This is Your Life
Pass along your stories to future generations
Illustration by Stephen Sauer
Once upon a time ...
Those four little words - just 13 letters in all - convey a meaning that even small children can grasp: a story is about to unfold. Not just a made-up yarns or fairy tales, stories can also be true-life narratives of past generations. And passing along these types of stories - these histories - can bring us closer to our roots, validate our experiences and ultimately connect us all as human beings. Just ask Katherine Southworth.
"As a child my grandmother would talk about people as if they were right there with us and it turns out they were dead for 20 years," says Southworth, 75. "We always thought it was funny." Turns out, however, that as eccentric as her grandmother had been, she inevitably passed along a love of genealogy to her granddaughter. "When I got older," Southworth says, "I belonged to the New England Genealogical Historical Society in Boston and her papers were there in the archives. She had done a great deal of research, so us thinking that she was kind of wacky was not exactly true."
In pursuing her own research, Southworth discovered that on her wacky paternal grandmother's side, the Hobsons (her maiden name) came to Rowley, Mass., in the 1630s. "They all married somebody from Ipswich or Newbury or surrounding towns, so if you get those vital records, it only requires a couple of books to go from me to 14 generations back," says Southworth. "It took me no time whatsoever and I thought, 'This is really a snap!'" she laughs.
It was a different story, however, for her mother's side of the family. "They have no New England connections whatsoever. They came to the eastern shore of Maryland and northern neck of Virginia in about 1700, but after the Revolution they started to move to places like Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri and Colorado," explains Southworth, who adds that research in those places can be very difficult because they don't keep records like they do in New England. "There I was in Kentucky doing research and I would be in the wrong county even. It was very challenging."
As challenging as it had been, it was also fun for Southworth. Yet even after she had traced her heritage, something was still missing. "It's all very well to have the names and dates right back to the immigrant person," she says, "but what have you got but names and dates? I really wanted to know more about them. Life was certainly hard in those early days, and it sounds awful from this vantage point. What I have always been interested in is really the stories beyond the dates and names. And that you can do for as long as you're around. There's always more to discover."
So how do you go about discovering your family's stories? According to Stuart Wallace, a history professor at New Hampshire Technical Institute, the first thing you should do is to define your topic. What do you want to find out about: maybe you'd like to explore what life was like during a particular time period or event, such as World War II or the Depression? "Begin with your own questions, because if you don't do that, you're all over the place," he says.
Start with the easiest and most accessible sources: your family members themselves. "People are a good resource as well as what you have in your house - scrapbooks, home movies, photo albums, letters or correspondence. You might as well start close to home," he says. "You may have a lot of your answers under your own roof or those of your family members."
If you can't get information from a living family member or from stuff you've found around the house, sit back and think about where you'd find the information. "Save yourself a lot of legwork by imagining where information can be found," he says. "When we go through life we create sources, footsteps in the sand as to where we've been and what we've done." These sources include birth and marriage certificates published in town records, a driver's license, and an obituary - although not always entirely accurate - can be found in archived newspapers. State archives and libraries (both town and state) are excellent places to find out family-related information as it relates in some shape or form to public documentation and it's a good way to check on your facts. "Often people don't have the best memories or haven't thought of the events in a long time, so they tend to blend together," says Wallace. One of the things you could do is to record conversations or take good notes, but you may want to go back and talk to them another time.
Be prepared for surprises, too. "When you're talking to somebody you might stumble onto something and you have to adjust to that," says Wallace, "even if you thought you knew every skeleton in the closet."
Most people, says Wallace, are not planning on publishing their family's stories. They simply want to know more about their history so that they can pass any interesting accounts on to their children. Others might want their family history preserved at the local historical society so they will have their family represented in town histories. Sometimes people simply want to convey shared experiences from the same generation. Such was the case with Southworth and her fellow residents at Riverwoods Retirement Community in Exeter. "The War We Knew; RiverWoods Remembers World War II" is an entirely resident-driven book, from initial interviews and story writing, to design and production and promotion. The book chronicles World War II stories as told by 75 of its residents, both on the homefront and abroad.
"It was all done by residents, and just an amazing project," says Ben French, marketing director at Riverwoods. "It's a prime example of the independent spirit of Riverwoods residents. These folks have all led extraordinary lives and this is just one example of those extraordinary lives."
In her job as executive director of the Centennial Senior Center in Concord, Vivian Green is keenly aware of the incredible wisdom and value of our elderly and their stories. "Things were so different for those who are in their 80s, who went through World Wars and technology changes," says Green. "We're just the beneficiaries of it." She adds that living through those experiences changed how octogenarians approached their lives and is so different from today.
She points to how the older generation still writes personal letters, with something emotional still attached to it. "We live in a world of e-mail and Twitter and voicemail and we're losing that more personal method of communication," says Green. (In other words, most likely you won't be dusting off tweets or texts or Facebook posts hidden in the back of a drawer years from now.)
"It's a very transient world nowadays," adds Green. "The world that my mother or grandmother lived in was much more concrete. A lot of those experiences are going to be gone when those people pass. They've made a contribution, and if we don't acknowledge or record those experiences they will be lost."
Take a Storytelling Workshop
The Nackey Loeb School of Communications in Manchester has run a workshop entitled, "Telling Your Family Story" for the past 6-7 years and it's proven to be one of its more popular programs.
"Everyone is interested in preserving their family story, though it means something different to every person," says David Tirrell-Wysocki, executive director. "Some want it written down or part of a photo album, or maybe a narrative, some have audio remembrances of their parents or grandparents or children, some want video." Tirrell-Wysocki adds that the major thrust of the program is saving stories so that you can retell things you heard around the table decades down the line. Presenters include Fritz Wetherbee, N.H. writer and television host, and journalist-authors Mike Pride and Meg Heckman.
The school will offer the program in March, and the Centennial Senior Center in Concord plans to run the same program sometime in the spring (date TBD). For more information, visit www.loebschool.org or www.centennialseniorcenter.org.