Time magazine once ran an essay by Garrison Keillor about a European trip he took with his two brothers and a sister. Keillor noted that during the trip the siblings talked about events from their childhood in a way they couldn’t have, if non-siblings had been present. And, although they had known each other a lifetime, stories came out that Keillor had never heard before. As he wrote, “the truth is I am terribly interested in what happened in my childhood, there being fewer and fewer people left who remember it, and with siblings, your minds meld and you piece together the story.”
I realized, of course, the same thing happens in my family. We often play the “do you remember?” game, and try our best to fill in missing pieces for one another. My sister Vicki, being four years older than I, can remember people and places that I’m not sure I ever knew. My younger brother Mark has a keen interest in World War II, and has become a walking encyclopedia about our dad’s time in the Army. And, because I was the one who asked my grandmothers about the past, I’m now the keeper of the old family stories.
I do my best to write down snippets of those stories as I hear them, but don’t always take the time to capture the whole tale. Heaven forbid something should happen to me before I do! And, because we know how life can be, playing Russian roulette with family stories isn’t the best way to ensure their survival.
I’ve thought a lot about the best way to preserve the stories. What came to mind, of course, was Alex Haley’s Roots—how the Haleys’ oral tradition kept Kunta Kinte’s tale alive. And how the Navajo call their elders “walking libraries” because they’re the keepers of family stories and tribal history. As much as I like writing, I realize I prefer an oral history—in part because it seems more natural, and in part because I like the idea of capturing family voices.
Whichever style you prefer—written or oral histories—preserving and sharing those stories is important. Now, with CD burners built into just about every computer, copying your family tales to CD is almost a one-click affair. If you’ve done an oral history I’d love to hear from you.
Resources for oral histories:
• Compiling an Oral Family History from the Polish Genealogical Society of America
• An Oral History Primer from the University of California, Santa Cruz
• Oral History Techniques and Procedures from the Center of Military History
• Guidelines for Oral History Interviews from Rochester Regional Library Council
• How to Burn a CD Using Windows XP, from Microsoft