Preserving Family Stories

Why family stories should be preserved and how it can be done

In a classic piece that I have remembered since my teenage years James Thurber wrote about his family in "My Life and Hard Times", first published in the New Yorker magazine. Here is an excerpt from the book that I have particularly treasured:

Aunt Gracie Shoaf also had a burglar phobia, but she met it with more fortitude. She was confident that burglars had been getting into her house every night for forty years. The fact that she never missed anything was to her no proof to the contrary. She always claimed that she scared them off before they could take anything, by throwing shoes down the hallway. When she went to bed she piled, where she could get at them handily, all the shoes there were about her house. Five minutes after she had turned off the light, she would sit up in bed and say "Hark!" Her husband, who had learned to ignore the whole situation as long ago as 1903, would either be sound asleep or pretend to be sound asleep. In either case he would not respond to her tugging and pulling, so that presently she would arise, tiptoe to the door, open it slightly and heave a shoe down the hall in one direction and its mate down the hall in the other direction. Some nights she threw them all, some nights only a couple of pairs.

It is a gift to be able to write about your family in an entertaining way. All of us have stories like this that have been passed down through our family and probably embellished in the process. Think of the tragedy if those stories were to be lost!

Ideally these stories, funny or sad, humorous or tragic, should be recorded from the original source. However, many classic stories have been passed down from family members who are long since passed on to a better world. Some of the funniest stories fall flat when not told by the original teller, the tone of voice and accompanying gestures make up a lot of the ambiance of the story, just as the one related by James Thurber.

Stories can be part of a larger oral history, but sometimes if we concern ourselves with making a complete record, we lose the moment and the story is lost along with the oral history that never happens. Even if the originator of the story is no longer available, it is still a good idea to write down as many and as much of the stories as you can remember. It really doesn't matter is the story doesn't sound as funny as it did when told by the relative, but it is important to have these evanescent stories so that at least a part of the tradition can be preserved.

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in technology we forget that the simplest way to record a story is to write it down. Digital recordings and such are wonderful and may help to put the whole story in context but if there is only the memory and you are the one with the memory, you should write down what you have and not fuss about being technologically correct.

Sometimes we hesitate to write about subjects that are presently socially unacceptable or politically incorrect. But history should be judged in its own context not in the light of the mores of subsequent times. My own family is a good example. Several of my great-grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers were polygamists. One was even sent to federal prison as a result of a conviction for unlawful cohabitation. Some people are so disturbed by the different cultural and religious convictions of their ancestors that they cannot even talk about the situation. To me, polygamy was a historical fact. I cannot change history. Whether or not you agree with the basis for the practice, it did occur and ignoring these historical facts is bad history and worse genealogy. Just because your ancestors were criminals or slaves or whatever is no reason to ignore their stories.

I accept my ancestors' conditions, traditions or beliefs, no matter what they were. I only hope they would do the same for my own. I can also hope that as genealogists we all do the same. We can accept our ancestors as they were, no matter what.

Written by James L. Tanner. Used with permission.

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