What is your family story? As much as we talk about the importance of passing down family history, we seldom define what that a family story is. Is your family story a compilation of all the individuals’ on your family tree? Is a story that takes place under one roof? Alternatively, is it a story that took place over generations?
Your family story can be any or all of the above, or it could be something else entirely.
Your family story is made up of the narratives that tell your family’s history. And, since your family story starts with you, it’s also those stories that explain your identity against the backdrop of your family and your family’s traditions and history.
Choosing the stories you want to tell—or tell first—comes down to choosing which narratives resonate the most with you. Perhaps you have one of the following stories in your tree.
Your Family Story as a Collage of Individual Stories
When I look at my family tree and the 3,267 individuals who inhabit its branches and leaves, I see hundreds of stories. There are stories of hobnobbing with royalty, venturing across oceans for fame and fortune, stories of patriotism, and stories of relative obscurity. There’s a strong component of riches to rags –or, as my father’s cousin tells it—“royalty to rogues.” However, what eludes me is a cohesive family story. Maybe there’s not one.
But, there are some very representative stories. I like to think of my family story as a collage, each one juxtaposing one person’s experience against another.
Many of us have grandparents or ancestors who were leaders of history or family decisions. Perhaps the rest of the family followed in their footsteps. Maybe they were DAR or SAR-certified Revolutionists. Maybe they were simply eccentrics or desperate enough to do something life changing.
People like us
Of course, it’s exciting to find that ancestors traveled on the Mayflower or were royalty. However, often the stories that yearn to be told are the stories of people like us. Imperfect individuals who did the best they could with what they had. People that tried their best to raise, feed, and educate their children. Perhaps your family’s pinnacle of worldly success was having a few acres of their own to farm. Tell their story and why that pinnacle mattered so deeply to them.
People you wonder about
Sometimes we know very little to nothing at all about someone, but we wonder about them. This too is a story. (See 15 Ways to Honor Relatives You Don’t Remember.)
Unlike my own family story, if I were to tell my husband’s family story, there would be two distinct and unwavering themes: religious and moral convictions and a pioneering spirit. The names, dates, and historical backdrops change, but the decisions to follow the moral high road led my husband’s forefathers and foremothers across national boundaries, oceans, and resulted in the settlement of more than a few townships.
What themes are repeated throughout your family story?
Is your family story one of explorers and adventurers? Did they, like my husband’s family, seek new territories to homestead? Did their sod homes serve as community meeting places? What drove them? What drives them today?
Diaspora or Immigration
Whether your ancestors immigrated to find their fortune or were forcibly removed from their home, stories of making a new home in a foreign land are poignant. Did your family quickly assimilate or did they attempt to keep the traditions and culture of the “old country” alive? How did (and does) this affect successive generations?
Stories of Faith
Religious principles and the desire for freedom drove many of our ancestors to pick up and move, choose a new home, and make a new life. Did a religious faith or persecution account for the migrations of your family throughout the generations?
Family Story of Slavery and Freedom
Perhaps your family story is difficult to tell in terms of individual names and dates. As “African American Genealogy” points out, slavery was “an institution that broke family bonds and made record keeping nearly impossible.” However, their story, even if nameless, is key to your identity.
I’d love to read you thoughts on how you like to tell your family’s story? Please comment below.