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gathering stories

gathering family stories: a holiday how-to

With the holiday season just around the corner, one of the things I’m looking forward to most of all is listening to family stories. Some of them will be stories I’ve heard a million times before, but that won’t affect my enthusiasm one bit. I come from an an extremely talkative family, but I realize that not every family is quite so garrulous. Sometimes storytellers need a little coaxing, and I’m of the opinion that giving a little nudge, especially around the holidays, is worth every bit of effort.

Here, a few tips for getting the stories flowing:

Photos:
Bringing out family photos after a holiday dinner can be one of the best ways to get people to start sharing stories. If you have a box of old snapshots or a photo album stored away somewhere, drag it out. If you don’t have any photographs yourself, ask around. Chances are that someone in the family has a stash somewhere. Photographs make good story starters because they trigger questions: Who? Where? Why?  In these family photographs: one of my distant cousins is shown feeding a New York City squirrel. Each of this trio of photographs is marked on the back with the same line: “Taken at Central Park, Aug. 15, 1921. This picture needs no explanation.” Respectfully, I disagree. I’d like to ask a about hundred questions.

Objects & Heirlooms:
When people think of family heirlooms, I have a suspicion that they’re usually thinking of emeralds, rubies, or other precious objects that, in the storybooks at least, have been passed down from one family member to the next. While the sparkly set can certainly be classified as family heirlooms, the truth is that often heirlooms are richer in sentimental value than monetary value. Any object that’s been safeguarded and handed down from one generation to another is an heirloom, and almost always, these objects come with stories attached. After dinner, bring out your grandfather’s apron or his hunting jacket and see what happens. I promise you, there will be storytelling involved.

Food:
Not every family makes excellent keepers of material goods. Even if there aren’t photographs or objects to spark a conversation, there’s one thing that’s central to most holiday celebrations that usually gets people talking. The food. In community history projects that I’ve worked on, it’s been incredible to see the memory stores that people keep around food. It can be as simple as asking an older relative what kind of foods she ate at holiday gatherings growing up. Maybe even more than a photograph, food triggers stories. Sometimes you just have to let people know that you want to hear them.

And finally, a note on record keeping:
I could write a book on the subject of recording family stories for future generations—maybe someday I will—but for now, I’ll say this: consider record keeping. Keeping even a small record of the stories that get told around a dinner table can be valuable indeed. You may have an elderly aunt who can recall the details of a photograph now, but that won’t always be the case. Marking the backs of photographs in pencil will help future generations to piece the stories together. Along with making written notes, try recording the stories as they’re being told. There’s a whole range of options available for making beautiful story recordings, but happily, if you’re not in the market for top-of-the-line recording devices, you can still get a fairly decent recording right from your smartphone. If you ask me, setting a phone to record in the center of the dining room table might be the best use for a smartphone yet.

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