Jun 302017
 

Most of us believe that family stories matter, but we’re hard put to explain why. Here’s what I came up with.Why Family Stories Matter

Family is more than the DNA in our cells, more than our biological relatedness. Family is a story in itself—a tale of where we came from. It includes what roads we traveled, what obstacles we faced, and who kept us safe and sane along the way. Family is built on our common experiences, both those that transpired over centuries and those that took place during a singular hot, miserable fourteen-hour trip in the back of a unairconditioned station wagon. It’s the recipes we’ve learned, elbow to elbow as Stacy Troilo likes to say. The bumps, bruises, heartache, healing, and loving that we shared. Sometimes it’s even the what-might-have-been.

Knowing (and Understanding) Family Stories Matter

In his 2013 The Family Stories that Bind Us New York Times article, Bruce Feiler reported an astounding finding. Investigating how to raise happy children, he concluded, “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” Research shows that children who know their family stories tended to have more resilience.

When you think about how the brain digests stories differently than it processes facts, it makes sense that family stories matter to a child’s development. Stories connect us to characters. That’s doubly powerful when the “characters” are family members. Though thinking of a little train saying, “I think I can, I think I can” is great, knowing Uncle Joe overcame incredible odds is more inspiring.

My maternal grandmother came from a background that could have easily produced a resentful, bitter person. That would have been a normal and sane response to poverty and abandonment. Knowing that and having known the depth of her generous, loving and positive personality through her stories, make the word inspiring seem like faint praise.

Her past—her story—shores me up when I feel slighted. I realize that I too can rise above ugliness and not let it change me. Not to mention that the slights I face don’t even compare to what she faced.  Perspective is a good thing.

I also think of my dear friend John. His grandparents raised him. He had little contact with his mother and never met his father. For him, “family history” is place of rootlessness. I’m not saying he’s not resilient. He is. However, I do think it’s come at a higher price for him.

I also think of hearing LeVar Burton speak at RootsTech last February. He stressed that everyone needs to know where they came from to make their own story complete.

The Telling of Family Stories Matters

A storyteller and an audience comprise a dialogue, a conversation. Family storytelling goes far beyond an entertaining rendition of past events, because our telling, like our stories, has a rich subtext.

Family storytellers aren’t motivated by a need to sit on center stage and enjoy the limelight. They have a need to connect. A desire to comfort and commiserate and celebrate when they’re not physically present.  The nurturing you tacitly express by storytelling is part of your story. Your listeners or readers get that. That’s part of a bond.

A story of getting in trouble for playing hooky from school, for example, tells your reader (or listener) that you didn’t start off perfect. That you’ve been in someone’s ill favor. Perhaps most importantly, you’re explaining that when it happens to them, it’s not going to be the end of the world.

Family Stories: Meant for Sharing

Paul Tritschler articulates it elegantly.

“We don’t become any less by sharing. Stories are part of the fabric of who we are, but only in sharing our life experiences do we develop a sense of self. … Stories cultivate the frequently forgotten yet uniquely human traits that are crucial in building solidarity.”

When I was expecting my second, I tried to stave off any growing feelings of resentment that might be stirring in my eldest son’s belly against the child growing in mine. My go-to exercise was what I called the “love candle.” The love candle was a glass dish filled with wax and three wicks.

Love candle illustrates sharing family stories After lighting the first wick, I’d turn of the lights and explain how lighting the other two wicks (him and his sibling-to-be) didn’t diminish the first flame. As three, they burned brighter. I hoped he’d get how our growing family would only brighten the light of love in our house.

At two, he may not have fully digested my metaphor. He could count to three and thought three people were enough of a family.

You, on the other hand, have realized that the love candle metaphor works for our family stories. Sharing them not only increases the illumination for the hearer. It spreads the connections, ones that can continue to burn even after our own flame is extinguished.

Jun 162017
 

In her ongoing Remember the Descendants blog party, Elizabeth O’Neal asks family historians how they plan to preserve genealogical research for future generations.

