10 tips to telling your family’s story

We all want our lives to be purposeful. But as technology grows and the world moves faster, our space can feel increasingly small. Exploring our family traditions and lineage can offer a sense of belonging, connectedness, and identity. When the rest of the world seems too busy to listen, we can tap into the voices of family past to realize we are not alone and begin to understand the influential people who made us who we are today. 

Today, I’ve gathered ten tips to help you tell your family’s story. 

Make a timeline of significant life events

Creating a timeline isn’t just for Type A personalities. It is a great way to get started telling your family’s story. Start by collecting major life events. Don’t worry if there are only a few on the timeline. There are tons of apps on the market for building timelines, but good old-fashioned pen and paper work great too! Remember, there is no right or wrong; this is a starting point.

Create a list of stories to tell

Now that you have your timeline in place, it’s time to keep collecting! Create a list of stories to tell. Don’t worry about remembering these stories chronologically. Just take a quick jog down memory lane and write what comes to mind. Create a bulleted list if you aren’t exactly sure when the events took place — you can always flush it out later. The important thing is to add to the list as a story comes to mind. You don’t want to let it slip away again!

Use keepsakes, objects, and photos to remember

Objects are a GREAT resource for remembering past events. Revisit a toy from your childhood or your old neighborhood to unlock stashed away memories. If your ability to travel is limited, visit a local antique shop or look at other people’s heirlooms online, odds are you will see something that sparks a memory you would not have accessed otherwise.

Don’t worry about perfection

One of the main obstacles people encounter when trying to write anything is trying to be perfect. Your first draft will not be in perfect final version form from the beginning, but that doesn’t mean it’s not valuable! Your family’s story is continuously evolving, so don’t worry about being perfect. It’s an unattainable goal. Simply write the way you speak, and get the story out. Edit the rest later (or not).

Recall details

Collecting a story as large as your family takes time, but it’s necessary to honor the time it took to collect those stories by being as specific as possible in your storytelling. Yes, you can say, “my grandpa often sat in a chair in his den,” but what did he wear, what was the chair like, how did the room smell? It is the details that make the experiences and people come to life.

Enjoy the tangents

Some of the most enjoyable conversations are filled with tangents. Maybe you asked your aunt about her new coat, and an hour and a half later, she’s telling you about the fabric that your grandmother used to make her clothing from at the turn of the century. Allow your mind to wander. Connecting stories by theme and not chronology can unlock stories that otherwise would go explored.

Give historical context

Offering historical context to your family’s story can create depth and dimension that the story on its own could not. Did your mother or grandmother work in a factory in the 1940s? Or was she a real-life “Rosie the Riveter” during World War II, stepping into a decimated workforce, breaking social norms, and facing discrimination bravely? Context matters when it comes to creating depth and scene. It’s the backdrop in which all our stories live.

Stay motivated

When taking on a massive task like collecting your family’s story, it can be tough to stay motivated. Spend some time before you start to think about your “whys.” Why do you want to tell this story? Why is it important? The more connected you are with your “whys,” the easier it will be to stay connected and committed during those times when it feels like it’s all too much. 

Another great way to stay motivated is to find a buddy willing to embark on this storytelling journey with you. Most things are better with company; a storytelling project is no different.

Get organized

Every person has their own approach to organization. There isn’t a right way. The important part is to make sure there is some sort of structure happening. Whether you’re gathering your story using an online resource or handwriting them, the stories will soon start to pile up. Without some sort of organizational strategy in place, you might quickly find yourself drowning in your family’s history!

Just Start

We are all busy, but the important part is to start! If you are waiting for the perfect time to start collecting your family’s story, you might never get there. There is no pressure to have it all done at once; just keep building story by story. Practice makes perfect, but it also creates a habit. If you’re busy, carry around a small notebook and jot stories down as they come to you during the day. The most important thing is to JUST START. It will take time, but there’s beauty in the journey. Just like life!

Telling your family story is a valuable tool in finding identity, connectedness, and purpose in today’s fast-paced world. Slowing down to learn and record your family’s origin story is a gift to yourself, a way to honor those who have passed and teach future generations. 

