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As many of us middle-agers eventually figure out, the stories of our families rarely get passed on before the generation that holds them passes away. By the time I had figured out who I was and realized how much of that came from those before me, it was too late to ask my grandparents about their lives. However, my parents were (and still are, thankfully), around. I proceeded to interrogate appropriately. After all, we’re family and I wanted to know stuff.
All I have to say, is how in the world could I be 40ish (at that time), and know so little about my own parents, much less about my grandparents?!?
Of course there are the favorite stories handed down and told repeatedly ad nauseam. Yes, yes, Uncle Ronaldo bit a woodchuck as a kid, we know, we KNOW!!!
Both the name and story have been changed to protect the guilty. Please don’t write me about the rights of a woodchuck; Uncle Ronaldo was defending his grilled cheese, and – well, we live in Wisconsin, so we take our grilled cheeses very seriously.
(The woodchuck not only survived, but the two became good friends and Chuck now bowls with Uncle Ronaldo on a Wednesday night league.)
The Past Comes Alive
In any event, my dad had given me a wonderful gift. It was a copy of a scrapbook made by a dearly-loved aunt that held newspaper clippings, stories and pictures of people whose lives had touched mine, but many of whom I had not met.
I later learned that my dad remembered the first time he saw a light bulb turn on. Not only was it cool to him that you could click it on, but you could also click it off! It had never even occurred to me that turning OFF a light would be so fascinating, but as I listened to him explain it from the point of view of the child he was at the time, I was as excited to turn off a light as I had ever been in my life. My mom, on the other hand, had sweet marble playing skills. You would be amazed at the stories surrounding a young girl defending her title and winnings! These were stories or aspects of stories that had never, in all my time with these people, hit my ears. I was fascinated.
Keeping This Treasure
How did this amazing window to my family’s past open? I bought a video camera, put them in front of it in a chair with a sheet behind them, and asked them to tell their story. At first, they wanted to just answer questions, but I said no, I want them to tell me everything they remember. I kept my mouth shut for somewhere between an hour and an hour an a half for each of them, on rare occasion asking a question to get them to flesh out the story they were telling and never – NEVER interrupting them. Because this is not how a normal conversation goes, they weren’t rushed to finish what they were saying before the next person’s turn to talk. They felt comfortable sharing the little things as well as the big. They told the longer version – the one that includes the feelings involved and the background.
I scanned all the photos I could get my grubby little mitts on, and inserted them in the videos. I even took a trip to my dad’s hometown and took pics to add, since the homes he grew up in were still standing (unfortunately not so with mom’s). It became stories to pass down to the generations.
It was one of the greatest gifts I could ever give my son, and one of the greatest things my parents have ever done for me.
Finding and Keeping Your Treasure
So I ask – no, I beg – PLEASE…. if you hold what’s left of your family’s history, find a way to pass it down. If they don’t appreciate it now, they likely will later.
Need some ideas? Here are a couple of product links to help get things started.
To tell your story by video, try this reasonably priced but good quality video camera:
If you need a more budget friendly option, the below is a beautiful acid-free journal, which would make a great gift. For those who write better than they speak, or who are a bit nervous opening up in front of a camera, I suggest a blank journal, as those who have the “Just fill in here” spots cannot possibly know how much room you may need for any one story.
For those whose family history is so intertwined with the love of food that all the good and happy stories come from the kitchen or the dining table, I give you an option of a family recipe scrapbook. A little blurb about the person who created the heirloom recipe and the recipe itself would be a wonderful way to make sure their story lives on.
Do you have other ways to document your family’s history? Please feel free to leave a comment.
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