Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Recording family stories -- the stuff of life

For decades I have put time and energy into encouraging others to write their family history. I have written two books about this topic:  Good Times with Old Times (out of print) and How to Write Your Personal or Family  History (Good Books). 

I  spoke at workshop again this weekend in the small community of Goessel, Kansas, at their historical museum.  I tell myself that I am too old for this, but then I do it again.  It inspires me when I find people wanting encouragement  in connecting with the past. The group that came together this weekend was small but interested, so we had a good time together. 

Help in writing a family history can be reduced to a few words.  Someone has said all you have to do is walk into your past, haul out what’s there, take a good look at it, sort it, organize it, and record it for posterity. 

I have collected this stuff of life for years. I think my interest started when I was still in high school, reading through a genealogy on my father’s side.  I noticed a small notation next to the name of a woman: “She was reported to be a witch.”  The German word was “hex.”  

A witch in the family? Surely she was a fictive character.  It took me about fifty years to find out who this woman was when I met a relative who had known her in the Ukraine as  a child. The witch had actually existed.  She had been a colorful personality in the conservative Mennonite colonies, wearing bright skirts, smoking, and telling fortunes with Tarot cards.  She could also foretell the future.   Several of my later stories mention her psychic powers. 

I started collecting stories like some people collect stamps or coins or salt and pepper shakers, or whatever.  I collected these stories in my head and then in files  long before I knew why  I was doing this or had begun encouraging others to collect theirs. These family stories fascinated me. 

I was fortunate to have siblings who had the same passion.  Many years ago one Sunday afternoon visiting together in Edmonton we began telling stories of our childhood.  They tumbled out one after another.  

Someone said, “These stories are too good to forget.”  Brother Jack offered to edit a collection of family stories if we would all submit our memories.  We did.  The result was  Growing Up in Blaine Lake by Five Who Did – a modest collection of  family stories but a treasure. 

We grew up with stories. They appeared in our lives in different settings.  Dad came home from the store at noon and told us stories he had heard during the morning business transactions. Mother and Dad told stories during long winter evenings in northern Saskatchewan as we all sat around the oilcloth-covered oak table under the  gas lamp. 

Story telling took place when relatives reminisced about ocean crossings, making watermelon syrup, dodging cannonballs on a hike across no-man’s land to visit a girl friend, and the best way to make Zwieback.

We children told stories, or rather, I should say my oldest sister, Frieda, did. She  gathered all five of us in the bed she and Annie shared.  Snuggled under the comforters on cold winter evenings she told us continuing stories night after night. 

We children told each other made-up stories when playing in the little shed we called the playhouse, making them suit our play. Stories were part of our daily sustenance but in a different form than the food Mother made.   

Several years ago I put together a collection of stories my father told us about his growing up in the Ukraine and then about  Blaine Lake, where we were living (Into the Twilight Zone: Family stories my  father and others told me too good to throw out).   I included the witch story. 

A point I tried to make in this recent workshop as I always do is that everyone has a story to tell, not just the rich and famous.  In many years of teaching family history writing classes, it doesn’t take long to discover that the stories are there, just not recorded or considered worthwhile. 

Judy Blunt writes in  her memoir Breaking Clean that the heart of stories lies in passing on what you  consider important.  By rethinking a story you learn what needs saying and what can be omitted, so each teller may focus on a different aspect of the same story. 

Stories are part of the legacy we elders leave our children and grandchildren.  Over the years I have sensed my greatest riches lie not in tangible things but in the insights and values  those who lived before me thought significant enough to tell in stories and which I am privileged to pass on.   

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