Family Stories

Family Stories

by Donna Stramella


My grandfather Walter and grandmother Josephine emigrated from Poland as teenagers. After they met and married, they opened a confectionery store and later a corner grocery. Most of their customers were factory workers who lived from paycheck to paycheck. Food was often purchased on credit. My aunt tells a story of her father's generosity: One of the store's customers was consistently late in paying his bill. Although his current tally was unusually high, he wanted to make a purchase for dinner. "Give him our meat," my grandfather said in his thick European accent, as he wrapped the beef meant for his own family's meal. "We can do without for one night. He works hard in the factory all day and needs the nourishment." That simple story of kindness has inspired me on many occasions. And there are many more of these historical treasures just waiting to be discovered in your own family.


The term "family values" means many different things to many different people. What does it mean to you? The history of your family is a living, growing, continual history. Some chapters of your story will be uplifting, motivating--Aunt Clare taking in a neighboring family when the father lost his job. Another chapter may be funny--Grandpop's car breaking down on the way to his wedding. There will be painful remembrances as well--ancestors who were forced to America on slave ships or distant cousins who died in concentration camps. These stories are not just important for today. They are important for tomorrow--for ancestors who are yet to come.

As plotting family genealogy trees becomes increasingly popular, people search data banks for evidence of the past. Documents provide names and dates, but not the personal stories behind the facts. Unfortunately, many of our elderly relatives' stories exist only in their minds, and once they are gone, so is their vault of memories. Author Alex Haley once said, "When an old person dies, it is like a library burning." So how do we unlock these treasure chests before it's too late?


Talking with grandparents is a good place to start. In their book, LET'S MAKE A MEMORY, authors Gloria Gaither and Shirley Dobson suggest planning a special evening to unlock the past. "Plan a visit to each set of grandparents, prearranging that the theme of the visit will be to have the grandparents share their reminiscences of earlier years and their information about family background." The authors suggest using a tape recorder or video camera to make a permanent record.

"Most children have very little knowledge of their grandparents' earlier years," they write, "yet this background offers one of the richest sources of tradition and identity within a family." While most grandparents will delight in sharing information from their childhood, others will need a little coaxing. And grandparents are certainly not the only source. Aunts, uncles and cousins all hold their own sagas. There's a real connection to history here--rationing during the depression, marching for civil rights, moving from the city to the suburbs in the 1950s. American history books just can't compete with your own family's story.

The book UNPUZZLING YOUR PAST by Emily Anne Croom offers a series of questions to ask family members. "There are hundreds of questions you can ask about each generation," she writes. "Each answer may suggest new questions ... Some pieces of information are more important than others. Some are more interesting. Historians seek any pertinent information, but the family historian will want to be careful not to pull out of the closet skeletons which might cause harm or embarrassment. Family histories must be truthful, but families may prefer to leave some chapters closed where it is unnecessary to mention the information at all." The book also suggests using a form (and provides an example of one) to gather information from relatives who live out of state.

Anne Arundel Community College offers a continuing education class called "Family Reunions and Histories." The class teaches how to record family history through a writing project at your next family reunion.


Putting pen to paper, or hands to keyboard, is the next step. First, decide what type of format you will use to display your story. Options range from a simple binder to a soft bound book to a hard bound record. Office stores offer a wide range of binding styles.

The story should also be categorized. While most family histories are presented chronologically, others are divided with individual chapters for each author. If you're computer literate, there are plenty of software choices to help organize the project.

Photos add an important dimension to your story. If you do not have the capability to scan photos into your computer, reproduce them on a standard or color copy machine. Ask relatives for copies of their best candid shots from the past--Uncle Bill holding up the fish that didn't get away, Aunt Susan riding her first horse. Most families have passed down copies of formal photos, such as weddings and graduations. The more casual shots seem to disappear over the years. Other "extras" you may want to add include favorite family recipes, portions of old letters, newspaper clippings, pages from a diary, copy of a yearbook page, sketches of an old home, short prose and poetry.

If you'd like to take an easier route, companies exist that create personal biographies for families. Once you've gathered all the information, the company takes over and produces the hard copy. On such company is Future Treasures (, but an Internet search on keywords "family history" will produce plenty of choices. If you are not quite ready to tackle such a big project, but are anxious to get your own story on paper, consider a logbook. These books differ from plain journals in that each page offers a writing prompt. REFLECTIONS FROM A MOTHER'S HEART is pretty, rose-trimmed version from Word Publishing. The book is divided by month and asks questions like "Who was your favorite teacher and why?" and "Describe your first kiss." Weightier topics--such as prayer and learning about sex--are also explored. The book allows plenty of space to write your reply.


Children are naturally curious. They are great interviewers, and grandparents may be less intimidated when grandchildren ask the questions. Involve the kids with organizing information and deciding what photos make the final cut. The project will not only give them a more complete picture of their own family, it will help them understand the dynamics of family life overall.