4 Easy Steps to Collecting the Stories that Matter Most
The stories that get passed down are the ones that get written down. In four easy steps learn how to record important, fun and meaningful stories for your family. Whether it's stories you heard from your grandparents, or experience from your own life, you have a wealth of information to pass along to the next generation.
LifeSketch is Modular
You can work on short anecdotes and stories that can be done quickly and you add to them over time
LifeSketch is Flexible
You can work alone, with a friend, with family or in small groups
LifeSketch is Meaningful
You can honor those who were important in your life through stories and remembrances
LifeSketch is NOW
Recording stories about your life or the lives of those you love will never be urgent, so it often gets left undone. We'll show you how to make it happen starting today in quick easy steps. Done is better than perfect.
Read an Excerpt.....
This book is a wish come true. It’s the wish of every person who has said “I wish I had asked…”
…why our family left the old country
…where my grandfather served in WWII
…for my mother’s favorite recipes
…what daily life was like for my dad growing up on a farm
…what my great-grandparents were like
…why my grandparents divorced
… why I have close DNA matches I don’t recognize
…why I am not a DNA match to my maternal grandparents
…if we have relatives who fought in the Revolutionary War
… who can we blame for the family nose
I have been enamored with family history since I was a teenager. I didn’t care about the names and dates, but I loved the stories. My grandmother’s house dated back to the Civil War. The plastered walls of the entryway had a noticeable patch that sliced from the ceiling to the floor. The family story was that the entryway had been hit by cannon ball during the war. I played under the scarred plaster walls as a child and imagined what that day must have been like for the family that lived there.
When I first started doing family history work professionally, I worked hard to find vital records (birth, marriage and death records), military service and census records. Those records are crucial to conducting sound research, but inevitably, I presented them to clients with very mixed results.
Most people found them interesting but records alone rarely create that spark of connection with our grandparents and great-grandparents. Inevitably, my clients would say at some point, “That’s interesting. Boy, I wish I had asked _____________ about _____________.”
What filled in those blanks ranged from the mildly curious (e.g., I wonder why my grandparents got married out of state?) to the absolutely heartbreaking (e.g., I wonder why my grandfather left his family in such abject poverty?).
One friend said to me, “My grandmother was a seamstress for the royal family of Czar Nicholas. When I was child, I shared a room with my grandmother and it never occurred to me to ask anything about it!”
The wish that comes true in this book is that “I wish I had asked…” will be said far less often.
The book’s goal is to uncover the stories you want to learn from other family members as well as telling your own stories. This can be a solitary endeavor or one full of social interaction. You decide. You can work with family members, but you also can work with a friend. Friends can interview each other or share written stories.
This process is usually fun and always meaningful.
But my life isn’t very interesting!
This is the most common objection I hear and it’s also one of the primary reasons our family members are left wishing they had asked more questions. You may feel this way yourself, or the person you want to interview may say this. It helps to be reminded that each person is granted one life with a particular set of experiences and a particular set of character qualities that responds to the events that happen to her.
I asked an older relative what it was like to grow up during the Great Depression. She looked puzzled by my question. “Well, we did what we had to do!” was all she could think to say. Her life experience was her “normal,” and she couldn’t see anything exceptional about it.
Our individual experiences often don’t seem remarkable or worthy of conversation until we realize that each of us has lived an entirely unique life. I was talking with a woman who grew up in a refugee camp for Latvians that was run by Americans on German soil. I was captivated. “I hope you write those stories down!” I gushed. She shook her head in puzzlement, “Oh there was nothing interesting about it. It all seemed very normal to me.”
While I often found the stories of older relatives interesting, I was pretty sure that my childhood growing up in the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland in the 1970’s was not compelling material. As happens to all of us, a younger relative (in my case, my daughter) sat gob smacked one afternoon after she had explored my parents’ house and realized the rotary phones attached to the wall allowed someone else to pick up another phone in the house and join or listen in the conversation. I could see her plotting as she side-eyed her older brother. It’s a mundane detail of my life, but it doesn’t take too many experiences like this before you begin to realize 1) “Wow, I’m old” and 2) my childhood was vastly different from hers in more ways than rotary phones.
Stories that Illuminate
I spent two decades in the publishing industry and found myself relieved to be laid off during the economic downturn of 2008-2010. I still love books. I love reading. What wore me down was the business side of publishing. If you want your staff to get a paycheck, you are forced to buy stories that appeal to the widest possible audience – essentially the lowest common denominator.
