I liked to start each story with "Did I tell you about the time...?" When my kids started to roll their eyes and say, "Yes, Mom, only about 1400 times," I knew they could tell the story by themselves without any assistance from me. They said, "Yes, we know you saw Gene Hackman, Glenn Close and Richard Dreyfus on Broadway, and Gene Hackman has such a presence he took command of the entire stage," and "Yes, we know you saw Alec Baldwin as Stanley Kowalski," etc. I thought my work was done.
Until yesterday. I said these simple words, "Well, you know my Paul Newman story." And my youngest child said, "I don't remember a Paul Newman story." I was aghast. Where had I gone wrong? I looked at my daughter as if she were some alien creature.
I immediately got on the phone to my other daughter and asked, "Do you remember the Paul Newman story? The one where I threw a Frisbee to a gorgeous blue-eyed gray haired man and didn't know it was him until I heard his voice the next day when your father and I were at the Falcon Inn? And, then the next day I found a $50 bill on the sidewalk near his room?" She said, "Yes, of course I know it."
"Thank God," I said. "Your sister said she never heard it."
So, part of my universe was still intact. This simple anecdote illustrates the incredible importance of sharing your own personal history with family members. At least once, and as advertising experts have proved, repeated stories increase the retention. What is the example marketing people use? The first time someone sees a commercial, they have no idea what it is. The third time they see a commercial they know something was said about a product. And, the fifth time they see a commercial, they say "Did you know that there's a new TV show called Frank TV?"
Repetition is key even if children roll their eyes and can recite my stories by heart. But, I am not the only one with stories. Every family member has their own version of their life. We have unlimited untapped resources available to us. Every one has fabulous stories to tell. They may not think they do because they have lived it and it seems so normal, but to family historians, their lives are a gold mine.
My oldest daughter was given the school assignment to interview someone who lived during the Depression. My mother was the ideal candidate since she was visiting us at the time. My mother does not see herself as a story teller and was a bit hesitant at first. Once the questions started flowing, my mother shared stories I had never heard because I had not thought to ask the questions.
Hence, our tip #14 for today...set aside time to talk with family members. I challenge you to discover a better way to celebrate Family History Month. Start with the oldest family member. Interviewing a family member can feel awkward at first for both parties so keep the conversation as informal as possible. Here are some ideas for questions to break the ice.
- What was your life like as a child? What games did you play? Who were your friends?
- What schools did you attend? Who was your favorite teacher? Who was your least favorite teacher?
- Did you play sports or participate in after school activities?
- How did you celebrate the holidays? Your birthday? What career would you have pursued if you had not been a ..............?
- What did your parents do for a living? What was a typical day like for you as a child?
- Where did you live when you were growing up? When did you move out of your parent's house?
- What were you doing on: a) Dec. 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor Day; b) November 22, 1963 when JFK was shot; c) Dec. 8, 1980 when John Lennon was shot; d) fill in an appropriate historical event.
Once the conversation is underway, ask permission to write and/or tape parts of the interview. If the interviewee is not comfortable with recording the process, write notes as soon as you can after the conversation. Be sure to ask for permission to talk again since you may uncover good follow-up questions after you leave.
After the oldest family member, contact the second oldest, third oldest, etc. on a time frame which works for your schedule or establish a goal to talk to someone in your family once a month for the next year. The time invested will be phenomenal for your relationships and priceless for your role as family historian.
And, you may even hear about the time I met Michael Douglas on the Twentieth Century Fox studio lot.