I hope these ten tips empower you to begin the journey of telling your family’s story. Are you ready to start?

How a simple keepsake can keep the memories alive

People have mixed feelings about keepsakes. Some family members might feel like holding on to an object is unnecessary. The family relic is a cluttered reminder of a memory that will live on without an object’s presence. In contrast, other family members feel like family relics connect us more profoundly than a thought or memory can create.

The truth is our brains are hardwired to connect memories to objects and sensations. According to psychological research, the area of the brain that stores memories is also the same area that stores sensations and sensory information, specifically touch memory. Science offers a glimpse into why keepsakes are such a powerful key to unlocking shared memories.

When you snuggle up in the quilt, your grandmother made, kept in her house, and passed down to you. Your brain is connecting the sensations of the blanket with the memory of your grandmother. Objects become imprinted with the people and places, and keepsakes can keep memories alive!

Increase generational connection

Science aside, passing down family heirlooms is a beautiful way to honor the past and the family who came before us. As an object changes hands from one generation to the next, we connect our family members: past, present, and future. Family relics are shared with a story and purpose. The more connected we feel to our family stories, the more passionate we are about sharing them with the next generation. These relics are an embodiment of shared purpose and lineage, not just a dusty tchotchke in grandma’s cabinet.

Act as a reminder of shared memories

Do you have a pair of lucky socks you wear for every presentation? Or a favorite shirt you wear on the weekend to relax? People are creatures of habit. We have special items that we rely on to elicit certain feelings. 

Family heirlooms are no different. Holding on to a family keepsake can immediately take you back to the way you felt when you first experienced the memento and fill you with a sense of connection with the family members who owned it before you. By simply handling the object, we can relive the memories it holds and share them with future generations.

Spread happiness

Keepsakes create new memories while keeping old memories alive by encouraging us to share a story and a smile. It is easy to get bogged down with the sadness of family loss. By revisiting memories through mementos, we often remember lively or purposeful experiences associated with our loved ones. Keepsakes offer an opportunity to celebrate our past family members’ lives while keeping their memories alive in the future.

Create an heirloom

We create new memories every day. Family keepsakes are often associated with memories of the past, but these relics all came from somewhere. Are there stories in your family that aren’t being told? What will you pass on to your future family? Remember that a family heirloom is as much about the story and people associated with it as it is about the object itself. Create a project to hold on to it for future kin keepers; what experiences are you living today that will become family stories in the future? 

Family mementos keep memories alive through one, simple thing– connection. The connection begins with the object itself, but as time passes and the story evolves, that connection shifts to people, stories, and family— an object journeys from generation to generation, building bonds and developing a sense of shared purpose.

Memories are kept alive by the objects we bring along our journey. As time passes, these keepsakes become the connection between family members that we rely on to tell our stories and keep our family’s memories alive. How are your keepsakes keeping your family memories alive?

Recording Your Family’s History Through Food

What is your favorite food memory? 

Was it the time your grandmother made mashed potatoes and told you to lick the whisk before your mom came in the room? Or was it that special dish your aunt would only make once a year on a special occasion?

Whatever your history might be, your sense of memory and taste are as intertwined as the connections we create with one another around food.

Our family’s recipes are often the foundation of our shared history, nourishing our bodies and our spirit one plate at a time. But how do we hold on to the unique memories created by food?

I’ve gathered a few quick and easy ways to collect your family’s food history.

Make a list of each family member and their favorite dish

If your family is anything like mine, every person has their favorite dish and equally strong opinion to go along with it. Your son LOVES your pecan pie, but your youngest daughter thinks it’s disgusting and won’t touch it.

Do you remember that year your mom burned the turkey, but you still ate it? Even the “bad” food memories can be fun — Journal your stories. By listing your family members and their favorite dish (or the dish you remember being their favorite), you connect with old family memories.

Good recipe or bad, the memory is what joins the family together.

