COLUMN: Record family stories to make memories last more than a lifetime

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By Deanna Godman

We lost a member of our family two weeks ago. He was not even technically related to us, but he was a big part of our lives. My daughter called him PawpPaw. His death was sudden and unexpected.
He was a storyteller. We often heard the same stories over and over again. Within 48 hours of his death, though, we were debating the details of one of his stories. No one had ever written any of his stories down.
I have written several times about keeping a journal or keeping some kind of notes about one’s own life. I have not been able to convince members of my own family of the importance of this for themselves and future generations, though. What should we do when our parents, grandparents and other loved ones do not want to write down their own stories?
It is difficult to convince people that their experiences and stories have meaning and could impact other people, and sometimes people feel like they have nothing to share. One way to preserve these stories is to simply write them down when we hear them or shortly after, getting down as many details as possible. Then read the story back to the loved one to ensure that the story is captured accurately.
Some loved ones, like our PawpPaw, may understand that their stories are entertaining, but may simply not be interested in writing them down on their own. Or they may not know how to get their stories on paper. Just saying, “tell me your life story,” is unlikely to get a response either. The idea is too overwhelming.
Instead try asking specific questions, such as “what did you do during the summer as a child,” “Tell me about the birth of your children” or “what was your relationship with your own grandparents like.”
Try recording some of the stories using a video camera or audio recorder. Kentucky law allows you to record a conversation as long as one party is aware that the recording is being made. Some people freeze up when they know they are being recorded and may not be natural in that case. If the potential for hurt feelings is a concern, though, make clear that a recording is being made.
I made a video several years ago of both of my paternal grandparents. I wanted to try to interview them about their lives, but we all got nervous and only spent a few minutes recording. I was not prepared, so I asked them to repeat a few stories that I had heard since childhood. All I had to say was, “tell me about your first car again,” and my grandfather launched into a story I had heard many times before. I am so glad that I took the time to make this video. I meant to do it again, but my grandparents lived eight hours away and I never got the chance. They are both gone now.
Another idea to try with the video camera is to pull out photo albums. My mom, her brother and her sister-in-law told lots of stories I had never heard when we went through my uncle’s collection of family photos. A video of that exchange would be priceless.
It is advice often heard, but it bears repeating: Don’t wait until loved ones are gone to wish you knew their stories.