Someone who talks on and on about his or her days trudging three miles through snow on the way to school? How about the reluctant storyteller, a veteran perhaps, who has a hard time talking about his past? Family stories are family history. Whether you’ve heard them dozens of times or have to pry them from the lips of your loved ones, record stories now, while you still can.
My grandfather was an only child. His mother (my great-grandmother) almost died in childbirth and was unconscious for the first few hours of grandpa’s life, so my great-grandfather took it upon himself to name the baby. He named his son after a college friend. He named him “Gail.”
That decision caused confusion for the rest of grandpa’s life because, of course, “Gail” is usually a woman’s name. When my grandpa was applying for college, he was invited to join sororities and laughed about that years later.
The story about how my grandpa got his name is vivid in my mind, but others have grown foggy. Because my mother is a writer and the family historian, she wrote about some of his World War II experiences. How we wish now that we would have videotaped him telling those and other stories. That’s a mistake I hope not to repeat with other generations of my family.
With digital technology and streamlined video cameras, capturing family stories is easier than ever before. Taking the time to actually do it is another challenge. While video recordings provide intimacy, writing is another effective way of recording your history. By writing about memorable events in your life, you can provide touching and important information for future generations of your family.
In recent years, I’ve learned about the power of old letters. For instance, my step-dad’s parents saved letters that he wrote home while in Vietnam. Now in his possession, they are moving reminders of a transformative year in his life. My grandmother saved letters I wrote to her when I studied in Europe in the mid-’90s. When I returned, she gave them back to me, urging me to keep them. My future children might like to read them one day, she told me. The letters are in a safe place.
Recording family stories is only one part of preserving your family’s history. Don’t let genealogy intimidate you. The Internet has some great resources, from free downloadable family tree charts to websites like www.ancestry.com, which provide access to national archives, military records and more.
Each generation needs a new historian, someone to preserve and nourish the family’s history. I think I’m ready for the job.
Erika Weisensee is a writing mom. She lives in Milwaukie and teaches journalism classes at the University of Portland.