While everyone else was asleep, I sat wrapped in a blanket, looking out at a glassy lake, mulling over how I would record the past week’s family vacation memories. Click click click … click … click click click click click … The sound of someone pressing keys on an old typewriter nudged me … That’s it! I’ll ask everyone to write down their favorite memories of the week and send them to me. I’ll combine them, then pass them along! We can add to it every year! *Boom!*
I forget until I’m with my relatives, just how funny they are. The stories – some newly told, some re-told classics; all flawlessly delivered. With each new addition comes another opportunity to share stories about the crazy family the newest member signed into. A few years ago, I noticed how my kids listened motionless to my dad share the story of my mom plunging completely under water at Rough River thinking it was knee-deep because it was “so clear!” She’d spent the whole day trying to keep her hair dry for dinner later that evening only to have it destroyed at the boat ramp on our way home. My dad may or may not have already known how deep it was … we’ll never know for sure. What I do know is that my kids were anxious to hear more!
These oral accounts bring to life our family’s history. It gives insight into who our parents and grandparents were before we came to know them. Often, it has surprised me with how far we’ve come as a state, and even a country; for example, listening to my granddad share how he remembered mail being delivered via a hook on a platform next to the tracks as a train’s mail car passed by.
Oral accounts, or storytelling, have been used as far back as time, within every culture, in many forms. Traditions, values, genealogy, history, tall tales, secrets, all shared through song, dance, poems, drawings, writings, and more. I’m sure that through the years, the stories became less accurate over time, but they still served to create connections to culture. In Western Africa, storytellers were called griots; in Ireland, seanchaí; in medieval British and Gaelic, a bard or minstrel; in Western Kentucky, fisherman. (Okay, that last one’s not real!) Each of their roles are integral to their societies.
We may not need to tell stories to record history today, but storytelling continues to serve a valuable purpose. As we age, storytelling creates an opportunity to reminisce, reduces stress and depression, helps to reinforce one’s value, can improve memory, and can certainly increase mood.
How can we facilitate storytelling with our loved ones? Start by asking them prompting questions like:
What was your favorite thing to do as a kid?
Any holiday traditions that you really enjoyed?
How did you meet your wife? What was the first thing you thought when you met her?
Did you play sports?
What was the most scared you’ve ever been?
Were you a daredevil?
Is there an invention made during your lifetime that you think has been the most impactful?
Did you like school?
What was the most fun you ever had with your siblings or parents?
Who were you closest to, your mom or your dad?
Ask anything you’d like to know and then listen. By listen, I mean actively. Interrupt only to encourage them to continue. You can do this by using statements like, “tell me more,” “go on …,” or by asking clarifying questions. If they seem uncomfortable talking about something, move on. Ask if you may use your phone, or another digital device to capture those stories in a recording!
Sometimes, pulling out photographs to look at together prompts spontaneous stories. If you’d like, and are able, number the photograph you’re discussing and quickly jot down the number with the story in a journal, or write it on the back of the photograph if there’s room. So often we go through family photos and have no idea who the people in them are or were – but if you review them with your loved ones, you may find precious gems hidden in the images.
If your family member isn’t much of a talker, see if they’re willing to write down their life’s story. I’m a big fan of reading stories in people’s own handwriting. The story becomes a treasure of not only what’s being told, but a document that’s alive with the personality reflected in the handwriting.
If the project seems overwhelming to you, or if your storyteller is more comfortable telling a stranger than speaking directly to you, call your senior center, or library to see if they can recommend an organization or individual that can assist. There are even phone apps, and online tools to prompt stories. They can organize, develop timelines, even produce books that can be published and distributed to family members.
For Mother’s and Father’s Day this year, my brother and I got our parents separate subscriptions to a service which sends them weekly emails asking pre-formed questions. They respond to them and send off once they’re finished. After a year, the answers are compiled in a book to be given to family members. We can have as many copies as we want produced. We can’t wait to see the results!
Remember, you’re a part of this, too. Start recording your own stories. Write down your ideas in a notebook, or in your phone, and when you have some quiet time, write them down in a journal or create voice recordings. Go back to your social media account and pull out anything you may have entered as a reminder, too. Tell the good, bad, and the ugly – be real. Your transparency and vulnerability may show your grandchildren that, while times may be hard, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. You just never know the difference your story may make in someone else’s life. Tell it!