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Family Oral History — The Power of Stories, Rituals and Resilience

Home/Family Oral History — The Power of Stories, Rituals and Resilience

Between Thanksgiving and the end of the year we spend a lot of time thinking about family, planning get-togethers, cooking and buying gifts – all for the ones we love best. As Americans we tend to focus on the future and not the past. But this is a great time of year to slow down and remember — and learn from — those we love.

There’s research that shows that children who know their family’s history – both the happy times and the challenging ones – are more resilient, confident and happy than children who don’t (see The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler). He calls it a “…strong intergenerational self. They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.”

Mr. and Mrs. Gisellie Baker with (left to right) Cindy (2), Priscilla (3), Paul J. (2), Richard (2), Anthony (5). Photograph Courtesy of Faces and Places. 

 

 

 

 

 

“The most healthful narrative … is the oscillating family narrative. ‘Dear, let me tell you we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was the pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened we always stuck together as a family.’”

–Bruce Feiler

 

Should you decide to take part in a Family Oral History, here’s a few things to consider:

 

Keep others involved

Starting a family oral history project takes a bit of preparation and time. There’s a lot of things you need to think about so take some time to put together a plan. But you can do it with family or friends, so be sure to loop them in.

Get help with curating photos, letters or other objects to enhance the interview. Activating the senses of smell, hearing as well as vision will trigger and enhance memories. Examples include: feeling a letterman jacket, smelling a recipe or touching a baseball — each may trigger memories in older adults.

 

Mrs. Leo Luebbe, and Leo Leubbe, 92, 547 Dudley Rd, Edgewood. Photograph Courtesy of Faces and Places.

 

Define your project

This can be a daunting task – so be sure to keep the first attempt small and doable. Keep it simple — maybe something you can document in a short book, family newsletter, or a video or audio recording.

  • Do you want to talk to just one person, or give a few people a chance to tell their stories?
  • Brainstorm about a few ideas: “Who was your favorite relative when you were a child?” (“and who was your least favorite?”) — “What was your happiest memory (or your saddest)?” — “How did you meet your husband/wife?” — “What was dinnertime like when YOU were growing up?” — “What was your favorite TV/radio show when you were a kid? Why?” — “Do you remember when the first man landed on the moon?”
  • Consider writing a variety of possible questions and putting them into a bowl for people to pick from after dessert.
  • Or start with any one question and let people expand upon the story of someone who came before them. People often have different memories of the same event.

 

Mrs. Susan Isaac of Newport. Photograph courtesy of Faces and Places.

Ask leading questions

The questions you ask are meant to get the conversation started. The questions should encourage a multi-sentence answer. Instead of “What town did you grow up in?” try “Tell me what it was like where you grew up.” Which could be followed by “How was growing up then different than it is now?”

Have a practice session with an older relative. Get comfortable with asking questions and using the equipment.

Recording the event

It’s a good idea to use audio-video for documentation. (If for no other reason that everyone there can relax and enjoy the stories being told.)

G.L. Kuntz family. Photograph Courtesy of Faces and Places.

Here are some places to get information on apps, equipment and ideas on how to conduct interviews:

 

It’s possible to get the audio transcribed for free. One way is to upload the video to YouTube.com. They offer free automatic captioning. (You can review automatic captions and use their instructions to edit or remove any parts that haven’t been properly transcribed.

Of course, minimizing background noise will improve both the quality of the audio and any automatic transcription you get from it. If you have an AV junkie in the family, get them involved sooner rather than later!

Bible History Class at Southside Baptist Church, teacher Mrs. Neal Wedding, kids L-R: Patty Kraft (9), Jack Wood (9) and Douglass Riley (11).

Photograph courtesy of Faces and Places.

Give kids a chance

Children and young adults can help write and choose the questions. And, let kids conduct and record the interviews. If they have the interest, let them show off their tech skills by working on the technical side of things: audio-video, smartphone apps, social media, and the internet. And don’t be surprised if they come up with ideas and solutions the adults never would have thought of!

Share with family and friends

Encourage children and young adults to post interviews to their Instagram or social media accounts. We know the adults in the family won’t be shy about sharing on Facebook and Instagram themselves!

 

When all is said and done…

Have fun and savor the experience.

“[Children] learn that families can enjoy the happy times and stick together during the tough ones. Perhaps, most importantly, they hear the stories that teach them what family is.”

–Bruce Feiler

There’s no right or wrong way to do this. It’s important that you and your family enjoy themselves!

Marilyn Frommeyer (63) surprised by her family on her birthday. Photograph courtesy of Faces and Places.

 

Dawn Dutton, Library Associate, Local History and Genealogy Department – Covington Branch

Email: Dawn.Dutton@KentonLibrary.org

Cierra Earl, Local History and Genealogy Department Programmer, Local History and Genealogy Department – Covington Branch

Email: Cierra.Earl@kentonlibrary.org

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