For a number of years my extended family kept in touch via family e-mail. Often someone would say something like, “Do you remember …?” Or someone would tell a story from our childhood and everyone else would jump on with comments. It didn’t take me long to figure out that we were missing out on a great family history opportunity. I told my family that I was going to save some of these e-mails for family history, and they all agreed.
I decided to try to copy and paste the text of these e-mails into a Word document. The reason I did that was so that it made sense from start to finish. This was not an easy job, but I felt that it was well worth the time and effort.
If my family had not been so full of fish stories, I might have been able to keep up with it. However, for the time that I was able to keep up with it, we collected a ton of stories. We have three four-inch binders of stories.
I got behind when I accepted a calling at Church that was pretty overwhelming and all-encompassing with my time, and I’ve never caught up. I still have an e-mail folder called “stories” that would probably fill another four-inch binder. If I had this to do all over again, I probably would have just printed out the e-mails instead of trying to put it into a format that was more “story like.” I should have known that my family is very prolific.
Basically, the only rule we had was that everyone was entitled to rebuttal on any story. I don’t know about your family, but in my family, everyone has their own version of every single story. Everyone’s viewpoint was not only accepted, but encouraged.
So, the stories not only had rebuttals, but were in effect, an example of our personalities and family dynamics. Some of the rebuttals are funnier than the original stories. If I were to sit my family down around a table so we could all talk, it would be exactly like reading the e-mails. My grandchildren and great grandchildren will read these stories and get to know us as they would come to know characters in a book.
I will leave to future generations to sort out which versions of each story to believe. I was more concerned with them getting to know us as people—with all our warts and foibles—than with an accurate history of the facts. Really, when you think about it, the facts really aren’t that important—it’s how we dealt with our lives as people that really will matter to our progenitors.
The organization of these stories was (and continues to be) my albatross. In the end, I made copies of the stories for each family (they chipped in on photocopy costs and bought their own binders), and let each family organize the stories as they saw fit.
The problem is that when you start “talking” over e-mail, the conversation often changes from one subject to the next making indexing pure nightmare. In other words, if you are a perfectionist or OCD, this method of family history isn’t going to work for you.
Occasionally, we all got involved in our lives and the family e-mail became uncharacteristically silent. At such times, I would throw out a question, thought, or request for a story. For instance, “Tell me about your first memory.” “Tell me about the birth of your children.” “What is your favorite memory of Mom and Dad?” “Where were you when President Kennedy was assassinated?” “What were you doing on 9/11?” I almost always got some kind of response, but not necessarily related to the assignment or question posed—which was fine. As long as I started a conversation again, I was quite happy.
Several times over the years different family members have come to me and thanked me for these stories. They have used the stories to teach their children. They have used some stories to teach lessons or give talks in church. They have read them for their own pleasure. It is important to know your family history, as it is part of your makeup. There are many ways to collect and keep family history stories. There is no right way or wrong way to do it, as long as you do it. This works for us.
Family history isn’t just names on a pedigree chart, although that’s important too. When we leave this earth, we will live as families. We will reunite with those family members who left this earth before us. Wouldn’t it be nice to know something about them?
I think it would be wonderful after I pass on to meet my great grandchildren, or great-great grandchildren and have them say, “I know you. You’re the one who hung onto the rope and got lifted off the ground when they were cementing the rock at the cabin.” Or, “You’re the one who came back to church after being away 20 years.” Or, “I remember reading about the day you were married.” “Weren’t you the one who was lowered from the oil tanker on the end of a rope into a tugboat?” It is the stories that will connect the generations.
If your family keeps in contact through e-mail or social media (and you are not a perfectionist) think about asking your family for permission to save the stories that are told.
Tudie Rose is a mother of four and grandmother of ten in Sacramento, California. You can find her on Twitter as @TudieRose. She blogs as Tudie Rose at http://potrackrose.wordpress.com. She has written articles for Familius. You will find a Tudie Rose essay in Lessons from My Parents, Michele Robbins, Familius 2013, at http://www.familius.com/lessons-from-my-parents.