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11 Creative Ways to Preserve Your Family’s History

 

Have you been thinking about preserving your family’s history, but aren’t sure where to start? Here are 11 fun and creative ideas that will motivate you to kick the project off today:

  1. Turn Photo Albums Into Memory Books. Instead of simply slapping your photographs into an album, create a memory book by including a brief story about each picture and identifying everyone in it. Viewers, especially future family members, will be grateful for the explanations of who’s who and what they’re doing. Be sure to use acid-free products so that your memory book will endure for many years to come.
  2. Create Heirloom Jewelry. Jewelry doesn’t have to be expensive to be meaningful. You can turn everyday pieces into heirlooms by linking each to a specific interest, moment, or event in your life. Think about collecting charms for a bracelet or adding a photo of a special relative to a locket.
  3.  Grow Family Memories. Are you an avid gardener?  Whether you grow prize-winning American Beauty roses or the ubiquitous zucchini, you can encourage and pass the love of gardening on to the next generation. Share some seeds or a cutting from a plant with a family member. Bake or cook with a young relative, using the bounty of your garden.
  4. Share the Love of Food. Write out favorite family recipes—Grandma Sarah’s corn bread, Aunt Mary’s turkey stuffing, your mother’s prize-winning strawberry shortcake—on pretty recipe cards. Or collect them in a book.  Add your memories of the times these dishes were served and savored and what made them so special to you and your family. The collected recipes and stories would make a wonderful gift for a newly married relative or young adult setting up a new home.
  5. Document Family Heirlooms. Do you own something that once belonged to an ancestor? Does that item hold great meaning to you? Ensure that future generations know its history by documenting it. Write down everything you know about the piece, including how it came into the family and who has owned it over the years. This is a great way to connect your descendants with the past. Be sure to keep the written record with the item. Check out the Heirloom Registry for an easy way to record the items.
  6. Set up a Family Photo Gallery. Are vintage photographs of your ancestors lying in dusty shoeboxes or hiding in old photo albums? Bring them out into the open. Local craft shops sell a variety of frames at a reasonable cost, and for just a little investment of time and money your gallery will generate interest, curiosity, and pleasure for your family members. Be sure to use acid-free matting and hang pictures away from the sun’s destructive light.
  7. Craft a Comforting Memorial. If you can thread a needle you can create a beautiful tribute to a deceased family member by making a teddy bear or quilt from a shirt or other item of clothing that they wore. This can provide great comfort and solace to others following the loss of a loved one. And the newly crafted item becomes a family heirloom that continues to tell the story of that family member’s life.
  8. Use Technology to Tell Your Story. Using video or audio recording equipment to preserve stories and memories is easier than you might think. First, make a list of stories you would like to talk about. Then set up the video or audio recorder, make sure to eliminate any competing sounds (e.g., ticking clocks, humming refrigerator), and tell your stories. If you prefer to focus on pictures, there are plenty of computer programs that can help you easily create a slide show from your family photos. Looking for some help? The friendly staff at Reel Tributes is just a phone call away.
  9. Proudly Display Family Documents. My husband’s great-great-grandfather was the justice of the peace in Hardin County, Kentucky, after the Civil War. Fortunately, his Official Certification from the state of Kentucky was passed on to my husband. I had it framed, and this bit of my husband’s family history is now displayed on a wall in our home—next to my husband’s honorary discharge papers from the U.S. Army.
  10. Write an Ethical Will. Just as a Last Will and Testament is a tool to pass on the “stuff” of life, an ethical will is a tool to pass on personal beliefs, values, life lessons, and blessings. Ethical wills have been with us for more than 2,000 years; authentic and readable ethical wills dating back to 1200 A.D. are still valuable for their literary content. This document has been found to be a tremendous blessing to family and friends.  Check out www.ethicalwill.com for information on how to write your own ethical will.
  11. Engage the Younger Generation. Kids have stories to tell as well. Ask your children or grandchildren what is important in their lives right now and record what they say, either with pen and paper or with an audio or video recorder. Not only will you learn a lot, but future generations will also be interested in what they have to say.

