Collect Stories from the Family Elders

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Elders1By Mary V. Danielsen of Documented Legacy

As we move into the holidays and our free time dissipates, it seems easier to put off working on any family history or preservation projects until mid January. Now is precisely the time to collect family memories, however, while we are getting together in large groups.

This week spend some time creating a list of questions you’ve been meaning to ask other family memories in your efforts to preserve the life stories and family history of people you care about. Your questions may be about family history, genealogy, old photos, stories from events or, even the background of heirlooms. Dig a little deeper to capture the details that fill in those stories you already know. What else would you like to know? Don’t ask them yes or no questions. Invite the conversation with words like tell me, show, how, describe, name, what and why. Let family members, particularly the elders, know ahead of time that you’d like to ask them some questions – that you are recording memories. This way they’re not caught off guard and have time to think about their responses. Maybe the holiday gatherings are the starting point for future sessions.

We talked about this idea earlier in the year with our blog post on recording stories with your digital scans and in another post on researching. Our discussion on heirloom documentation is an idea that can be done all year long. Think about the items you have on the table this year. Is there family history on the table?

Our Giving Thanks life story questions are great conversation starters. Have fun with it, but now expand the process. Begin by asking the oldest living relatives the questions you have for them. If they have passed away or are unavailable, ask cousins, extended family and even close friends or old neighbors the questions. They may not have all the details, but may remember stories told to them.

Perhaps you are the family elder. Well, get busy! People love great stories told in rich details, even if those memories are of simple moments shared years ago.

You will find there are many ways to give memory-based gifts this season. While you will be making the effort to get the conversations recorded, you will also be spending time with others, who are also giving you back a piece of history. The gift of time, as you know, is always the hardest gift to give.

Elders 2Your options for creating projects afterward with those old stories and photos are limitless. Spend one hour searching ideas for using old photos or writing family stories and your head will explode with brain storming euphoria. You can find ideas that run the gamut from projects created in a few hours to something the extended family needs to invest in, such as creating a Ken Burns-type film documentary. You can’t do anything, however, unless you begin.

By way of example, my mother in law has a terrible memory. Always has. Knowing I knew very little about her childhood or family history I decided to start asking questions a few years ago. One holiday I asked her to tell me the story of her favorite Christmas gift as a child. My husband and sister in law were stunned. She entertained us with a descriptive narrative about how her father, who was a pharmacist and always worked long late hours, was never really sentimental about the holidays. For months she wished aloud for a bicycle of her own, like other children in the neighborhood. She never expected to receive one, because she knew her father would consider a bicycle an extravagant gift.

On Christmas morning she came bounding downstairs to see a massive pile of gifts for everyone under the lighted tree. Like a kid in a candy store, she wondered what awaited her. A note instructed her to check the front porch. There waiting for her was a gleaming red cruiser bicycle with a white leather seat, headlight and a brown wicker front basket with a red flower on it. On the handle bar was a giant white bow with her name on it. The stories of Nanna riding around the old neighborhood as a young girl with her friends in suburban Philadelphia just rolled.

Elders 4We talked about the gift, the house rules for caring for the bicycle, where it was stored, what Christmas traditions the family enjoyed, how one uncle who lived in Red Bank New Jersey came over late and played the piano into the night. Apparently her father was sentimental enough to listen to the whims of his little girl, at least once. He hid the bicycle in the rear of the pharmacy until late Christmas Eve. Oh the memories that bicycle created.

Once transcribed, that story would make a nice small book project called The Red Bike Christmas.

Another time I asked my mother what Thanksgiving traditions were like for her family when she was little in the 1920s and 1930s. She was the first born family member in this country and all American holidays were new traditions for the family. It took some getting used to. Family got together every Sunday for dinner, so a single day of the year when everyone gathered to give thanks seemed out of sorts when they did that weekly. For years they cooked a duck dinner. The traditions evolved as my mother and uncle got married and started their own families. Mom told me this story during a life story interview several years ago. Last year, however, when my family made a game out of the Giving Thanks questions, she remember more details and told the story in greater length. Because she was relaxed and opened to storytelling, she remembered more.

Mom has since passed away and these stories are pure gold to us now.

Elders3-600wideYour task is to prevent regrets. Collect family stories, starting with the oldest living relatives and work your way down the genealogy chain. Ask children questions, too.

Remember, you only need a small list of supplies to begin recording life stories with family members. If you don’t own a digital tape recorder, try the voice memo feature on your phone (pack your charger. The battery will wear down fast.) Upload stories to cloud-based storage and back it up later. If you don’t have a good digital camera or video camera, use your cell phone, if possible. Make sure you have good lighting and take your time to hold the equipment steady.

As always we recommend you pack your Flip-Pal mobile scanning kit along with your Thanksgiving goodies, because there is always something to scan or copy where reminiscing occurs.

Have enjoyable and memorable gatherings during the holidays!

4 Responses to Collect Stories from the Family Elders

  1. Mark Lampkin December 7, 2015 at 6:47 pm #

    I stumbled upon your site..and am so glad that I did. I am a video professional who is encouraging that friends that I know record their loved ones, especially the elders of their family, this holiday season. AS I am also a Board member of a local Alzheimer’s service organization, in the San Francisco Bay Area, I am offering to them a portion of the proceeds from videos we will be creating for families.

    I’d welcome your input as to best practices to enable and encourage more people to capture these precious memories before it is too late…

    • Flip-Pal December 8, 2015 at 4:27 am #

      Hello Mark,
      I am also glad you stumbled upon our site. Bless you and your service to elders and the Alzheimer’s communities.
      Could we help you? I would like to donate a Flip-Pal mobile scanner with our new StoryScans talking photos software. It records the voice of those loved ones and combines it with a scanned photo or other precious memory like a medal or award. Perhaps in one of the visits by your friends with their beloved elders, or with a person with Alzheimer’s, the person could take the Flip-Pal and have the elder tell the story about that item. It would warm my heart to know that the work we have done while on this earth inventing Flip-Pal is being used for such a worthy cause and enriching the lives of other. You may contact me at if we can help your outreach in this way.

  2. Martha Manske November 18, 2015 at 8:41 pm #

    When my mother was living in an adult foster home at age 90, she really enjoyed going through a photo album she had kept from the time she was married. It contained older pictures, too. Although most pictures were labeled, some were not. As we talked about each picture I asked her to identify each person. I then put a post it note beneath the picture with the IDs. I have scanned that album with my Flip Pal and can say I can identify almost everyone it in. I will share this as a digital album with my siblings so we all have Mom’s memories.

  3. Terry Baldwin June 23, 2015 at 12:13 am #

    Nice post. I learn something new and challenging on sites I stumbleupon every day. Good thoughts.

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