It’s Time to Document Your Family’s History

The image is a photograph of two pages of my disheveled photo album showing some of my baby pictures and pictures of family members.
Photo of author’s disheveled photo album taken by author (Joyce O’Day).

Coronavirus social distancing is the ideal time to assemble our memories and reach out to our extended family!

We have all said it at some point, “I wish I could have one last conversation with mom, or grandpa, or Auntie Anne.” And, as many times as we had heard the same story — again and again — what we would give to hear it one more time, especially in the voice of our cherished loved one. There are so many unanswered questions we have for our parents — years and decades after they have passed. It begs the question, what tales do we need to preserve for our family members?

Writing Your Memoir

Corona-cation is the perfect opportunity to put our memories in order by beginning a memoir. This need not be an overwhelming ordeal; rather, by dedicating 30 minutes a day to this project, impressive progress can be made in a few weeks’ time. There is no pressure to compose a birth to “older” age narrative. Simply record a story each day in no particular order. Whatever comes to you at the time is your topic of the day, whether it is a childhood memory, the day your middle child was born, or a conversation you had with your grandmother 50 years ago. The important thing is to fully record the memory. Any editing or organization (topical or chronological) can be attended to at a later date. All you need is your tablet or computer and a word processing program.

Helping a Loved One with their Memoir

The physical isolation associated with social distancing underlies the importance of maintaining close emotional connections with our older relatives. Since you are already calling your mom daily to check in on her, use the opportunity to gather her stories. Let mom know what your intentions are, provide her with sample topics so she can think about them ahead of time, and let her choose which life story she wants to share that day. iPhones and most other smart phones have the ability to record conversations, and there are also free apps for recordings. However, I would advise taking good notes during the conversation and only use the recordings as a backup. Also, photographs and realia (personal items) can be used to spark memories. “Mom, do you remember the day this picture was taken?” “Is that Uncle Ed? Can you tell me more about him?” “What is the significance of the green vase that has always been in your hutch?” “Did you and dad have a favorite song?”

Compose a Family History

For those of us whose parents have already passed, composing the family history is more complicated. The best strategy is to create a shared platform where siblings or cousins can add their tales to a combined family history project. A “shared drive” within Google Drive is perfect for this. Dropbox, iCloud, and OneDrive also provide suitable formats. It is important for each individual to maintain ownership of their content. This can be handled in different ways. For example, at the end of each section or paragraph, the author’s name could be placed in parenthesis. If another family member recalls the events differently or has additional information to contribute, an addendum can be added under their name. The important thing is to get EVERYONE’S memories about relatives who have passed away down on paper. Include family gossip and rumors, as much of it may actually be true; just be sure to label it as such. Along with photographs of people and family homes (appropriately labeled), birth, baptism, marriage, and death certificates should be included. Family recipes and personal correspondence are also meaningful additions.

Get the Whole Family Involved

Older kids who are on vacation from school could conduct phone interviews with their grandparents. Not only will your folks love this bonding opportunity with their grandkids, the memory of the experience will permanently touch your children. The website has numerous genealogy-related activities for kids, including how to turn old family photos into a coloring book for younger children.

Family History is Nothing New

One hundred years ago, personal histories were commonplace. My great uncle on my Irish side wrote a detailed history of his mother’s journey from County Sligo to the Canadian Rockies, chronicling the marriage to her childhood sweetheart along with the many challenges they faced as immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A similar document was created on the Norwegian side of my family. These histories are treasured mementos for my siblings, cousins, and second cousins. I desperately wish my mother’s family had recorded their 100-year history in Jones County, Mississippi.

When More Help is Needed

Today, “Personal Historians” can be hired to help record your family history. I belong to a private Facebook group with that very name. While you can hire a professional to record your family’s story, it is more meaningful to conduct your own family interviews. Later, a professional can be brought in as a proofreader to clean up any grammar or punctuation issues, or an editor can do all that along with fixing any organizational problems to ensure that the narrative has a good flow. There are even online photograph companies that can assist in formatting your narrative, photographs, and other relevant documents into a hard- or soft-covered book.

Additional Resources:

· provides resources for organizing family history.

· provides a year’s worth of weekly prompts for a family member to address that they will use to create a 480-page book (6”x9”) for $99.

· has a wealth of information (mostly books for sale) regarding the documentation of family history.

· is another useful site for individuals who desire paid assistance in completing their memoir.

· The Flip-Pal Mobile Scanner ($180) is highly recommended for scanning photos and documents.

· Lastly, contact a local oral history society for tips or assistance in conducting family interviews. They are usually associated with universities.

So… compose a list of potential questions and discussion prompts, pick up the phone and call your older relatives, send a group email to all your siblings and cousins, and get this project started!

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