However you choose to preserve your family’s history, begin now.  Don’t let good intentions be just that. Cherish the role of preserver of memories for your family. You won’t regret it for a second.

Do you have other creative ideas to share? We, at Reel Tributes, would love to hear them.

Letters to a Little Girl from the White House

My mother married my stepfather in April 1963.

I was eleven years old at the time.

But let me back track a bit.

In 1962, my stepfather-to-be came to San Francisco to attend a professional conference.  A girlfriend of my mother’s introduced my mother to my stepfather and cupid’s arrow stuck hard and fast.

Within two year’s time, my mother and I moved from San Francisco, California to Bethesda, Maryland, and life changed dramatically for both of us.

Throughout the long months before flying to Maryland, my stepfather wrote me many letters.  Each letter was a personal introduction of sorts.  In the eyes of an eleven-year-old girl I surely didn’t know what to expect from the man who would soon marry my mother and become the only father I had ever known.

Through the letters, he slowly revealed the kind of person he was and the kind of father he would be to me through his frequent and loving letters, which were either typed or handwritten and mailed directly to me.

He told me that he had a fifteen-foot sailboat and was fond of sailing on the Chesapeake Bay.  He said that he wanted to teach me how to sail.  He told me that he was from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, his family still lived there and I would eventually meet them all. I knew he had an artistic side because he often included funny pictures and poems in his letters, all for my enjoyment.  He told me that he wanted to teach me how to ice skate in the winter months on the frozen canals in Washington, DC.  He was a devoted Roman Catholic and asked about my religious upbringing. He valued a strong and traditional education and his work caused him to travel widely.

But there was one thing that really stuck out about these letters. They were written on White House stationery.

 

At that time, my stepfather was acting as legal counsel for the Kennedy Administration. Several of the letters even mention my stepfather’s personal interactions with JFK.

December 16, 1962

By the way, during this past week, the President held his Christmas Party for his staff.  I shook hands with him and wished him a Merry Christmas.  During the evening, Caroline and one of her small friends came down the stairs to say hello to everybody. I sure wish you had been here to enjoy all the fun. 

Many of the specific memories have faded for me. My stepfather, now 84 years old, has Alzheimer’s disease.  As I hold my stepfather’s letters in my hands, I feel somehow connected to him again, and to my childhood, and to the love and affection that was so well expressed on sheets of paper.

Do you have family letters stored in shoeboxes up in your attic or on a shelf in your bedroom closet? When was the last time you read those letters and simply remembered days gone by?  What do those letters mean to you?  Please write and tell us. We’d love to hear from you.

What if I’m Nervous About Being Interviewed?

So you’re feeling a little anxious, shy or self-conscious about being interviewed for your personal history film? You really want to save your memories for your family but when you think about actually doing it, all you can think about is that public speaking class that you took in high school.  Your palms still get sweaty when you recall standing up in front of everyone. It wasn’t a pretty picture.

The concerns

You might be thinking about such things as:  What if I don’t know the answer to a question? What if I trip over my tongue or forget what the question was?  Maybe you’re worried about sneezing or burping during the interview. Or you’re concerned about being surrounded by cameras and lights.

You’re not alone

Well, the good news is you are not the only person who has these sorts of concerns. In fact, most people have never been interviewed on film before.

I’m here to help you get over those nerves.  I have been interviewing folks for fifteen years.  I understand where this nervousness comes from – it comes from a fear of the unknown.

Three reasons why you shouldn’t dread a personal history interview

Reason 1:  You can prepare. Before the actual interview you will have an opportunity to speak with the personal historian who will be interviewing you. You will have a critical part in creating the interview questions.  You will know the answer to each and every question because you will play a role in designing the interview guide yourself.  Know that the personal historian who is interviewing you is not trying to trip you up or turn the interview into an interrogation.   Her goal is for you to look and sound great throughout the interview.

