Family stories

Gathering family stories

by Liz Walker

Alex Haley was inspired to write his book, "Roots", because of the stories he had been told about his family "on his grandma's front porch". She talked about his African ancestor who was brought to this country in chains. On a whim, Haley walked into the National Archives one day and started the research that became the continuation of his family story and the beginning of a groundbreaking novel and TV mini-series.

Other authors have taken stories they heard about their family and created fiction out of them, too. Sharyn McCrumb, called her book, "The Songcather", an Appalachian "Roots". The story is about her 16th century Scottish ancestor who was stolen from his homeland, at the age of 9 and taken prisoner onboard a ship that eventually landed in America. In McCrumb's case, the family preserved more than words, their story included a Scottish folk song, that had been passed down for generations.

Most families have stories like Haley's or McCrumb's just waiting to be discovered but few people have the time or the talent to write a novel about them. For us ordinary mortals, there are other ways of finding and preserving our heritage.

In both instances, the authors families had a tradition of "storytelling." Alex and Sharyn heard stories in early childhood. But with distance and busy schedules separating families today, those natural porch sitting opportunities don't occur as often.

As a result, large holiday gatherings become more important. They may be the only opportunity to share tales and learn about family traditions.

Here some suggestions to encourage story telling and record keeping in your own family.

1. Remember that everyone has a story that is interesting. Women are particularly self-effacing about their lives. My paternal grandmother never thought there was anything worth knowing about her. But she had run off to marry my grandfather and kept it a secret for nearly a month before telling anyone. The reason: her parents didn't approve of her choice of husband. At her funeral I heard that my prim and proper grandmother had once "borrowed" a relative's Model T to go on a joy ride with a group of friends. (She had felt guilty about it all her life.) Her son, my uncle, suspected she was asking for forgiveness from St. Peter at the gates of heaven.

2. Bring along paper and pen to take notes and bring a video recorder or tape recorder if you have one available. This is something your kids can help with. If they are old enough, they might even want to write a script or play TV reporter. So often we video our children or take those four generation photos with great-grandma but forget about Aunt Edna over in the corner. What was her wedding to Uncle George like? What was it like growing up as the only girl with 5 brothers? She may know things about your father that no one else knows...and she will probably turn out to be some one worth knowing in her own right.

One of my great aunts, recently told me that my maternal grandmother used her as a decoy so she and my grandfather could sneak off to the movies alone together. They would pack my aunt Juanita into the car with them as if they were all going to the movie together. Then they would drop her off in town while they went off alone. "I would have liked to see a couple of those movies," she said wistfully. Amazingly, she remained close friends with my grandmother.

3. After the family gathering record all the information as soon as you can. Record facts and statistics on traditional genealogy forms like pedigree charts or group sheets. Write the stories down without changing the language of the story teller. If Edna said, "Your Daddy ain't got the sense of a pole cat", record it that way. Hopefully, she'll be a little nicer, though.

4. When you are gathering and recording family stories, remember to include your own. Your children and grandchildren will be thankful you did.

When conducting your interview start with the basics like, full name, date and place of birth, parents names, etc. but to encourage storytelling, ask them about their favorite food as a child, who made it, and how was it made? Ask how the family earned money: did they feel rich or poor? What about dating patterns? Did their parents like their choice of a spouse?

There are some other wonderful suggestions in the book:

To Our Children's Children; Preserving Family Histories for Generations to Come by Bob Greene and D.G. Fulford. This one is mainly for adults to use to get ideas for questions and memory triggers. Kids will enjoy some of the questions, too, though, like, "What was your bedroom like? What games did you play?"

Some other books that are more geared to kids and how they can participate are:

Climbing Your Family Tree; On-line and Off-line Genealogy for Kids. by Ira Wolfman. They have a web site at

(Wolfman is a former editor of Sesame Street Magazine.)

Roots for Kids; A Genealogy Guide for Young People by Susan Provost Beller. This book is available through the Tulsa City County Library System.

The Boy Scouts of America also offers a badge in Genealogy and their accompanying booklet is a good overview of how to get started. The Wolfman web site has a link to the list of requirements for getting the badge. Even if you don't have Scouts in your house, it's a helpful checklist.

Most of us won't write a best seller based on our family's history but the stories we gather will enrich our own lives and our children's.