At 93 years old, Aunt Dora was the last of her seven siblings. Spry and mentally alert, she acted as “Communications Central” for her grown seven nieces and nephews, with each calling on a different day a week to check in with her. As each person called Dora on his/her assigned day, she proved to be the one family member who knew what was going on in everyone’s life: she would happily and chattily share family news and gossip.
Three of Aunt Dora’s nieces often remarked to each other that they should record their aunt sharing her personal experiences, as well as her memories and recollections of deceased family members. These stories would be a wonderful legacy to pass on to the younger generations, they mused. Because Dora was in such great health, they assumed they had lots of time to work on this project. Then, one day, Dora’s heart gave out and she was gone. The three nieces regret they never recorded their Aunt Dora’s stories and experiences because important parts of their family history were forever lost.
Like Dora’s family members, many intend to preserve their family’s history and traditions to share with current and future generations, but, for a variety of reasons, they never quite get around to doing so: they get busy with other things; they believe there is no rush; they aren’t sure how to proceed.
To help translate good intentions into action, below are some ideas for preserving one’s family history and memories, and figuring out what to do with those family papers, photographs, medals, trophies, certificates of recognition, et cetera.
An obvious way to start is with a family tree, because at the very least, filling in the limbs and branches gets the basic relationships in place. Sometimes surprises emerge! Who knew Uncle Mark had a wife before he married Aunt Ruth, or that cousin Margaret’s husband was related to a president.
There are lots of templates available online to put a family tree together. For example, one easy-to-use, free template, is offered by genealogy expert Kimberly Powell. It is interactive and shareable by participating family members to edit and update. When running into difficulty finding all the family members, there are many online resources available, some free, others for a fee. (Google “track down family members”.)
Many families have lots of pre-digital photographs and/or slides – some in albums/trays, many strewn unorganized in boxes – waiting for someone to sort and organize them. In many cases well-intentioned family members feel overwhelmed and don’t know what to do with their family photographs. For those who want to do this project themselves, Google “how to organize family photographs” for lots of do-it-yourself (DIY) ideas.
For those who find going the DIY route too daunting a task, the good news is that there are professionals available to help get the job done. One example is photo organizer Isabelle Dervaux, who provides a short video clip explaining her services. Another example is Alice Garik, who specializes in telling family stories through photography. (For additional professionals, Google “professional organizers of family photographs”.)
Oral family histories have become popular, especially since the publication of a New York Times article discussing David Isay’s StoryCorp. Mr. Isay explains in a heartwarming TED Talk how over 100,000 people have recorded their stories, stored by the Library of Congress, comprising the largest collection of stories ever recorded. StoryCorp now has an application available, described as a “digital facilitator,” for immediate use by family members to preserve their stories and histories.
The Remembering Site may be a useful resource for those interested in compiling their own and/or family members’ memories, experiences, memoirs, or biographies. The site contains many free story-telling questions from 35 categories of questions (for sample questions). For a fee of $25 one can have access to their entire library of over 1,000 questions, as well as access to their story-telling processes.
There may be a role for grandparents, because they are often less busy than their grown children raising children. Grandparents may be the ones to initiate some discussion about preserving the family’s history, memories, traditions, and memorabilia. One possibility is for grandparents to raise the topic, as well as include some suggestions for getting the ball rolling.
For example, a grandparent might suggest that each older grandchild be “assigned” a specific grandparent and act as his/her historian. Then the grandchildren and grandparents can figure out what format to use, e.g., a digital, and/or hard copy book. Regardless, a goal might be to see if any family members are interested in a project of this type.
Another idea is to print out this column, distribute it to family members, and ask, “So what do you think? Shall we do something about preserving our family memories and history? What might we do?” Again, the grandparents may be the ideal ones to volunteer to do the “heavy lifting” to implement whatever ideas emerge from those family discussions.
Relevant is a quote from a New York Times article in which a dad talks about the role his story-telling “fierce aunt” Sis played in his family’s life: “My daughters, both teenagers, spent a lot of time with Sis in her very old age. She may have been on oxygen and in a wheelchair, but the stories she shared taught them how to be as strong, defiant and determined as she had always been. Sis taught them that people of all ages have value, and revealed to them that multigenerational mixing can lead to true laughter, knowledge and mutual respect.”
In closing, a reminder from The Atlantic article, “What Kids Learn From Hearing Family Stories:” “Family stories can be told nearly anywhere. They cost us only our time, our memories, our creativity. They can inspire us, protect us, and bind us to others.”
These stories are an important part of a family’s history and we should preserve them – sooner, rather than later. The Aunt Doras in our lives will not always be an available resource.
Note: Readers are invited to listen to Dr. Gramma Karen’s interview with VoiceAmerica.com, “Turn the Page” host, Hemda Mizrahi. Dr. Rancourt’s topic is: At Home or At Work: It’s All About Relationships. The interview aired on October 16, 2015.
(VoiceAmerica™ Internet Talk Radio. The World Leader in Internet Talk Radio.)
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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