Revisit old photos through the context of food

Another easy way to collect your family’s food memories is to look through old photos and notice what’s on the table. Often the old images that fill our albums are from parties, holidays, and special events. During these family gatherings, we share and celebrate with food.

Next time you revisit your old family photos, take an extra minute to glance behind the beehive hair and polyester pants and take a look at the food on the table. Those dishes are your lineage just as much as the faces smiling back at you.

Take the time to relive and appreciate who made the dip you had three servings of at your baby brother’s baptism party. By reliving memories through food, you will reconnect with the family that made those memories special.

Reach out to family members

Food is not only a fantastic way to keep your family’s history alive, but it is also a simple and easy way to create your family’s shared future. By calling your aunt, who uses all the family recipes, and simply asking how to make a dish you remember fondly, you are building new memories by honoring the old.

All it takes is a phone call about a recipe to reconnect, tighten the family bond, and ensure your family’s stories in the future.

Recreate the recipes you watch grandparents make 

Remember when you were a young child sitting at the kitchen table, watching your grandmother cook. What was she making? How does the kitchen smell?

Most of us have childhood memories centered around our family’s food legacy, but some of those recipes we lose to time. By recreating your childhood’s defining dishes, you create new memories with your family while honoring your past shared experiences.

You might not remember exactly how your family made the dish, but you are honoring your family lineage through food regardless if you ever find a perfect match.

Recipes offer an in-depth, tangible reminder of your family’s history and journey together. By taking the time to explore and journal beyond the food-stained recipe cards and age-worn spiral-notebooks, you can continue to grow your legacy while honoring the past.

Without taking the time to journal your food memories, you risk losing your family legacy to time.

Want to capture your family recipes in a beautiful collection? Go here to find out how to get started!

How to talk to family members about their stories

Approaching family members about their stories can sometimes feel awkward, especially when you don’t have a close relationship. But every person’s story has value, and it’s important to record your family’s history before it’s lost to time.

Here are a few tips to get the old stories flowing with family members, especially the ones you don’t know well.

Take the time

Life moves fast, and stories take time. Your family’s lineage took decades to accumulate, so now more than ever it’s important to be deliberate and take time to honor the past.

While exploring a new neighborhood in a car, you see the surface facade. “Oh, that was a pretty house” as it flies by the window on to the next. But when you walk through a new neighborhood, you can stop, dwell, discover new paths, and explore.

History is the same idea. The more you rush, the more it ends up being a surface-level experience. Slow down, quiet your phone or other distractions, and connect with the person sitting across from you. Just start talking.

The conversation may not go exactly as you’d planned, but each person’s experience is rich with lots of new avenues to discover. You will never know if you don’t take the time to find out.

Don’t force the experience

Avoid creating an experience that makes your family member feel pressured. No one enjoys feeling like they are being interrogated, or forced to share for someone else’s agenda. It’s an experience killer for anyone.

A conversation with your loved one should feel relaxed and natural. Don’t create an inauthentic experience by planning too much, even if you’re trying to make it extra special. Sometimes too much planning can make people feel under the spotlight. Connection can happen any time or any place that feels natural.

Don’t stress over what story you’re hoping to record or when it needs to happen; just let the connection you are creating evolve.

Your loved one has experiences that you don’t know about; give them room to feel comfortable to share. No matter where your talk leads, you will walk away with memories and stories you can treasure for generations to come.

Bring up topics they are passionate about

Was your stodgy, old granddad a military man in World War II? Did he restore transistor radios or rebuild old cars?

Most of us avoid bringing up topics we don’t know about, but exploring topics your loved ones are passionate about is a great way to get a conversation flowing. You might not be interested in the inner workings of an engine, but that information will lead to more topics that you are interested in.

Your loved ones will feel more comfortable opening up when you are genuinely interested in their interests. Think of using small talk conversations as a warm up toward accessing larger memories.

Ask questions… and record your conversation

Questions are a great way to start a conversation but make sure that your questions are open ended. “What were you like as a child?” vs. “Were you a good kid?” The first question leaves room for the answer. Asking only yes or no questions is a quick way to shut a conversation down before it starts.