Remember the Descendants empty page

Don’t leave a blank page. Remember the descendants in your family tree by preserving genealogical information

The question is well-put for all memoirists and family storytellers. We’re creating a legacy. Even if you don’t know much about your family’s genealogy, preserving what you do know is important.

Preserving Roots, Not Just Branches

Knowing where you came from matters. We hear stories, again and again, about how knowing one’s roots has made a difference. LeVar Burton had a particularly poignant one. I have a couple of my own, which you’ll find peppered throughout this blog.

The Global Family Reunion party I hosted two years ago also brought this home. Though few of the attendees were hard core (or even light core, for that matter) family historians, most showed up with a precious stack of papers, notebook, or chart that Aunt So-and-so had put together years ago. My friend Judy had a single sheet of paper with what her father, then 93, could remember about family names and places.

These unremarkable-looking treasures were heirlooms which connected them to their roots.

Including Family History in Your Legacy of Stories

There are a multitude of ways to preserve that you know about your family’s genealogy. Below are just a few ideas.

Scrapbooking:

You can look at the tutorials on this site or create your own design. Almost every craft store has family tree or family history pages and layouts. When you need inspiration, Stacy Julian’s “a very fruitful tree” site is packed full of great ideas that merge scrapbooking and storytelling. I’ve also pinned quite a few layouts on my Scrapbooking Pinterest board.

Family Bible or Holy Book

Writing names and birth and death dates was a tradition born of necessity before the advent of hospital births and birth certificates. Wouldn’t continuing to honor this tradition make a wonderful gift? Whether it’s a new Bible you purchase for a young person or using your best penmanship (or even a calligraphy pen) to preserve information in your aunt’s dog-eared tome, loved ones will appreciate it.

Remember the Descendants by Writing a Family History Book

You don’t have to have a file cabinet full of genealogical information to start thinking about compiling a family history book. This allows you to combine the stories with the facts. (Hmm. I feel a blog series coming on.)

Digitizing Old Films so the Whole Family Can Enjoy Them

box of memories in the closetDisclosure: I represent Legacy Republic (affiliate link), a company that does just that. It’s not simply a matter of preserving old VHS tapes that are degrading to put them back in the same closet in another, albeit longer-lasting, format. You can remember the descendants by making your past accessible to them and sharing it with them. Those old photo albums and 8mm films can work as story prompts.

Journaling

Journaling isn’t what it used to be when I wrote in my diary in high school. Or at least, it’s not necessarily that.  Though it can be the portal through which you dump your deepest and most embarrassing thoughts, journals also make a great way to preserve memories, stories, and love for the next generation.  Pinterest, of course, makes a great source of inspiration.  But keep in mind, it doesn’t have to look like Martha Stewart’s staff put it together for it to connect.  My grandmother’s journal was barely legible (I’m not endorsing that, mind you), but we love it immensely.

Need more Ideas?

Below are just a few posts in which family history and storytelling intersect.

 Your Turn:

How do plan to preserve genealogical information for your descendants? Leave me a comment or join in Elizabeth’s Remember the Descendants Blog Party (open through June 2017).

 

Jun 062017
 

Finding your tribe, the group of people that supports you, or supports a cause you’re invested in, can make all the difference. Finding your tribe or people you can be you with Knowing you can let your hair down and be yourself is comforting and exhilarating. When it happens, it’s worth writing about.

I experienced this during the last two weeks. A group of family historians came together, interested in maintaining the blogging resources at Geneabloggers.com as curator Thomas MacEntee moved on to other endeavors.  Continue reading »

Apr 042017
 

As a newly minted Legacy Republic consultant, I seized on the opportunity at RootsTech 2017 to get to know the company’s leadership better. Legacy Republic Logo (Disclosure: I’m a Legacy Maker or consultant. As such I receive financial compensation from orders placed through me or my personal Legacy Republic site. That said, I believe in Legacy Republic’s mission and services. They are the reason I joined.)

