Capturing Family History

by Jack E Nelson

Twelve years ago a niece of mine was given a school assignment. Lisa was asked to write the life story of one of her grandparents. She chose to write about her grandma Laura Nelson. The result was an incredible job for an eighth-grader, capturing in a paraphrased, first person style, the stories her grandmother - my mother - remembered from early childhood and through adolescence while growing up on a farm in Minnesota. Many of the stories I had never heard before.

There was the move from Iowa to a new farm in Minnesota when Laura was five years old. The vehicle the family was traveling in got mired in mud just before they arrived at an uncle's place, and everyone had to trudge through muck the last few miles. She remembered her white socks and black leather shoes getting all muddy.

The family spent the first winter at the new farm living in a garage while their home was being completed. Once settled in, there were plenty of chores for a young girl and her five sisters. There were also some pretty scary experiences, like the tornado that whipped through, wiping out the newly built barn and demolishing the nearby school building.

That was just the beginning. The typed manuscript contains the most poignant memories of Mom's early life, presented in brief vignettes. Was she ever proud of the result!

Not long after these stories were recorded, Mom's memory started fading fast. She is now eighty-two years old and dementia has seriously eroded her thinking. She can generally remember the names of her five sons but not those of her grandchildren. She wouldn't be able to put together a personal autobiography at this point. We have Lisa to thank for capturing some glimpses into her early life.

Genealogy has become a passionate interest for many people, particularly since the internet has made searches easier. But I find genealogical charts to be rather skeletal in appearance. I want to see flesh on bones, to feel blood running through people's veins, to see old photos come to life with stories about what occurred in people's lives, to know what people thought and felt about their journey through life. With a little effort one can capture the memories of family members who are still surviving and give more "life" to the genealogical record.

The best way to start is just with a tape recorder and some questions. Spend an extra twenty dollars for a lapel microphone to assure a good recording. Schedule several one to two hours sessions to do the interviews.

Encouraging one of your children to interview their grandparents may yield better results than interviewing your parents yourself. A grandchild can bring an unbiased freshness to the project, an eagerness to learn and an inquisitiveness about the past. Fewer assumptions will be made about what is already known by the interviewer. And there is nothing like an eager listener to facilitate story telling.

Spend some time before the interviews thinking about questions to ask. There are books available in the local library full of suggested questions to pose. Go through one or two of these books and pick out the questions you like. Add your own questions based on what you know about the life of the person being interviewed, and ask other family members for suggestions.

Once people get talking, one thing leads to another. Most people find talking about themselves to be easy. We are all experts when it comes to our own lives. Still, an interviewer can help keep the memories flowing by prompting the person with requests for more details and by focusing attention on different aspects of the person's life history.

Ask the person being interviewed about his or her grandparents and what, if anything, they remember about their great grandparents. Get them to describe their parents, what they looked like, their characters and personalities. Anecdotes from a person's childhood are generally fun to learn about. Find out about brothers and sisters as well, so the end product will be more interesting for cousins.

Strive to capture not just events that happened but also feelings the person had. Seek to learn not just what a person did but what motivated them, their dreams and aspirations. You'll find that once a person gets going, he or she will love the project. Four or five hours of interviewing, taken an hour or two at a time, will preserve much of a person's life story.

Other topics to focus on:

  • Schooling: Can you remember your first day at school? What did you like about school? Etc.
  • Home life: Describe a typical meal. Were you close to your parents? What was it like in your home?
  • Community: Describe the town you lived in. What did people do for a living? For Recreation?
  • Early values: What did you dream of becoming when you were a child? Who were your primary role models? Your heroes? What religious life did you have growing up?
  • Hobbies and interests: What did you do for fun? Were you involved in any clubs?
  • Military service? First job? Other jobs? Did you like your work?
  • Marriage and family: How did you first meet your spouse? What did you like about her/him? How did you try to raise your children? Etc.
  • Reflections on life: What were the most difficult times for you in life? What makes you feel most proud? What were some of the roads not taken for you? What are your present concerns? What lessons do you think you could teach others?

All these topics can be greatly expanded on. These are just suggestions. There is no formula for writing a life story. Each person's story is going to be unique. Try to capture that uniqueness by identifying the life story a person wishes to tell, then filling in the details.

Getting the results transcribed is the next step. And if you want to take the project further, with some editing, the end result can be a first person autobiography. A little handiwork with a computer will turn it into a presentable form. Just add photos, then get it printed and bound at your local print shop. Family members will appreciate the effort and more family history will be preserved.

Professional help is available if you would like assistance in recording and editing your own or someone else's life story. But I think it is best when people write their own memoirs or get help in doing so from other family members. Putting a life story together can be a special achievement.

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