Reason 2:  Editing is magic. Are you worried about tripping over your tongue, sneezing or even burping while on camera?  The beautiful thing about video is that the camera can easily be turned off for a moment and then turned back on when you are ready to resume.  A huge part of making a personal history film is the editing process.  This is when any of the blurps, bleeps or tongue contortions are edited out, proverbially landing on the cutting room floor.

The finished film will only contain the best of the best of your interview.  You will truly rival George Clooney or Audrey Hepburn!

Reason 3: You will feel relaxed. The personal historian takes great care to make sure you are comfortable and relaxed during the interview.  Before the interview begins, she will answer any questions that you might have. She will encourage and affirm you throughout the conversation. Whether it is a need for a bio-break, or the desire to re-phrase the answer to a question, it is the personal historian’s job to reassure you that everything is still okay and on track.

The camera equipment may initially seem imposing to you, but it is the personal historian’s place to create a connection with you. Soon the camera equipment fades into the background and it is the engaging conversation that becomes the focus.

Where do we go from here?

There is a little quote that I like a lot.  It goes like this:

Blessed are they, who know the way,

To bring back memories of yesterday.

Author Unknown

As a personal historian, I take my job and all that goes with it very seriously, and I know that other personal historians feel the same way.  I feel honored to play a small role in preserving your life story.

So, are you feeling a little better about the interview now?  Take a deep breath, and start the process of saving your stories while you’re on a roll.

How it all Began: 15 years ago, 15 hours of tapes

Fifteen years ago, I had no idea what a personal historian did. I hadn’t heard about the value of preserving one’s life stories. And then everything changed.

My budding interest in personal history began one sunny morning in San Francisco. I was sitting in my grandmother’s lovely second story apartment.  We had just eaten breakfast together and were sipping cups of lemon tea and talking about our lives.  My grandmother, Frances was 95 years old. I was 45.

That’s when the moment happened.

My grandmother casually began to speak about her long life and the year she came to San Francisco from Sellwood, Oregon.  The year was 1922 and she was 20 years old.  She was making that big ‘break’ from the grips of parental control.

San Francisco was quite a place to live in the 1920’s.   This was a decade full of events that would forever impact a young impressionable woman from the quiet suburbs of Portland, Oregon.

My grandmother told me about dancing the ‘Charleston’, watching Al Jolson perform at a ‘speak easy’ while bottles of pure grain alcohol were hidden under the table, just in case the establishment was raided.  She spoke about her new short, cropped hairstyle, and wearing her custom-made ‘flapper-style’ hat that fit close and tight to her head (see photograph above).  She recalled hearing about Charles Lindberg’s now famous flight in the Spirit of St. Louis and about the Scopes’ Monkey Trial that shocked the nation.

I sat in awe as I listened to this sharp and introspective woman speak.  Then I stopped her. “Grandma, this is too special,” I explained. “Would you mind if I record this conversation?” She was surprised that I wanted to do this, but didn’t put up a fight. She almost seemed excited that I cared that much about her stories. So off I went to Radio Shack to purchase several audiocassette tapes so that I could record her memories.

So that was the beginning.  Over the next five years, and through many visits to San Francisco, I was able to obtain 15 hours of my wonderful grandmother’s stories and reflections. What a treasure these recordings have become to my family! Every once in a while we sit down as a family and listen to them. My kids and grandkids love it just as much as I do.

This experience turned me into a vocal advocate of preserving personal history.  I am pleased to know that since those first interviews at my grandmother’s kitchen table, I have gone on to help many many others to record their memories. And that each and every one has become a priceless family treasure, just like ours.

Are you as excited about family stories as we are? If so, tell us how you first got interested!

Touch Tomorrow (Guest Post)

Imagine

Close your eyes and imagine. You open a dusty photo album to a faded photograph of your great-grandfather. You gaze long and hard at his face. It is an interesting face. It is a face that reveals character, humor, tenacity. It is a face that resembles your face.