Be sensitive to avoid asking too many questions, especially probing questions. You might touch on a topic your loved one is uncomfortable discussing or maybe they want to share but aren’t ready. Whatever the reason, listen carefully, respect their boundaries, and avoid passing judgement.

Listening with an open heart and open mind will nurture the relationship so they feel comfortable opening up to you again in the future.

Remember to ask your loved one if it’s okay to record their stories or take notes while they’re talking. Realize they are taking the time to open up to you and honor their place in your history.

Use objects to trigger memories

Did you have a blankie? What did it feel like? Where is it now?
The objects we take with us on life’s most important (or mundane) events, become as ingrained in us as the experience itself.

Looking at an old article of clothing or record collection, immediately jolts the memory of when that keepsake was part of your daily life. Rummaging through your family’s momentos can be one of the most simple but powerful ways to connect with stories from the past.

Take the step to ask family members about objects that are important to them. Spend time looking through the attic together or dig into the old musty chest in the corner, your family history lives there! And write down what you find!

Talking to loved ones about their stories might seem like a daunting task. Relationship building can be nerve wracking and if done right, takes time. Ironically, it is sometimes the people who we are closest to that we know the least about. But by taking the time to learn about the stories of your loved ones, you are creating a clearer present and stronger future for your family!

How a story can be the key to feeling like you fit in

Have you ever been told, “Oh, you’re JUST LIKE __________!” (Insert name of older generation relative you never got a chance to meet).

All you can really do is hope that said relative was a good person, and the attributes you share are the positive ones.  Aside from saying, “oh, that’s cool,” there’s not much you can do except wonder about the person’s life.

In my own case, I used to be told that I had the same impish humor that my grandfather did.  He passed away when I was a wee babe, so any similarities have to be either coincidental or somehow passed down in the DNA.  I’m rather pleased to be known as a similarly humorous person, as the stories I’ve heard all seem to involve laughter and the odd mischievous prank.  The photos I’ve seen of him suggest that he was quite the card at parties (given the shots of dancing and drink pouring).  I don’t believe I live up to that level of outgoingness, but I find it charming, and hold the photos dear.

My connection now is only through those photos, as almost everyone else who knew my grandfather has passed on.  I have the stories in my head, told to me by others, but these are mismatched from the photos lying in albums. I feel an urgency to write them down.

I told this story at one of my memoir writing workshops, and one participant asked if she could tell us her own similar story:

I was a bookworm in my childhood, always choosing to read something in the corner rather than joining in with the other kids’ sports and games.  My mother would try to coax me away from the books, worried that I’d become “too shy” or end up with no friends.

I had no interest in the games, though, and had a much better time with my books, especially the encyclopedias.  Time could fly past while I read about science discoveries, my favourite topic, or about the planets.

One Sunday when the family was all gathered at some auntie’s house for dinner, my mother did her usual bit of urging me to put my science magazine down and go play with the dolls my cousins had brought along.

My grandfather was watching as I clutched the pages tightly, shaking my head in firm refusal.  “That girl is JUST LIKE her grandmother!  Warms my heart to see her read so much, like my Marybella used to do!”

Mum and I both stopped.  I asked Granddad, “what did Grandma like to read?”

“Well, she had wanted to be a scientist, but in those days nobody had the money for university. That was for rich folks.  So, although she loved her home and raising your mother and aunts, she spent her evenings with her nose in library books.  Always science books, sometimes medical ones.”

My mother let go of my magazine.  It was clear she remembered her own mother’s passion for reading, and realized it wasn’t going to make anyone a social outcast.

Today I am still so grateful my grandfather told that story.  I became a chemistry researcher, and although I’m retired I still love to “put my nose in a book”.

I’m staring at a blank journal page – what do I do now?

I’m staring at a blank journal page – what do I do now?

Writing can be liberating and exhilarating.  A blank page can be a canvas for your thoughts, dreams, plans, and ideas.

Or, it can frighten the daylights out of you.