Amazing, meaningful books are written and published every year, but if you work in the industry, you are lucky if your company gets to publish two fabulous books in a year. That means you spend most of your time working on the publishing equivalent of click bait.
What I love about uncovering the real-life drama in family history, is that every story matters. It matters to the people who lived it and to their descendants. We go to the movie theater and pay money to spend a couple hours swept up in someone else’s story without realizing we have amazing, true stories from our own families that affect us much more directly.
Let’s face it, all of us probably have an ancestor and a moment in our family tree that if things had gone differently… we wouldn’t be here. That relative that managed to survive the 1918 Flu Pandemic, made it possible for you to be holding this book. Do you have a relative that fought in WWII? What did your ancestors do to weather the Great Depression? I wanted to tell the stories that make us who we are. The stories – once known – connect us to a bigger story that give us that feeling of curling our toes into the warm soil on summer day – a sense of roots.
Doing family history research as a hobby and now as a profession has shown me in stark fashion how the world of technology and progress has outpaced our need for roots and connections. The freedom to move frequently and work virtually has left us with an unintended consequence of losing longstanding connections to people and communities. Many of us only need to go back to our parents’ or grandparents’ generation to see lives rooted in small communities that needed to be interdependent to survive. Multiple generations grew up in the same town and your family history was intricately interwoven into the community’s history.
A 2010 study out of Emory University looked at the development of adolescent identity and well-being related to how much kids knew about their family history. The researchers started by asking adolescents 20 yes or no questions to find out if they knew such things as how their parents met, or where they grew up and went to school. What they found was that kids who knew more about their family history were more likely to have a positive sense of self-worth, an ability to plan for the future and fewer problem behaviors.
The researchers suggest that an awareness of the ways parents and grandparents dealt with challenges and opportunities in the past can be beneficial to an adolescent in the present, even if the parent or grandparent made foolish mistakes. It’s a form of vicarious learning that gives adolescents more perspective on their own challenges.
While the study was focused particularly on adolescent development, the researchers suggest that a knowledge of family history gives a sense of connection regardless of age.
It may, for example, be the case that in family narratives we ... have a figurative thread which not only holds families together but contributes to continuity across the life spans of individual members of the families, regardless of their developmental state.
In other words, we never reach an age where we do not benefit from a sense of family connection.
When I decided to publish my father’s memoir, I was drawn into the details of his young life in the mountains of West Virginia during the Depression. His father (my grandfather) was a tenant farmer who was hired by local orchards to work as a foreman. With each job, my grandfather was offered a house, a garden plot, and a dollar a day. Plumbing and electricity, optional.
Here’s one of my father’s earliest memories:
We had a spring house. I only remember seeing inside one time, when [my older sister] dragged me along on an errand. There was the open mouth of the spring at one end. The water flowed out through a prepared channel across the floor on the right side. The channel was just deep enough for gallon crocks to sit in the water. Theses crocks would hold milk for a day, cream for a week, or butter and cottage cheese for longer. This was the only cool place in the summer and was kept neat and clean.
The spring house was strictly off limits for me when I was alone. My mother’s brother had drowned as a young man, and she was adamant that children were to be kept away from water – even the spring house. It didn’t help that my older brother George had fallen into a similar spring when he was two.
My father probably told me this story before, but as everyone who was ever a kid can testify, kids don’t always pay attention! And we usually come to regret it. This simple account of a mundane event in my father’s life took on new meaning when I read it in his memoir.
First, it explained some things about my grandmother Lottie. She came to take care of me and my sister when my parents traveled to Spain in the 1970s. We lived near a tributary to Chesapeake Bay and my grandmother would not let me out of the yard the entire time my parents were away. My grandmother was a sweet lady, so I was really confused about why I had been “grounded.” Now I realize she was afraid I’d drown in the river that was short distance from my back yard.
Second, my father’s first refrigerator was a mountain stream?! Seriously?! I’m sure my father explained a spring house to me as a teenager, but clearly, I must have been daydreaming about my new Barry Manilow album (Oh, Mandy!) or wondering whether Barry Gibb would ever know my name. (I had a thing for men named Barry.)
Reading my father’s account now that I was a grown woman with a family and a fancy icemaker that perpetually needs repair, the stark simplicity of the life my grandparents led helped me imagine a life very different from the one I live now. Not that I’d want to trade places, but instead that it made me aware that things I deemed necessities were not required by earlier generations to live full and interesting lives. The story gave me a new perspective and inadvertently imparted some wisdom.
