Are you looking forward to getting together with your family this year or are your feelings mixed? Do people tend to rehash the same old disputes, comparisons, unsolicited advice, etc.? Why not work at mixing things up? Get people sharing their family stories. How?
Think a bit about the people who are coming. Getting family members curious about things they’ve never thought about before could be a good start. Think about the family as a whole. Where does each guest fit into the family? Get people thinking about this family of theirs. How far back do their memories go? Whose memories reach back the furthest? What are they curious about? Who shares common interests? Does one generation know information or skills they could share with a different generation? (Not just older to younger, but younger to older as well.) Do you have old family friends coming? They probably share a few memories with members of your family that you might not know.
Before people get together, do you have addresses, email addresses, and/or telephone numbers for all the family members at the gathering? Collect them when people get together. It’s also a good time to ask family members how to get in touch with other family members you’ve “always meant to contact.”
In the course of the day, you might want to ask if anyone at the gathering has done anything with the family’s history or know anyone in the family who does or did. You might be surprised at the answers you get.
I don’t think anything gets people talking faster than looking at old photographs. Do you have old family photos? Do you have any family stories about the people in them? You could get the ball rolling by bringing some and recounting a few stories. Hear what other people have to say. Write down their stories. Or you could have paper pads available for people to write the stories, information or photo identifications themselves. They should add their names so you know where the information came from. Go through after everyone has gone and just date the notes with the current date. You know the circumstances now, but will you know where these notes came from and when ten or fifteen years from now.
You could ask people who are the oldest relative they have a photograph of. Or what is the subject of the oldest photograph they own. Maybe they would be willing to share a copy of it.
If you are having the gathering in your own home, you might set up a collection of photographs, even if it’s just a three ring notebook with photos in acid free plastic sleeves. (You want both to protect the photos and keep them from getting mixed up.) You could set up one with older family photos. You could set up another with people or places that need identification. You could set up one with pictures of holidays past. If other people are bringing photos, keep them separate and protected at all times so they can all go back to their rightful owners in the same condition that they came in. If you have a flatbed scanner set up that you use, you could ask the owner of a photograph if they would be willing to let you scan it (and return it) before they leave.
If you are in another relative’s home, look around for family photographs or other memorabilia. Ask questions about them. You may not know some of the people in the photo. You may know the people but not where it was taken or the circumstances. There is always a question you can think of to get a story or at least more information.
I’ve seen suggestions about setting up a slide show of family photos on a computer or other device. I always like the idea of flipping through the real deal. You can go at your own pace or flip back when one photo reminds you of a story connected to another. Though getting younger people to help you set up something technical that you can use for family to check later would get them involved. Kids and teens are rarely asked for advice and they know things we don’t. Helping us might get them curious about what we are doing and why we want to collect these things called stories.
Family Group Sheets and Pedigree Charts
If you want a quick visual about where people fit in the family, think family group sheets and pedegree (ancestor) charts. If you have already filled out family group sheets and pedigree charts, it might be fun to have them handy to go with the photos. If you haven’t started yet, you might want to bring blank ones to have people fill out for them and their kids (or their parents). This is where the family group sheets really come in handy.
Talking with Relatives
Do not assume anything. Always ask, especially if you are asking about something specific. Some people might really enjoy recounting memories or stories they know about growing up during or participating in historical events like the Depression, World War II, the sixties, Vietnam… For others it might bring up very difficult or traumatic events they do not want to discuss. Respect their wishes. Also don’t assume if an older relative has a problem with short term memory, that they can’t participate. Their long term memory might be just fine.
Two questions you might want to ask could be “Who is the oldest family member you remember?” “What do you remember about them?”
Do you know anyone interested in cooking that might be willing to help those involved with the preparation? If the cooks don’t want someone “mucking about” with their recipes, would they be willing to share the recipes and/or talk about the memories that go with them while they are cooking? Where did they get the recipe? If not from a family member, maybe from an old cookbook. Do they still have it? Would they be willing to have their picture taken while cooking? (Digital camera anyone?)
If they are bringing food and you know they made it and didn’t buy it, you could ask them if it’s a family recipe. If it’s something that they discovered, you have a new family story in the making. Do they have other family recipes that they’ve made or stories about cooking, especially around the holidays? And sometimes you can get some really good stories about buying a staple for the holiday feast.
Do not make the mistake of only asking the older women about cooking and the men about World War II. Men cook too and women who lived through it have home front memories. You may also be surprised to find that staid Aunt Sadie was in the military during wartime and stationed overseas. Remember what I said about not assuming anything.
Be prepared to the inevitable dispute or two or three. Take down the different forms of a story or identification as well as the names of those contributing each. It’s good to have them all and some of the details may be able to be researched at a later date.
Another idea I had is to ask everyone to help you create a timeline of events that they remember and roughly when it occurred. You might be surprised at how far back it goes.
Afterwards: Ideas to Consider
Set up a place online for family access to photographs or stories. Blogs, Facebook (with security filters), Flickr (especially albums), Pinterest, Instagram. Always check a site’s security filters before you set one up or use one set up by another family member.
You could continue the discussion through emails, perhaps by mailing out a question to everyone who’s interested. One question at a time should be sufficient. Just make sure you have a file for them on your computer and you also print out a copy. If some people are really getting into this, they could adopt and research a husband and wife among your known ancestors.
If people give you feedback, do the same for them. And always thank them, with a handwritten thank you note if possible. Even the younger generations are impressed with that. They may never have received one before.
You are building your family story – story by story. In the short run, you may end up with an interesting, enjoyable family holiday. In the long run you may be building stronger bonds between family members and between generations that could last well into future generations. It takes work to have fun. And think of the rewards.
4 December 2015/vea