During Rootstech2016, Legacy Republic’s president Brian Knapp was busy unveiling their new Studio scanner, the 2nd place winner in the Innovator Summit.  This year, things were a little less hectic. However, Brian was no less enthusiastic about the company’s mission. In addition, he had time to explain Legacy Republic’s commitment to helping family historians tell stories.

View the interview below to hear more about how Legacy Republic helps family storytellers highlight the moments that matter.

Interview

Legacy Republic and Storytelling

Sharleen Reyes, the company’s VP of Marketing impressed me as well. She took time to sit with me and give me insight into how Legacy Republic translates their mission into a marketing strategy. Sharleen isn’t what my former life in international business would have lead me to expect out of a VP of Marketing.  She’s unpretentious, open to new ideas, and has a mile-wide creative streak.

She doesn’t believe in scare tactics.  Though it’s true that media is degrading, particularly VHS media, Legacy Republic frowns on scaring customers into getting every linear foot of video and film in the house digitized.  The mission is to get important memories out of closets and to share them with family.

Which is why, Sharleen explains, Legacy Republic prefers the person-to-person relationship model rather than a traditional sales force.  In fact, Legacy Republic trains their Legacy Makers to back away from “selling.” Instead, they are coached to simply help customers and trust that sales opportunities will develop organically—or not—out of trusted relationships.

Choosing the Moments that Matter

Which moments matter?

A case in point of posed versus un-posed photos. Of course, on the left is the question of why my mom would have cut my bangs so short before a formal portrait. However, the photo on the right portrays a more typical story of how my sister entertained herself sticking her finger in my ear. And why I didn’t seem to mind.

Sharleen and Brian gave a presentation at RootsTech on choosing those moments that matter.  In it, they stressed that the moments that matter are not necessarily the ones in which everyone wears in coordinated outfits and stands in front of an attractive backdrop. It might not even be the one with perfect focus and composition. Rather, they’re the ones that express a moment of personalities and relationships. The ones that give rise to stories. That’s a valuable takeaway for storytellers.

Your Turn:

There are stories lurking in your closets. Look back at media—still or film or video—and choose a couple of ones that have stories which flow from them.  Now go tell those stories!

Jun 272016
 
Silver linings behind broken hearts

Are there silver linings behind the heart-break in your family stories?

Last week, however, a friend showed me how to look for silver linings.

The news is often disturbing, but in the last couple of weeks the horrors that some people will inflict on others makes me want to run and hide. Only I don’t know where I’d go. Continue reading »

May 042016
 

A time for change quote A time for change often hits us from behind. The change is either inevitable or beyond our control. I’ll confront such a time on Mother’s Day when I watch my eldest son walk across the stage at his college commencement ceremony. A lot of things will be commencing, including his job search and our wrapping our heads around the fact that he won’t be coming home to roost any longer.

Adjusting to change

Those times in which we adjust to a new normal are important to write about. Tell the story of what happened and whether or not you were prepared for the change.  Did you embrace your new role or did you grieve for the past?

Was it (or is it) a slow change that you saw coming from years away?  Aging, ravages of chronic disease, and kids growing up too fast all come to mine.  How did you try to prepare yourself? Did you put your head in the sand until you had no choice but face reality or did you obsessively research, read books, and consult friends?

Sometimes drastic life changes sneak up on us. We get a phone call and hear of the change—a fait accompli.  (I hope if this happened to you it was for winning a lottery.)

In Handbook of Stressful Transitions Across the Lifespan, T.W. Miller writes, “Life transitions can provide a productive time to introspectively understand ourselves.”  These transitions also bring an opportunity to explain ourselves to others.

Was life suddenly divided into a before and after as surely as if that date was tattooed upon your forehead?  How did you deal with the shock?  Looking back now, how do you feel about the before? What have you learned about moving forward?