My mission is to be sure you aren’t one of those people that mournfully says, “I wish I had asked my mother/grandmother/brother/sister/father etc. about that.” And if you are one of the elders in your family, I hope you make sure your descendants know as much as you do about where they come from.
Heroes and Villains
Families are complicated. I work at the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Museum in Oak Park, Illinois. We have thousands of visitors every year who want to learn about Ernest Hemingway’s childhood and his extraordinary family.
Ernest Hemingway tends to be a polarizing character. For some, Hemingway evokes only negative images of a drunken, depressed, misogynist. For others, he is appreciated as a groundbreaking, world-class author.
The members of his family were no less colorful. His mother, Grace Hall Hemingway, was a classically trained opera singer who ran her own successful music studio at the turn of the 20th century when most women were expected to recede from the limelight after they were married and had children. She was a suffragette and later became a recognized landscape painter. Hemingway’s relationship with his mother became difficult, particularly when he began to spread his own artistic wings. He bluntly told people he hated his mother and he blamed her for the suicide of his father.
After Hemingway’s death, photographs of 2- or 3-year-old Ernest wearing a dress and a frilly bonnet came to public attention. For those who were aware of his feelings about his mother, those photographs became proof – exhibit A – of Grace’s contribution to Hemingway’s ultimately tortured soul. The heroes and villains in the Hemingway family are a subject of contested debate in literary circles.
In reality, the labels assigned to family members often tell us more about the family or larger society than it does about the individual who has been labeled. One way we can study other ethnic cultures is to notice who are considered the heroes and the villains. In other words, what behaviors and accomplishments are praised and what are condemned. Family culture is no different. Many families have deeply engrained stories of the “bad guys” and the “good guys.” Stories get handed down full of condemnation and judgement that may or may not be deserved.
Don’t accept those characterizations at face value and don’t worry about the characterizations of others. Once you begin recording family stories, it won’t be long before you bump up against some opposing interpretations of family history. This is particularly true when there has been a loss in a family – a divorce, a suicide, etc. It’s human nature to wonder who we can blame.
Try not to put yourself in the middle as an arbiter of who is right and who is wrong. See yourself as a reporter or a police officer who is just interested in hearing the “facts” from your witness. The account is still valuable as part of a larger picture.
Stay as nonjudgmental as possible because that stance is most likely to reveal the most information. A judgmental attitude shuts people down. Your goal is help people feel comfortable talking about things they have no obligation to share with you.
Of course, this can also apply if you are telling your own story. Regret and judgment often cloud our retelling of stories – whether we are judging ourselves or others. When in doubt, think about a memory and ask yourself what you experienced with your five senses. What did you see, hear, taste, smell, etc.? Imagine you have a video camera filming your memory. What would the camera pick up? Then it’s perfectly fine to add how you interpreted or judged that experience. It’s surprising how often things we think we know, we actually don’t know for sure.
I requested the divorce records for my grandparents and I was disappointed that all I got back was an index card. It indicated that my grandfather had filed for the divorce and the stated reason was simply listed as “adultery” – presumably by my grandmother. That grandmother died in the 1980s and had suffered several strokes that left her mute for most of my childhood. I didn’t have any context with which to process this information. And it potentially meant that the man I thought was my grandfather was not my biological grandfather.
I felt conflicted. Admittedly, part of me wanted to be judgmental. Part of me wondered whether there was important context missing. My mother told me that my grandparents had worked as servants in the house of a well-to-do family in Virginia. My grandmother had married at the age 14 after her mother died. The employer’s family had at least one son living on the property and my mother secretly wondered if he was her father.
Before my mother passed away, a simple DNA test showed that my grandfather was her biological father. But the context of knowing my orphaned grandmother was working as a servant in the house that included a wealthy single man raised some possibilities that might be viewed differently today. I am likely to never know the truth about that situation. What was labeled simply as adultery in 1935 may today be labeled as child abuse or rape. Whatever the truth, the spirit of being non-judgmental has the added benefit of being the most intellectually honest.
The LifeSketch process won’t answer all your questions, and those who know the answers may or may not be willing or able to talk to you. But just like a police officer or a journalist, you are taking one person’s account of events and it might help shed light on the bigger picture – someday.