The Blog

Storytelling That Matters @RootsTech: Unlock Your Superpowers

We are all amazing storytellers. And our talents can be extraordinary gifts to the people we love.

No one knows this better than Reel Tributes CEO David Adelman, whose passion for family history was ignited by the touching story his mother told about his grandmother’s life through film.

David recently headlined a RootsTech event on “Storytelling Superpowers: How to Come Off as Your Family’s Genealogy Hero.”

His message was transformational. Genealogists are not just passionate hobbyists, but also the superheroes of their families. Their powers are unseen yet extraordinary as they work behind-the-scenes to create the narratives that bind families together. He urged aspiring family historians to use their storytelling superpowers for the greater good… starting right now.

“It’s the stories, not the data that people will remember.”

Get inspired! Click here to watch the speech:

Holiday Gatherings: A Perfect Time for Family History

holiday dinner

As we prepare for the holidays, let us take advantage of the time we spend with relatives to ask about their own lives or the lives of ancestors they may have known, or might have inherited documents or stories about.  One of the most effective family history research tools we have is our living family.  Holiday gatherings are a perfect time for meeting with family members for stories or an interview.  Planning ahead is the key to success.

To prepare for an upcoming gathering where you might be able to find out more about ancestors, try one or more of these ideas:

Decide which family groups or stories you want to talk to relatives about.  It’s best to focus and not try to overwhelm the people you are interviewing with all your questions on the family.  Choose one or two family groups to start with, for example, ask about Great-Grandpa’s three wives and 17 children, or if Great-Uncle Dolphus really did go west to pan for gold in ’49?  Often, those stories will lead to others.

Ask ahead for an interview.  Call or contact the people you want to talk to at least a week or two before your holiday gathering. Let them know what you’d like to talk about and what to expect.  Giving your interview subject a chance to think about the ancestors you are interested in gives them time to think and they’re less likely to be stumped for story ideas.  They may even remember some family photos or memorabilia to bring with them.  Most of all, they will likely be more willing to talk if you ask ahead than if the first they hear of it is over the table at the holiday feast, just as they’re contemplating their after dinner nap time.

Read up on interview techniques and questions.  I like the basic interview questionnaire prepared by FamilySearch (a printable pdf document).  Other great resources are Kimberly Powell’s article, “50 Questions for Family History Interviews,” or  Alice Chapin’s book Reaching Back. AARP also has some fun Story Starters. Many of these are designed for a person to record their own family history, but the same questions can spark family stories of ancestors of long ago.

Plan how to record the interview: There are three basic types of ways to record your interviews.  1) Taking notes by hand, 2) audio recording, or 3) video.  The pros and cons are:

  • Taking notes by hand.  Pro:  The least intimidating to the shy interview subject.  Con: It’s slow, you are likely to miss things, or garble your own notes.
  • Audio Recording.  Pro:  Not very intimidating or distracting to the interview subject.  Con:  Background noise!  Even worse is when you have more than one person in the room answering questions over one another, its hard to transcribe later.
  • Video.  Pro:  This is my favorite method.  If multiple people speak, it is easier to distinguish the speakers.  You also have some great footage for future video productions, such as a Reel Tributes personal documentary.  Con:  Your interview subject may be so shy or uncomfortable in front of the camera (How’s my hair?  Is this my best side?) that you may not get the information you need.

It’s not a test.  Many interviewees may feel like the interview questions are more like test questions, despite your best efforts to make them comfortable.  Start off with something you know that they know, not a question they may not have the answer to.  Start with leads like, “I heard you got in trouble for smashing a cookie jar when you were little…”  or “Didn’t you have a dog named Buddy…?”  Also try taking photos with you that might inspire stories.

Accept now that you won’t get everything in one interview.  Sometimes we are so anxious to get the information we want, we may cut off some stories the family member is telling to get to what we believe is the “meat” of our interview.  Sit back, relax, and enjoy. You won’t get everything you want in one interview.  What you will do, though, is build a stronger relationship with the interview subject.  This may lead to that person calling up later with photos, memorabilia, or information they found, especially if the interview was a positive experience.

In essence, family history is about family.  Enjoy your time making new memories about sharing old memories, and build those relationships even stronger.  Happy Holidays!

Nostalgia: It’s good for you!

 Nostalgia

When I was a child back in the 1960’s, I distinctly remember the unmistakable smell of burning leaves during the fall months. My father would rake leaves into a heaping pile at the end of our driveway. He then lit a match to the pile of leaves, and to the cherry tobacco in his wooden pipe.  He would attentively stand next to the burning leaves, smoking his pipe until the last leaf was gone.  I was usually sitting on the grass nearby, watching the leaves go up in smoke and talking to my father.

