History of Storytelling

There was a time when reminiscing about life events and history served an important community building function.  This function was often the responsibility of older persons in the family and was a way to make sure other generations learned about their family’s history and heritage.

Today, however, we live in a technological society where historical information is recorded instantly.  Yet, ironically, many adults and children know very little about their own family’s stories.  Opportunities for extended family members to come together to share stories are sometimes limited due to family mobility, geographical distance, divorce, and hurried lifestyles.

Additionally, we live in a youth oriented society where older people are not as revered as they once were and are not always valued for their wisdom and experience.  Sometimes this wisdom is not recognized until younger people are older and have children of their own.  It is then that they may begin to ask their parents and grandparents to reveal their life stories.

Historically the wisdom of older adults was highly valued.  They were entrusted with maintaining their family’s cultural heritage and were seen as “keepers of community.”  Many of the stories of our ancestors are stories of immigration from their countries of origin.  This information is particularly valuable for younger generations to know in order to more fully understand their family’s heritage.  On the other hand, it was not uncommon for some older adults to convey very little information about their ethnicity.  For many, it was more important to assimilate than to share their stories of ethnic origin.

Benefits of Sharing Stories

Sharing life stories can be done through genealogy, writing life stories through journaling, or interviewing family members to capture their oral histories.  The potential benefits of sharing a life story are many.  People who share their life stories:

  • Gain greater self-knowledge and increased self-esteem.
  • May feel a sense of joy, satisfaction, and inner peace as their stories are shared with others.
  • May be a way to purge or release burdens and validate personal experiences.
  • Create a sense of community with others.
  • Can help people see their lives more clearly and perhaps be an inspiration to others.
  • Provide an opportunity for others to better understand them.
  • May come to a better understanding of their past and present, which may help in identifying their goals for the future.

Of course, not all stories are happy ones.  Sometimes memories are painful and upsetting when they resurface.  Retelling unhappy stories may help in working through unresolved issues and conflicts.  Family members who show empathy and understanding toward the storyteller may help as the story unfolds.  However, the direction of the story is ultimately up to the storyteller.

Topical themes that can be covered when sharing/writing a life story include:

  • Name and other basics (date of birth, birthplace, family members, etc.)
  • Favorites
  • Childhood Memories
  • Pets
  • Hobbies
  • Important Life Events
  • Historical Events
  • Marriage and Family
  • Immigration
  • Military Service
  • Education/Career/Retirement
  • Successes/Failures
  • Humorous Moments

If you’ve ever said, “I should write some of grandma’s stories down before I forget the details,” or “I want to start journaling my life story for my kids,” then get going!  We must take the time to share our stories.  No one knows your story better than you do!

Family Keepsakes

Most families have some special objects or keepsakes that have been passed down from one generation to another.   These family keepsakes do not have to be of high monetary value.  Often it is objects that are used every day or that are associated with a family story or event that have the most meaning for families. 

In one research study, families shared reasons for keeping special family objects.  Family members described the desire to “transfer a connection to the past and where we came from…who we are, what we value and have worked for…onto the next generation” and “to have a tie to the past.”  Other family members described the desire to preserve and keep memories of the owner alive.  The desire to preserve memories also meant wanting belongings to go to family who would value and appreciate them.

Sharing stories and meanings about significant belongings helps preserve family history, memories, and traditions.  Family keepsakes can be used as props for telling stories.  Some items that are often considered family keepsakes include jewelry, photos, diaries, documents or records, collections, and handmade items such as needlework or artwork.

Questions to consider when telling a story about a family keepsake include:

  • State the item
  • Who gave you the item and when?
  • If not from someone, where or how did you acquire it?
  • How have you used it over the years?
  • Are there any special stories you want to share about the item?
  • Any memories that come to mind when you think about the item?
  • Is there someone that you want to pass it onto next? Any certain reason?

Family Traditions

Observing traditions not only benefits older family members, but also the young.  For older adults, traditions are seen as rituals or memories to be passed down through the generations.  Children use traditions to learn the importance of history and the relationships within the family.  It also helps them to become familiar with family members who are deceased or do not live close to them.  Examples of family traditions may be taking vacations together, creating holiday rituals, making homemade gifts, singing specific songs, or gathering at special locations.

Activities from everyday living can even be seen as traditions.  Slipping notes into children’s lunchboxes, singing songs during certain events, saying prayers together, and doing chores, are all good examples of simple daily activities that become rituals and are often remembered later in life.

Other ideas for creating family traditions include making a family web site, developing a scrapbook, recording stories on audio cassette or videotape, keeping a journal, or gifting family treasures.

Worksheets

Summary

Our stories are a road map of our lives.  They are gifts to each generation that listens to them and then passes them on to future generations.  These same stories undoubtedly play a part in creating the traditions that bring a comfort and closeness to families.  Our precious possessions, keepsakes, and heirlooms, when passed along to the next generation, give them a tie to the past, a tie to us.

Our stories are a road map of our lives.  They are gifts to each generation that listens to them and then passes them on to future generations.  These same stories undoubtedly play a part in creating the traditions that bring a comfort and closeness to families.  Our precious possessions, keepsakes, and heirlooms, when passed along to the next generation, give them a tie to the past, a tie to us.