There are only two lasting bequests we can give our children. One is roots, and the other is wings.Hodding S. Carter, Journalist & Author
I have several boxes in my garage that have been stored for years and years. First they were moved when my mother relocated for retirement. And upon her passing, they were moved from Oregon to California, and then from garage to garage as I moved, scarcely ever opened.
Each cardboard box contains beautiful images of family history, a window into times past, for better and for worse, the bittersweet as well as the sweet. There have been days over the past couple of years, and more recently during COVID, when I had some extra time on my hands. So, I opened the boxes, peered inside, and ran my fingers through the vintage frames and old weathered photos. It is mostly a bittersweet and sad experience because I do not know the history behind them. And sadder still because, as an only child with no children, I don’t know what to do with them or how to pass them along.
Family photographs and letters are a window into times past. They tell a story that if we care to listen to it, we can gain wisdom when the soul is open to learning. And they tell of a life explored. I so wish I had spent more time with my mother learning about who these people were and any experiences she had with them.
March 14th is National Write Your Story Day. And there’s no more perfect a time to start writing down your own story and the stories of your ancestors to help remind people of the deep and beautiful journey of your family. While some people love to get their thoughts and experiences down on paper through journaling, scrapbooks, or other hobbies, many don’t realize the value of the intriguing stories we carry through life.
Our stories are our most unique and priceless treasure. It’s time we cherished them and shared them as such. Here, we’ll dive into why storytelling is so essential to our family history and how you can become a bonafide storyteller!
The Importantce of Ancestry: Keeping Your Family Story Alive
“The elderly have so much to offer. They’re our link with history.”
~ John Cusack
Have you ever gone through old photos with your more senior family members and seen how the memories light up their eyes? Or read through an old letter or sat around the table sipping tea while your grandfather told stories about how things were so very different when he grew up? While photos and trinkets are dear family treasures, they are empty without the stories behind them.
Sadly, generations of family history are becoming lost because we simply don’t share stories like we used to do. Before all the TV, movies, and games that technology brought to us, storytelling was the main source of entertainment. Our ancestors would share their stories to keep their history alive and impart wisdom and belonging to the younger family members. Storytelling was a powerful way to keep the family together, share a common bond, give advice, and enjoy family entertainment.
These moments are precious. Our ancestry is our only personal link to the past, and the one thing that remains when our family members pass on. If you still have older family members in your life, ask them to share their stories and get a glimpse of where you came from. Record them if you can. Here are some story-starting questions to ask your family members:
- What was a usual day like when you were my age? (or 6, or 15, or 21?)
- Do you know how your parents met?
- Which person in your family do you think you look like most?
- Who was your best friend when you were a kid?
- What is one lesson you learned when you were young that you will never forget?
- Tell me about one of your favorite days.
- If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your younger self?
Just as capturing these memories will help you know more about where you came from, passing down your own memories is one of the greatest gifts you can give to your family, especially children.
Now, let’s learn some ways you can start sharing your story.
Storytelling 101: Exercises to Start Telling Your Story
“Tell me about your family, I said. And so she did. I listened intently as my mother
went through each branch of the tree. Years later, after the funeral,
Maria had asked me questions about the family, who was related to whom,
and I struggled. I couldn’t remember. A big chunk of our history had been
buried with my mother. You should never let your past disappear that way.”
~ Mitch Albom
The photo above sits on my dresser. It is of my maternal grandmother, Birdella. She was born in Iowa in 1898, an only child. (In fact, on my mother’s side of the family, I am the fourth-generation only girl.) She moved to Ohio after she met my grandfather and had my mother. Her and her mother owned two beauty shops in the 1930’s, during the Depression. Amazing to know that there were successful women entrepreneurs back then and during such difficult days.
Break out of your shell and start writing down your story today. You might surprise yourself with what you unravel! Here are some tips to get you started:
- Host a Storytelling Party
Sure, it’s “write your story day,” but verbal storytelling is just as important. If you’re more of a speaker or performer than a writer, celebrate this day by hosting a storytelling get-together in person if possible or online, and spend time swapping old stories. This can be particularly fun for the kids of the family. You could even encourage someone to act as a scribe and record these stories to share later.
- Make a timeline of major events in your life.
It’s easy to forget all that you’ve been through in your life. With each new day, we move further away from the past and the memories that live there. You can stir up old memories by creating a life timeline. Start with birth and end with today, then fill in any significant events in between (moves, marriages, divorces, vacations, graduations, births, etc.). As you begin to fill in the gaps, you’ll be surprised at how many smaller memories begin to surface.
- Get a prop.
Sometimes our minds need a trigger to get the memories flowing. Try this example: pick a prop from around the house and see what comes up. For instance, I have a bowl of tomatoes sitting on the counter. I use tomatoes almost daily in my cooking, but the memory that springs forward was that of my best friend’s mother’s 100 tomato plants in their old backyard garden when I was about in my pre-teens and high school. It was so much fun to go out and rummage through their overgrown tomato bushes to pick the brightest, reddest globes we could find. Then we would spend all day long cooking and canning these tomatoes. Even today, I can even smell those fragrant fresh tomato vines now! Pick your own prop, grab a journal and a pen, and see what story you might tell.
- Practice morning pages.
In her book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron recommends writing “morning pages” – three handwritten, stream-of-consciousness journal pages first thing each morning. This practice is loved by writers and non-writers alike because it offers a simple way to get to know yourself better. You can use morning pages to dig up old memories and start to tell your story.
Modern Ways to Tell Your Family Story
“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you might as well make him dance.”
~ George Bernard Shaw
This photo hangs in my home, and is one of my most treasured possessions. It’s a portrait of my father and his family a couple of years after they immigrated to the United States from Northern Italy. My father is the youngest, and he was born in July 1919. I have always surmised he was about 4 years old in the photo. My fraternal grandfather and this family made Morristown, New Jersey their home, and he earned his living as a brick mason. I met my my fraternal grandparents when I was 13 months old, and sadly, both of them passed away before I was 2. I would have loved to have heard their stories.
Now, are you feeling quite serious about writing down your story and want to create something more significant to share with your family (or even just for yourself)? Bravo!
Getting your story down on paper is an incredible experience and one that you will cherish for the rest of your life. Thankfully, these days there are tons of simple ways to write and print your own life story. Here are a few favorites:
Blurb creates beautiful memory books, memoirs, photo books, and more.
- Real Life Stories
Do you need help bringing your story to life? Real Life Stories offers professional interviews, research, and writing services to get to the heart of your life story.
StoryWorth allows you to tap into your loved one’s memory and create a beautiful memoir that will last for ages. Week-by-week, they ask your loved ones thought-provoking questions that spark them to tell a story. After one year, you receive a beautifully-bound keepsake book. Or, do the StoryWorth process yourself and create your own memoir!
Put Pen to Paper for Family Storytelling
“As we grow older, our bodies get shorter and our anecdotes longer.”
~ Robert Quillen
Writing down your story is not just a creative exercise – it’s an investment you make in your family’s history. Make writing down your memories a simple morning practice, or opt for some help with the services above. Then, encourage your other family members to do the same. You’ll have a rich and rewarding family history to pass down for generations to come!
P.S. March 14th just so happens to be Pi Day and National Potato Chip Day, too! Fuel your writing session with some homemade pasta sauce like my Italian father used to make or these sophisticated homemade herbed potato chips!
However you spend it, live a life explored!