If you’re in the second camp, stop worrying.  Your fear is common, shared by many, but easily remedied.

Yes, there are some simple tips and strategies that you can put into action so that you can get started NOW to fill the pages of your journal from front to back.

These strategies are fun, we promise you.  None resemble the agonizing homework you did in your English class so many years ago.

Instead, they are intended to jump-start your creativity and confidence.  Ideas will come to your head right away, and you’ll soon find your voice and be applying pen to paper in no time!

The Search For Deep Truths . . . From a Soap Opera?

Okay, we don’t normally expect to learn profound philosophies in daytime television.  Normally we tune in to escape a bit, or to watch a show with characters whose lives seem more chaotic than our own.

I admit to being legitimately moved, however, when I was catching up last week on episodes of The Young and the Restless, a soap I’ve tuned into here and there since I was a teenager.  Normally the plot lines are rather ridiculous (long lost twins who suddenly appear, people with no credentials working at high-power jobs, etc.).  But on a recent episode involving the appearance of a long-lost relative, I took my thumb off the fast-forward button to watch a scene that resonated with me.

In the scene, two members of the Abbotts were welcoming into the family a young man, Theo, who they had just learned was biologically related to their mother.  They invited him over for a pre-Christmas get-together, just the three of them.  What could have been a pretty awkward gathering turned into a warm and touching event.  Why and how?  The older Abbotts presented the young man with a book they had recently written about the history of the family.  They said that the stories in the book would help connect him to the people he now knew to be his relatives.

Stories.  Family connection.  Kin keeping.  I couldn’t look away.

Then if that weren’t moving enough, the three of them walked over to the huge and handsomely decorated Christmas tree.  As Theo pointed to each heirloom bauble, the other two told him the story behind it:  who had made it, when it was purchased, what thoughts came to their minds each year as they hung it on the tree.

 

Later, Theo told the others about the Christmases he’d celebrated with the family he’d grown up in.  They listened attentively, and enjoyed the traditional biscuits he’d brought over to share.

Yes, the DNA test (a soap opera staple) had confirmed their shared biological ancestry.  But it was the stories—and most importantly, the sharing of those stories—that began to connect them as family.

His Name Was Bill, a Quiet Man With an Impressive Past

My work as a chair massage practitioner often took me to retirement communities.  One place I had a weekly arrangement with was a residence called Orchard Gardens.  When you entered, there was a kind of library lounge to the right, with comfy upholstered chairs arranged in clusters of three or four.

Bill would always be sitting there alone in one of those clusters, a book open on his lap but his eyes gazing elsewhere, often through the windows that looked out on the fruit trees that the community had been named for.

One day I finished a bit early, so instead of rushing to my car and to the next set of appointments, I went over to Bill and introduced myself.  He greeted me with a firm handshake, and motioned for me to sit down.  We began to chat, but I couldn’t stay long because of my schedule.  I promised I would stop and see him on my next visit.

The next week I arranged my schedule so that I would have more free time after the Orchard Gardens appointments. I stopped by to see Bill, who this time had a newspaper in his hand.  He pointed to the headline, a news item about an overseas conflict.

“I spent many years flying back and forth to that country,” he said.  There was turmoil then, and still today despite our efforts, more turmoil.  He shook his head and sighed.

I was curious about what he meant.  “What do you mean by ‘your’ efforts, Bill?  Why were you going there so often?”

He began to explain that he had been a management accountant, with expertise in infrastructure.  After World War II he had been recruited to be part of the committee that was to oversee the rebuilding of Europe.  He was responsible for enormous sums of money, and his efforts were instrumental to helping Europe regain its place in the world economy.

Over the next few weekly visits with Bill, I learned more about his incredible role in international affairs, and about the world leaders he had worked with.

On one visit I met his daughter, Sandra. I commented to her how much I enjoyed talking to her father about his amazing life and career.

She looked puzzled.  “Oh?  Dad never talks much about it, just in general terms, something about the war.  I wish we knew more.”

