Why preserving your family stories for the next generation is an important endeavor—and how to make it fun
Let’s admit it, fellow genealogy buffs: Half the allure of family history is getting to play detective, no? Following the paper trails, skirting around dead ends to find another path to knowledge, connecting with like minded souls to investigate a family line or shared DNA…
The real joy, though, comes in the discoveries at the end of the investigations—and, well…not every genealogical investigation yields (reliable) results. That’s when frustration sets in. Actual dead ends: burned down records repositories, elusive documents, the myriad “brick walls” we all tweet about.
Imagine if you had an ancestor who not only left meticulous records (like you, no doubt, are creating), but the stories of their lives, as well?
You can do that! And dare I say, it’s easier and maybe even more enjoyable than digging up the facts of your family heritage.
Here are four simple and fun ways to preserve your family stories for the next generation:
Here are just four of the many ways to find and collect your family stories:
Texting has replaced email as the preferred method of communicating lunch dates and quick questions, so why shouldn’t email stand in for lengthier communications that once took place via handwritten letters?
This set-up is ideal for people with grown children of their own who lead busy lives, whether they are in college or now parents themselves (even if they live right upstairs from you!) Emailing regularly, with thoughtful questions that yield meaningful stories, will not only preserve family history in written form, but it will deepen family connections. Follow Anderson Cooper’s lead. He embarked upon an extended email conversation with his mother, one in which they were able to—finally—explore deep emotions and speak of tragedies of which they had previously chosen to remain silent; one which he has called “the most valuable year of my life.”
The emotional distance email provides allows for conversation to delve into topics we might otherwise feel self-conscious discussing in person. And the ability to send responses any time of day or night makes this option accommodating to just about any busy schedule.
Perhaps you set up regular visits with a family elder at their home or in an assisted living facility, or maybe you and your sister schedule weekly coffee dates. Whomever you plan on meeting with, do so in person and with the intent of story sharing. Bring a favorite (or mysterious) photo on one occasion, a question to explore on the next. And once you get into the rhythm of reminiscing, don’t shy away from discussing the more challenging aspects of your personal history; those experiences undoubtedly hold lessons and have contributed to the person you have become.
I would venture to guess that proffering the initial invitation might be the most unnerving part, but I guarantee the end result—communion with another soul, building a personal narrative with a compassionate listener—will be well worth the effort.
Not all family history endeavors need to be solitary or academic in nature. Some can feel like a party, complete with drinks and dessert and, most importantly, lively conversation.
Instead of waiting for the next holiday to get a large group of relatives together, host periodic get-togethers with the sole purpose of sharing stories, swapping old photos, and revealing your latest genealogy finds.
- Set up a few voice recorders in the middle of the table to capture the tales.
- Assign one person to be “secretary,” taking notes on things to follow up on (Uncle Henry said he had a photo of his great-grandmother, so make sure he digs that up!)
- Be sure the recordings eventually get transcribed. I suggest chipping in as a group to pay for a transcription service. Rev is simple and easy to use.
- Consider having a storytelling topic for the evening, such as funniest memories, biggest failures, most surprising life decisions, family vacations, or even simply a year.
Have your school-age kids ever been assigned by a teacher to interview their grandparents for history class? Why limit the story sharing to a one-time project? Encourage your children to more regularly engage with their older relatives. Make it appealing by:
- allowing them to dictate the technology they use, by choosing a voice recorder app on their iPad, for instance, or setting up a video session with their TikTok–derived know-how
- whetting their appetite with stories you recall from your childhood that bring their grandparents to life in new and exciting ways (Did you ever have a blowout fight with your parents? Were they amazing dancers or great secret-keepers?)
- seeing if there are other ways they can get rewarded for such a project—a girl or boy scout badge, for instance, or extra credit in school.
Tips for Successfully Preserving your Stories
No matter which route of story collection your choose first, keep these key tactics in mind to ensure that what gets remembered also gets preserved:
- Be consistent. If one or two individuals can’t make a group reminiscence get-together, for example, don’t cancel. They’ll be there next time.
- Have a point person who organizes and saves what is collected. That can be a “permanent position” (many folks I know have a de facto family historian based on their interest) or you can select a new person for each project.
- Celebrate regularly. Share some stories on social media, for instance, or create mini flip books of old family photos collected over the course of the year for all to enjoy.
- No pressure! While collecting your family history is a serious endeavor, keep it fun—story sharing should be enjoyable.
Be a good steward of your family history not only by researching and recording facts, but by preserving the stories of your own lives for the next generation and beyond!