One Thanksgiving, a few years after my mother died, my father regaled us at the dinner table with the hilarious and slightly unbelievable story of how he and my mother got married, complete with sweeping gesticulations, sound effects, and dance moves. I didn’t carry around a recorder at all times back then, as I do now, and I’m hating myself for that. Because no matter how many times I have begged him since to write it down for me, he’s just been too busy. (Or maybe he just needs an audience again to really get it right.)
- Carry a digital voice recorder everywhere you go, so if the conditions are right for storytelling, you are prepared. (We have pocket-sized Olympus digital voice recorders that record professional-quality sound; they run about $300. But you can get a decent one for as little as $30. Or, you can use your iPhone.)
- Don’t wait for your parents to write something down, because you may never get it.
- Get your parents to tell their stories now, while they can still remember them.
- Come up with a plan. We can’t stress enough the importance of this one. Even though you now have your ever-ready recorder with you at all times, if you wait for spontaneous storytelling, it might not happen--or worse, you may get the same story several times! Before visiting with your relatives, write down some questions you have for them. Make an appointment with them, go to the quietest place in the house, and ask them your questions. You can do this several times, and before you know it, you will have some building blocks for a great family history.
- Distribute the results to your siblings and other family members. Sharing is not only nice, but having more copies of your family’s audio recordings or books or videos spread around means that they are less likely to disappear forever.
- Consider hiring a professional. If the thought of trying to come up with questions, schedule interviews, gather photos, write, transcribe and edit your parents’ stories and then put them into a usable form that can be printed/mastered/duped and distributed to your family overwhelms you, you’re probably pretty smart. Because it is overwhelming. A professional personal historian can help you come up with a plan and guide you in following through to its completion, whether you just need a little guidance or a masterpiece.
(Marketing alert: you could of course hire Pictures and Stories, because that’s what we do—help people create great personal and family histories in books and video. But even if you don’t hire us, ask yourself which parts of the process are most difficult for you (writing? scanning photos? printing a book?) and get help with those bits. You will save yourself a lot of grief.
Here is one of our clients, Allison Dayton, talking about why her parents' stories are important to her: