Tips for preserving our family history for posterity

Write memories down before they’re lost.

Many of us share a pressing concern: We possess family documents, artifacts and oral histories, but have no idea what to do with them. We also have our own life stories to tell, but aren’t sure of the best way to record them. Add to that a nagging doubt that our children aren’t terribly interested, and we’re left wondering: Does anyone care besides us? We feel a need to do something, and we want that something to be treasured and remembered.

It can be hard to know where to begin. One simple way is by labeling what’s important to us. For instance, I have a beer stein once owned by my great-great-grandfather. How do I know it was his? Because my grandmother put a slip of paper inside it, on which she wrote in neat cursive, “Michael Harm’s stein.” When I see it, I remember how she told me he was important to her, that he was her “favorite grandfather” and other stories of his presence in her life.

My grandmother also kept a little book the size of a small datebook in which she wrote down the provenance of furniture items in her home. Her son — my father — followed the tradition and wrote down inventories of his belongings that included a column describing the item’s original owner and any story behind it. It’s equally important in the inventory to describe any accumulation of boxes or notebooks or computer folders of genealogy documents, and their location in the home. If you do make an inventory, be sure to leave it in the file with a copy of your will and other important documents, to make sure it gets into the right hands.

In addition to the legacy of family objects and photos, stories told to us by our parents and grandparents and relatives are a vital component of our family heritage. Sometimes they are stories about love and laughter, other times about facing struggles and hardship. If at all possible, write down or record whatever you can remember. There are so many stories I heard often as a child and teenager, that I was sure I would remember, but now I can only recall them dimly. How I wish I’d written them down, or pushed record on my cellphone, before it was too late.

When it comes to stories of your own experiences, it’s not necessary to begin at the beginning. Simply jot down a few memorable vignettes, or make audio recordings, picking up with the most memorable experiences first. Save the files on your computer, and add that filename and folder location to your inventory. Use filenames with detailed descriptions including at least some of the basics: who, what, when and where. Or, tuck your handwritten pages in a manila file or notebook, making a note of their physical location on a sheet of paper saved with other important documents or inventories.

When telling your stories, remember to share not only what happened, but how it made you feel. Studies have proven that sharing what we care about causes others to care as well, which strengthens family ties and traditions for the generations who follow.

Mercer Island author Claire Gebben’s memoir about her quest to trace and write about her ancestors “How We Survive Here: Families Across Time” (Coffeetown Press, November 2018) is available on Amazon. Her historical novel “The Last of the Blacksmiths” (2014) is based on the true story of her German immigrant ancestor Michael Harm. More at: http://clairegebben.com.

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