Family stories are tales about people, places, and events related to the members of our immediate family or their ancestors. Family stories casually chatted about at the dinner table, or regaled again and again at family gatherings can parallel great epics or notable short stories. The memorable stories of our lives and of others in our family take on special importance because they are true, even if everyone tells different versions of the same event. These tales are family heirlooms held in the heart not the hand. They are a gift to each generation that preserves them by remembering them and passing them on.
The first step to collecting family stories is to become a good listener. Good listeners encourage great storytelling. When a speaker feels that the listener is interested, he or she is more inspired to communicate generously. A good listener gives full attention to the teller, does not interrupt or contradict the facts of a story as it is being told, and offers the teller encouragement with an interested facial expression and body stance. When a teller feels encouraged by an interested listener, there is joy in the telling.
An effective way to hear family stories is to ask questions. Family stories can be collected by interviewing a family elder. Make a mental or written list of topics that might generate some questions to ask the elder.
People, places, events, objects, important transitions, work, or travel can be story starters. Although short-term memory may sometimes be limited in the oldest of relatives, long-term memory may be very much intact. We need to help the teller journey back in time to retrieve these treasures.
Here are some effective questions that might encourage elders to remember their stories.