Capturing Family History

Like many old-timers, my father likes to tell stories about the Good Old Days. I’ve heard most of his stories dozens of times, but they are complex, and woven of detail as intricate as any tapestry in King Arthur’s castle. When I try to capture them from memory even an hour later, most of that detail has vanished like smoke rings in a gentle breeze.

Which bomber was he flying when that student nearly nosedived into the runway? Which uncle rode with Pancho Villa? Which lab did he buy that sodium pump from, and was his job title “Director of External Affairs” or “Director of Public Information”? My head spins as I consider the fact that the number of unanswered questions is increasing at a faster rate than recorded information.

During my recent visit with him, one answer to this dilemma was to keep my laptop near at hand. He doesn’t talk very fast when he’s reminiscing, and I can almost keep up with him. Fortunately it doesn’t seem to bother him to have me quietly clicking away when he’s recalling aunts, uncles, parents, and other people. I need to get those details, because he’s the only person still alive who remembers those family members.

I also made some cryptic notes on paper, and experience has shown that I’d better transcribe them within the next few days or they will become stale and confusing.

Ideally, I could inspire him to sit down at the computer and record it all himself. He has written some terrific stories, but they are about isolated events, and there are precious few of them. Realistically, I know that he’ll never write enough to plug the gaps in our “tribal memory,” and I’ll have to go into story catching mode to scavenge whatever is going to be saved.

Most my time with him was spent interviewing him and listening. Thinking back over the last several weeks, I realize that most of the people I’ve spent time with have been in “talking” mode, and most of my time has been spent listening. Some of these people have been family members — many people in my family are inclined to spend most of their time telling their own stories or venting — but many have been friends who are at difficult junctures in their lives, and their need to talk and be heard is compelling.

When I put these two situations together, two powerful reasons for writing my own stories emerge. First, I am the one with the best grasp of details and story flow. While it may be true that
fuzzy legend and the general drift of things form the primary elements of memory and understanding, if I record my detailed account, my family will have it as a resource if they are so inclined.

The other reason is more subtle. My stories may pale in the face of someone's grief, stress, or gabby nature, but my stories are significant. They matter to me, and quite likely they also matter to that other person — just not right now. I honor myself and the value of my stories while also honoring other people’s current need by writing my stories for posterity, and staying present for friends and family when they need to talk.

There are so many more reasons to write, but these is enough to keep me firmly focused on ‘puter or paper: To honor my own stories and voice by preserving them.

Write now: about a time when you set your own story aside to listen to a family member or friend who was in a rough situation. Do you routinely do this? How do you share your stories? How often do you listen intently and encourage others to tell their stories? Are some people easier to listen to than others? Are some people easier to tell stories to than others?


Anonymous said...

If you are indeed interested in writers / readers blogs, try halfheartedhack.blogspot

Ritergal said...

I almost deleted that comment as spam since the link didn't work, then I realized it is incomplete.

I did get there, and will return when I have some time to read Redcap's account of the Australian Outback. Today I made do with the stunning photos.