This memory is sheer nostalgia for me.  As I recollect this sweet memory, I am moved emotionally. A smile naturally emerges.

I recently read an article in the New York Times, “What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows,” that shed some light on these emotions. The article discussed how nostalgia has been found to have real and measurable benefits. Several studies have discovered that people who reminisced about past events gained a sense of belongingness and continuity. Participants in the study reported feeling less lonely or anxious, and gained a more positive mood after reminiscing.

As a personal historian, I’ve seen this happen countless times. One in particular stands out. Some time ago I interviewed a 98-year-old woman from Oakland, California. When I first approached “Fritzi”, I explained that I would love to ask her about her memories of her childhood days.

She pushed back. “Oh, I don’t have any memories of those days,” she complained, and stared blankly at me.

I again gently asked her if we could turn on the recorder and see if any memories would surface.  She finally agreed.  Near the end of the 15-minute interview, Fritzi had told me about going to the community swimming pool near her home in Portland, Oregon. She was ten years old at the time. She told me that girls were only allowed to swim on Mondays and Wednesdays.  Boys were allowed to swim on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  Fritzi continued to tell me that she wore a dark blue striped heavy knit bathing suit and that her mother tied her long hair back on the days she went to the pool.

I was shocked at the details that came forth during those 15 minutes.

And to cap it all off, Fritzi pulled out the large family photo album, which she said she had not looked at in many years. She said she wanted to show me pictures of her family.  Within a few moments she opened to a page showing a photograph of a very young Fritzi wearing that dark blue striped bathing suit and her hair all pulled back.

After a little while had passed, I asked Fritzi what she thought about being interviewed.  She said, “That was fun!  I didn’t think I would remember anything but I did.”

She paused for a long moment and with a big smile on her face, she said, “And I loved to swim!”

What are you reminiscing about? What emotions has it brought out in you? Share your experiences with us and we may write about it in a future Reel Tributes Blog post. 

My Grandmother’s Writing Desk: Made of wood and memories

 

This is a photograph of my maternal grandmother Frances’ desk.  She was fond of it and I have many memories of seeing my grandmother sitting on the stool in front of her desk and writing Christmas and birthday cards to her family.

My grandmother had the heart of a personal historian.  I remember her sitting at her desk, opening up her journal and making little notes in it – notes about the births, weddings, deaths and divorces in our family.  She also wrote notes about a particularly good game of bridge she had played or having the best score in a golf match.  She wrote get-well cards to her friends and planned trips to see her out-of-town family or friends, all while sitting at her desk.  She paid her bills and wrote donation checks to her local SPCA and to many other charities in the San Francisco Bay area.

When I was just five years old, I remember sitting at my grandmother’s desk. This desk was always paired with a round heavy stool.  I have happy memories of lying on top of the stool, spreading my arms out wide and spinning myself around and around until I was sick.

One interesting thing about this desk is the many hiding places that it contains.  I still gain pleasure from the idea that things can be hidden in the desk in plain sight but invisible to someone unfamiliar with the desk’s design. The hidden compartments are handy places to hide cash, love letters or perhaps even a secret diary – don’t tell anyone, though!

This desk also comes complete with a delicate, tiny brass key, which still works. 

 

 

As I recall being told, my grandfather bought this desk for my grandmother sometime between 1930 and 1940.  My grandmother used it every day until just a few weeks before her death. She died on February 3, 2008 at the age of 105.  After my grandmother’s death, my aunt sent the desk to me by freight truck all the way from San Francisco to Virginia.

When I received the desk, my first thought was to give it a good polishing.  I spent an afternoon cleaning and buffing the old desk.  Surprisingly, during the process, I found some things that had slid under the drawers and behind several of the compartments – a piece of carbon paper, instructions on how to do tubular crocheting, my grandmother’s 1955 Certificate of Members in the American National Red Cross, a recipe for baked fish and a few old canceled checks. Most pieces even show my grandmother’s beautiful and flowery penmanship.

Sometimes I think about having the desk refinished, but then I tell myself that all of the patina and provenance that goes along with the desk would surely disappear in the process.

I don’t think I will ever have my grandmother’s desk refinished. Today, as I look at the writing surface of the desk, I can still see faint traces of my grandmother’s handwriting in the wood’s surface. Her story and the love she had for her family is engrained in the surface of the desk she used for over sixty years.

I am so very grateful to now be in possession of my grandmother’s old desk along with all of its precious memories.  I hope that one of my daughters will want to keep this desk after I am gone.

Do you own a piece of furniture that is considered a family treasure and that holds memories for you?  I’d like to suggest that you write those memories down.  Future generations will enjoy knowing the history of that very special family heirloom.