You’ve heard his existence led directly to your existence; the conditions of his life led directly to the circumstances of your life; his ingenuity and hard work created your destiny.

But who was he, really? What events shaped his life? What were his dreams and hopes?  Why did he work so hard? What were his choices and challenges? Why did he believe in the family business? What were his thoughts and feelings?

Unfortunately, no one bothered to ask.

You close the album, slowly, and ponder: just what was my great-grandfather’s story?

Intangible Asset

Families understand the importance of trusts and estate plans. Multigenerational transfer of tangible assets such as stocks, bonds, cash, real estate, art, jewelry, antiques, collectibles, and country club memberships is commonplace.

Although tangible assets are important, there is an even greater, often unrecognized, intangible asset: the family’s story—the story that tells what the family has been, who it is today, and what it can be.

Obligation

Mrs. Lavern Norris Gaynor, heiress to the Texaco fortune, suggests that is the family’s obligation to tell its story. She closes her memoir, Lal: A Legacy of Gracious Giving, by saying:

“This brings me to the end of my story—but not really. My story didn’t begin on my birthday. And, now, it won’t end with my death. Through the experience of telling my story, I’ve come to understand it was my obligation.

I close with love, blessings, and a peaceful heart. Finally, the Norris family legacy of generosity, caring, and gracious giving will reach out and touch tomorrow.” 

Touch Tomorrow

Family stories can touch tomorrow in a range of ways. I’ve touched on a few of them below:

  • Recording and celebrating the family’s history
  • Passing on values, traditions, goals, and culture
  • Affirming the family’s mission, core purpose, and original dreams
  • Bestowing knowledge and wisdom
  • Sharing hard-learned life lessons
  • Sustaining and building family relationships
  • Creating a sense of belonging and loyalty
  • Offering advice and guidance
  • Documenting and preserving philanthropic traditions
  • Giving meaning to the human experience
  • Building a lasting legacy 
  • Promoting the continuity of a family business

Story Forms

Many people tell me they understand why it’s important, but don’t know where to start. Luckily, we have a variety of forms to choose from when telling a family’s story:

  • A Family History is a comprehensive approach to recounting the people and the events that span generations. Family histories include genealogical research and are rich with social context events.
  • A Memoir is usually told from the perspective of a single narrator.
  • An Oral History preserves stories in a question/answer format. Transcribed verbatim and lightly edited, it records the exact nuance, flavor, tenor, and tempo of the narrator’s voice.
  • A Chapters of Life Memoir preserves life’s defining moments—life’s steppingstones. It is an anthology of short stories usually built around a collection of photographs.
  • A Business History records the stories, mission, values, and aspirations of a company’s founder(s).
  • A Culinary Memoir preserves favorite recipes, stories, and photographs. Recipes are scanned in the cook’s handwriting and, complete with spill marks, they memorialize life’s favorite meals and events.
  • A Tribute to Life Memoir honors the life of a deceased loved one. The story is told from the perspective of a family member or cherished friend.

Ultimate Memoir

Then there is the Ultimate Memoir. The Ultimate Memoir is, well, ultimate. It is a beautifully designed, heirloom-quality book and companion video. Any of the above story forms are appropriate. Narrative, combined with custom design, complemented with a professionally orchestrated video, creates a vanguard presentation of the family’s story.

Someday List Syndrome

Whichever form your family selects, the operative word is “selects.” Way too often a family scribbles “tell our story” on the Someday List. But when the Someday calendar page turns, it’s too late.

Please don’t allow your family to become a victim of the someday list syndrome. Start today. You won’t regret touching tomorrow. And your family will thank you– for generations to come.

About the author:
Dr. Judith Kolva is a personal historian, with a Ph.D. in the psychology and practice of preserving life stories. Her seminal doctoral research investigated the relationship between telling life stories and identifying meaning in life. She is the founder and CEO of Memoir Shoppe, an international organization that preserves and protects the stories of exceptional families.  Please contact Judith at judith@memoirshoppe.com or www.memoirshoppe.com