I felt sad that Bill’s story could get lost.  “Ask him more questions about it, Sandra.  You’ll get to know your father in a whole new light.”

To us she was just “Mom”, until we found the green velvet box

In our Kin Keepers writing workshops we hear many incredible anecdotes as people begin to share with other participants before they start to write.  As a workshop leader with a weakness for stories, it can be hard not to sit down and spend the whole two hours listening to one person speak eloquently about a mother or grandfather—there are ten other participants with equally fascinating things to share!

Let me give you just one example.

Marlena came to the Kin Keepers workshop with a small album of photos.  They were a sampling, she said, of the larger photo collection she and her sister had found when they had to clean out their mother’s closets after her passing.

“To us she was just ‘Mom’”, Marlena told me, “until we found the green velvet box.”

I was intrigued.  A mysterious box!  “Tell me more,” I asked her.

———————————–

Mom had married late, and had given birth to me and my sister Jess when she was almost 40, kind of unusual in those days. She was very much a stay-at-home mother, doing the traditional housewife things like cooking, cleaning, hosting family dinners, and all that.

What she really seemed to love, however, was helping us with our homework.  She always seemed to “know stuff”, as my sister and I would say—and those were long before the days of Internet searches!  No matter if it was math, science, geography, history, she not only knew how to explain the stuff in our textbooks, but could add a little more:  more examples, more facts, more historical tidbits.

Jess and I just took all that for granted, and were grateful for the extra help that gave a boost to our grades!  But we never asked how she knew all that.

Anyways, skip ahead to five years ago when she passed away and we had to put her house up for sale.  In behind cardboard boxes labelled “miscellaneous” or “the girls’ things” we noticed a box we’d never seen before.  It was about the size of the standard moving box, but it was covered in dusty green velvet fabric, a bit frayed at the corners.

We expected to find more knickknacks or more Christmas decorations, but we were shocked to see it was full of photos, newspaper clippings and documents.

“Who is the woman in all these photos?” Jess wondered out loud.  I stared at the photos for several seconds before I realized they were all of Mom.  And the clippings and documents all had her name mentioned in them.

Some photos showed Mom flying a small plane.  Some showed her as part of a group in a desert, all the people carrying picks or shovels. A few showed her in a museum, receiving an award of some sorts.

Then we looked through the documents.  A flying certificate. A degree in Archeology. A certificate of appreciation from a museum in Africa.

And the clippings!  Jess and I moved some boxes away and sat on the floor to read them.  Articles about a discovery she helped make.  An opinion piece she had written about the need to not remove artifacts from the countries they were found in, and one on the need to respect the local workers hired for the sites.

It struck us that we had had no idea about who Mom had been before us.  Her “pre Mom” years had been silent, in a way, until now.  And sadly, these documents and photos were all we had to tell us the story.

“We should have asked her more,” I said, “should have asked her to write things down.”

Navigating Uncertain Times

Fake news.  Spam emails. Hoax websites. Plagiarized novels.

What looks like information at first. . . turns out, isn’t.

How does anyone know what to believe?  There are strategies to determine if what you are reading is more or less likely to be close to the truth, but wow, what a lot of effort it takes.

It’s ironic that in this age of so much information, it’s hard to know what’s worth paying attention to, and so many people just don’t.  Young people today get most of their information about the world from social media.  What their friends and peers post on Instagram carries more weight, sadly, than a well-researched but long and dry article.

How is that peer-influenced information affecting young people’s thoughts and values at a time when they are impressionable and starting to make life choices that will affect their futures?  It seems more necessary than ever to provide our young people with a solid foundation, one grounded in real family traditions and histories. Those happened; those are real.

And you can be the one to tell those stories, to pass along those traditions, the ones that stand out for you to be shared with the young people in your family.  The stories that show how people in your family—maybe even you—faced the challenges they face, and how they got stronger.  Stories that entertain, but underneath create a moral compass that will stick with them as they encounter the typical obstacles that life will throw into their paths.

The best gift you can give a beloved child, grandchild, niece or nephew is to tell your story.

One story, one young reader.  It all starts there.