Collecting Family Stories
Family stories are tales about people, places, and events related to the members of our immediate family or their ancestors. Family stories casually chatted about at the dinner table, or regaled again and again at family gatherings can parallel great epics or notable short stories. The memorable stories of our lives and of others in our family take on special importance because they are true, even if everyone tells different versions of the same event. These tales are family heirlooms held in the heart not the hand. They are a gift to each generation that preserves them by remembering them and passing them on.
The first step to collecting family stories is to become a good listener.
Good listeners encourage great storytelling. When a speaker feels that the listener is interested, he or she is more inspired to communicate generously. A good listener gives full attention to the teller, does not interrupt or contradict the facts of a story as it is being told, and offers the teller encouragement with an interested facial expression and body stance. When a teller feels encouraged by an interested listener, there is joy in the telling.
An effective way to hear family stories is to ask questions. Family stories can be collected by interviewing a family elder. Make a mental or written list of topics that might generate some questions to ask the elder.
People, places, events, objects, important transitions, work, or travel can be story starters. Although short-term memory may sometimes be limited in the oldest of relatives, long-term memory may be very much intact. We need to help the teller journey back in time to retrieve these treasures.
Here are some effective questions that might encourage elders to remember their stories.
Books on Collecting Family Stories
At a family gathering, such as a holiday celebration, a birthday party or a family visit, take time to tell stories about the family. Or, arrange a special visiting time when an interview session can happen. Making a recording of family stories is an enjoyable way to listen to the stories again. Be sure that the device used for recording can be inconspicuously placed so as not to make the speaker nervous. Pay as little attention to the recording device as possible and give full attention to the teller!
Sample Questions About:
Places To Remember
People To Remember
Interview questions about Places To Remember:
- Can you describe the house in which you lived when you were a child?
- Do you remember the room in which you slept as a child?
- Can you describe the houses in your neighborhood?
- Where was your favorite place to visit when you were a child?
- Where did you go to school? What was in the classrooms?
- Where did you go to worship?
- Where did you go to shop for food or clothes?
- Where did you go for fun and recreation?
- Where did you go when you wanted to hide?
- Did your family ever move?
- Describe the house you lived in when you were first married.
- What kind of utensils did you have in the kitchen?
Interview questions about People To Remember:
- Who lived in your house with you as a child?
- How many brothers or sisters lived there?
- Can you describe your father or mother as you remember looking at them when you were small?
- Who visited your house when you were young?
- Any relatives remembered? Grandparents or Aunts and Uncles?
- Who were your favorite cousins?
- Who were your neighbors?
- Did you have any favorite teachers?
- Who was the best cook in the family?
- Who was the smartest, richest, kindest, or most religious?
- Did anyone in the family have some unusual characteristics?
Interview questions about Life Events:
- When did the first family member come to America? Where did they come from? How did they get here? Are any family members still abroad?
- How did you meet your spouse? How long did you know each other before you were married? Can you describe your wedding?
- How did you earn a living when you were young? What was your first job?
- What were your favorite holidays? Did you have special holiday customs or foods?
- Did you ever go on a vacation? Where? Who went with you? What did you do for fun?
- Can you describe the birth of your son or daughter? Where were you? Who was there? How did you choose his or her name?
- Daily Life:
- How did you travel from place to place? Did your family have a car? What were your favorite pastimes? How did your children behave?
Interview questions about Objects:
- Go beyond the edges of the photo when looking at family pictures:
Where was the picture taken? Who took the picture, for they are not in the photograph but must have been in the place? Why were the people in the photo gathered? How are they related? Why were they together at this moment? What were they doing?
- Who wore the jewelry? Why was it given? Did it mark a special occasion?
- Utensils or Family Recipes:
- Who used it? Where did they live? How was it used?
- Where was the furniture originally? Can you describe the rest of the house?
Interview questions about Important Transitions:
Try devising some of your own questions about these topics:
Birth in the family, Growing Up, Change of Jobs, New Houses, Going Off to School, Getting Married, Funerals in the Family
Ask where the story took place.
Ask who was in the story.
Ask what happened in the story.
These types of questions may lead you to hear a family story that has a clear setting, believable characters, and a plot. "How did it end?" may offer a conclusion.
Grandchildren Interviewing Grandparents:
When grandparents are encouraged by their grandchildren to speak about their own children when they were young, a child is offered an interesting perspective on their own parents. Their Parents Were Once Kids Too!
More interview questions and story collecting tips can be found in an outstanding workbook "Telling Your Own Stories, " by Donald Davis. Available from: August House, PO Box 3223, Little Rock Arkansas, 72203 (800-284-8784).
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