Time for a change

Sometimes we come to a realization that it’s time to make a change. We’ve stagnated. Screwed up. We’re looking for a new beginning or have gathered up the gumption to pursue a dream.  Such changes don’t always come easily.  Pulling ourselves off of our current path and onto a new one can be excruciating. For instance, checking into rehab to begin a life of recovery often takes hitting rock bottom first. Other times, accepting change can mean voluntarily kissing a lot of things that you love goodbye, such as moving to a new place or starting a new career. Going back to being the new kid on the block.

Small Changes

A time for change doesn’t have to be huge to make a significant story. I love remembering how my Dad decided to stop smoking right after he met his grandson for the first time. Longevity suddenly mattered.

There are changes we all make for the better—learning to be more accepting of people, more forgiving. We mellow with age. That mellowing makes a great story.

Your Turn: A time for Change

When have you experienced a time for change in your life? Have you written about it?

Jan 082016
 
Happy New Year: Year End Letter

My wish for each of you …

Holidays make a great time to share stories. There’s no question about it. When we’re thinking of loved ones—or better yet spending time with them—stories connect us and express our bonds.

But it’s not just stories that we tell. There’s something about that calendar page turning over, the new digit on the end of the year, that makes us want to provide some sort of a recap. A snapshot in time. In fact, the chapter in my book about compiling a holiday or year end letter is titled “Easy Snapshots in Time.”

So, I should be able to pull together a “Happy New Year” letter, originally meant to be a Christmas letter. This year, I’m struggling with the concept. As people draw together, celebrate together, and look forward to the New Year, I want to be included in their thoughts. But I’m torn about whether or not their plunge into the New Year should include reading a litany of my family’s year. Perhaps I’d be better off just telling them a story that reflects us in a moment of time. Continue reading »

Oct 132015
 
Old photos help form emotional connections to family members

Forming emotional connections to family members you can’t remember becomes easier when you view their lives as a narrative.

Are you able to form emotional connections with family members you don’t remember? With ancestors? Or are they stubbornly one-dimensional, lying flat on the page?

Even when you have the basic facts of your relatives’ or ancestors’ lives, emotional connections to them often remain elusive. If you never knew them—have no memories of them—they are simply names, dates, and random facts.

Form Emotional Connections to Family Members via Empathy and Imagination

Luckily, we already have the tools we need to bond with these family members. They are the same tools that allow us to connect with anyone else: empathy and imagination. Continue reading »

Sep 082015
 
What I did on my summer vacation picture from childhood

Remember having to write “What I did on my Summer Vacation” essays? Well, sharpen those pencils

Where did the opportunity to tell all your peers “What I did on my Summer Vacation” go? Here in the USA, as September rolls around, it’s not just the kids that are in back-to-school mode. Everyone is looking forward. They’ll ask you, “How was your summer?” but it’s clear that a monosyllabic or few-syllabic response is preferred. “Fine.” “Hot.” “It went fast.”

When you do have an adventure to talk about, not many people are geared to listen.

That’s why you should be writing, not waiting for someone to ask!

Narrating—or the opportunity to narrate—“what I did on summer vacation” is a lost art. Continue reading »

Aug 312015
 
What would my ancestor think of me? At Losely Park in Surrey UK

As I visited the former home of Sir George More, I wondered, “What would my ancestors think of me?”

What would my ancestors think of me?

I had my doubts recently, as I traipsed around the UK, seeking out locations where my ancestors lived and died. As I visited Loseley Park in Surrey in England, the manor home where my ancestors enjoyed an aristocratic life-style in the 17th century. Family members not only hob-nobbed with royalty, but also acted as treasurer for Henry Frederick, the then Prince of Wales and served in Parliament under King James.

As I embarked on our trip, I planned to visit “ancestral sites” more in an effort to “feel the dust of my ancestors’ shoes,” rather than to research. (I was traveling with a son who is not into genealogy.) As we drove up the long winding road to the estate, I realize they my ancestors probably seldom felt the dust of their own shoes. They would have had staff to prevent most dust-ups, and were their footwear to acquire undesirable soil, said staff would have removed the dust or other offending matter. Continue reading »