Choosing which family stories to Tell graphicYour Ancestors are Waiting; They Have Stories to Tell,” a 2013 Ancestry.com blog title proclaims .

I doubt my paternal grandmother is one of them. During her lifetime, she decided, for reasons that remain unclear, to lie about her past. I’m not sure she wants me sharing the few facts I’ve discovered about her life.

I admit; she’s an extreme case.

Perhaps “Which stories would our ancestors want us to tell?” is the wrong question. Perhaps the better question—or the question most of us are more likely to be able to answer—is which family stories do we want to tell? Which ones do we want to share with future generations?

Obviously, we’re constrained by information.  Unless we witnessed events, we may not have access to the facts, or even family traditions. We may be limited to drawing from social-historical context to imagine what their lives might have been like.

Choosing which Family Stories to Tell

Regardless of whether you’re writing the stories of a grandmother that raised you or your 8x great-grandfather, there are certain elements that resonate with readers.

Look for stories that

  1. Connect
  2. Educate
  3. Present a truthful rendering of the family

Choosing Family Stories that connect

Stories of family love, resilience, persistence, fortitude, or forgiveness reach out and connect through time. For instance, one of my favorite stories about my grandfather, my dad’s dad, is really about him doing nothing other than almost smiling.  From the front seat of the car, my grandmother was saying something critical of my mother.  Mom responded by muttering under her breath, which would have been fine if my sister hadn’t offered up, “Mommy just said, …”  Grandma didn’t catch what my sister said, but Grandpa did. That’s when he almost smiled.

Like the photos that represent our family stories, these little slice of life vignettes connect future generations. They can envision not only what their ancestors were like, but how family dynamics functioned.

What not to leave out:

Just as memory writers shouldn’t look so hard for momentous events that they overlook moments that matter, tidbits can tell a lot about our ancestors. With a little thought, “mundane” details we unearth during our research can become meaningful stories. For instance, in Becoming Acquainted with John M. Ganus, Michelle Taggart weaves the fact that the Ganus family served squirrel and possum to guests into a charming story.

Likewise, when stories include the bad times, the next generation can take comfort in that they’re not the first person in the family that has had struggles.  

“Perfection has one grave defect: it is apt to be dull.” – W. Somerset Maugham

Similarly, stories about imperfections and embarrassing moments give a stronger sense of personality.  Take a page from fiction writers and portray flawed characters.  This makes them more relatable, and in many cases, also more likeable.

Stories that Educate

Particularly for stories that took place many generations ago, socio-historical context does more than set the scene. The context educates. This, I suspect, it something most of our ancestors would approve of. Rather than presenting actions that took place hundreds of years ago to be judged by 21st century values, you’re presenting the story against the backdrop of their times.

It’s also cool to share the family’s role in history. However, this requires a touch of care. Make sure you’re not whitewashing their role in history or revising facts.

Accuracy and Truth

It can be tempting to leave some things out. I know.

However, if we want our descendants to know their ancestors, half-truths don’t serve that mission. That said, your ancestor descriptions and profiles don’t have to be judgmental. Depending on which storytelling hat you’re wearing, you can present an unbiased account or explain the ramifications of their actions on family and community.

Your Turn

How did you choose which family stories to tell?  Share your story and how you choose it.

 

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