Holiday time is a time that family members, often from afar, gather at the home of a relative to celebrate whatever holiday it is. Many times the home is the “old homestead”, sometimes with a younger generation occupying the premises. Regardless of where the gathering takes place, it is a time for family members to visit, talk over old times, and catch up on recent developments in their lives.
For anyone involved in family history and genealogy, or for anyone who thinks they want to start on their family history, holidays can provide the time to interview family members. Record any and all stories as they are told around the dinner table or in a private interview with each family member.
Many family stories end up being embellished or down-played, but there is often at least one grain of truth in each story. It often depends on how far removed the teller is from the actual incident. An actual participant in an event will often have more accurate details than someone who has heard a story about their great-grandfather that was told by to them by their mother who heard it from her uncle.
As you collect stories listen, ask questions to clarify but not to argue that you had heard a different version of the story last night from someone else. Each person does have different memories of the same event, often based on their relationship to the other people, the place, and the event. Record what is said, either electronically (with the person’s written permission) or take good notes. Keep track of who is relating the information and the date. Many of the facts can be verified later. Ask questions beyond the usual where were you born, etc. Ask about what someone remembers about any event or how they felt when something happened. How did they feel when that younger sister was born and they were no longer the “baby” of the family. Ask the immigrant what it was like to leave their family and friends and arrive in a new place. That is a question today not just for immigrants but for anyone that pulled up stakes and moved to another place whether it was for a new job or for retirement. What was your favorite toy when a child? Do you remember a special gift for your birthday or Christmas or graduation? What books did you read as a child and did any of them spark an interest in something that you are still involved with today-an occupation, a hobby, or an avocation? What was your neighborhood like and what did you do for fun? These can trigger family stories that you would not have heard before.
You will find the family storyteller amongst the gathering and you may eventually determine how well they remember things or how they like to embellish stories. Take down the time and place of each story or interview. This can become important over time as stories continue to be collected. Maybe you will determine that Aunt Susie made up stories just to entertain you. Or you may discover that Uncle Bob was the quiet observer who had a great memory.
There are different ways to collect the family stories. At the Fenton Research Center in the Hall House, we have some books that can guide people in collecting the stories, either by oral history or written history. Sometimes one can write to a relative with a specific question and ask the person to write their information in a letter or, today, an email may sound easier to the person. Today’s technology has advanced to be less intrusive during an interview and makes it more comfortable for the reluctant storyteller. If you end up with a group discussing events, it may be hard to capture the actual conversations so be prepared to take good written notes. These can help sort out any of the recorded conversations.
Enjoy the upcoming holidays, talk to family members, even if it is by FaceTime, or Skype, or the telephone, if not in person.