Did it rain like this on your wedding day?
Tell me again about how I was born during the big storm.
There are family stories that become almost legendary. They are told over and over again. Even when we think of them as just good stories, they do more than that. Stories like these share values and attitudes. They show triumph and hardship and perseverance. They connect us to our clan. They are most often filled with love.
What’s the secret to Auntie’s coffee cake?
How did Mimi lose her engagement ring?
What happened to Uncle Lou in the war?
Why doesn’t grandpa talk to his brother?
There are other family stories we don’t know. They may be things that nobody thinks to mention. They may be things you think people don’t want to talk about — or maybe you assume you’ll always be able to find out … later. Don’t wait to delve into family stories. Jump in now.
Serve Up Family Stories During the Holidays
With the holidays approaching, many of us will be spending time with family. This is a great time to share family stories and ask questions to learn more.
Somewhere between “Pass the potatoes” and groaning over the last slice of pie, there should be time for family stories. But how do you get started?
Start sharing stories yourself. Others will often join in.
Pull out photo albums, home movies or even your phone. Ask who people are, where they are, what they’re doing. Don’t be in a rush to get through the pictures; allow time for the stories that the images prompt.
Ask questions. This is one of the most direct ways to get stories started. If you sense some resistance, start with stories you know family members like to tell. Be sensitive to sensitive topics, but don’t avoid them.
Try questions like:
- Where did you and ___ meet? (Personalize this one—Where did you meet Gramps? How did you meet Uncle Ian?)
- Where did you grow up? What was it like?
- How did you end up living in ___? Where did you live before here? What did you like about it? What’s your favorite memory of that place?
- What did you dream about being when you were a kid? What took you on a different course?
- What’s the hardest thing you ever did?
- What is the craziest thing you ever did?
- What’s something that your mom/dad did that you appreciate now, even if you didn’t at the time?
- What’s one story you’ve never told?
Don’t think of this as a checklist of questions. Ask the ones that most appeal to you. Focus on listening to the answers. Let the storyteller finish their story before you jump in with follow up questions.
Sometimes one question will launch a story that reminds someone else of another and another. Other times, you will need to probe more if you’re interested.
Family Stories Nourish Us
Sharing family stories isn’t just about talking about old times or “remember when.” It isn’t even only about learning family history. It’s about helping ourselves and our families. It turns out family stories nourish our psyches the way food nourishes our bodies.
That means sharing our stories helps our kids deal with challenges. And according to researchers at Emory University, sharing family stories helps boost self-esteem, confidence, self-control and autonomy in our kids, not to mention resilience and grit. Stories help us see how people deal with the ups and downs that are inevitable in life. And sharing family stories lets children feel like they are part of something bigger.
That’s food for thought as you sit around the holiday table, and maybe just the push you need to ask the questions that get into some juicy stories from your own family.
Be ready for family stories with these questions and how to ask them to preserve family stories.
Remember to write all your stories down. Save them. You’ll be surprised how much it means — to you, the writer, and to those who read it. Often the first step in saving family stories is learning them, which means asking questions. Here are 5 to get you started.