The Power of Story: Yours, Mine and Ours

The Power of Story: Yours, Mine and Ours

This is a guest post by genealogy professional Thomas MacEntee. He specializes in the use of technology and social media to improve genealogical research and as a means of interacting with others in the family history community. His latest endeavor is Genealogy Bargains, a way to save money on genealogy and family history products and services.

“Mommy? Where are you?”

At age four, I almost drowned in a lake at my father’s hunting camp in upstate New York. It is one of my earliest memories that remain with me to this day. I remember looking up from the water and seeing my mother reach down for me. I could see her, almost clearly, yet she could not see me. And time stood still.

My mother saved me that day after I had wandered away from the rest of the family and slipped on the wet grass along the bank of the lake. Luckily, it was only a few seconds after I fell in that she realized something had happened. While on her hands and knees at the water’s edge, she frantically reached around the murky bottom until she was able to grab the waist of my pants and pull me out.

I was saved that day. It was one of several times when this gentle yet strong woman would agitate the waters of my life, to save me and then soothe me to make those waters calm.

* * *

One Story, Many Perspectives

I wrote the small story above in 2009 based on not just my recollections, but on an interview with my mother back in 2002. This was just as her early-onset dementia, a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease, was setting in and I was scrambling to save our family stories. While the near drowning was my earliest memory, I needed my mother’s input, recall and perspective to fill out the story so I could preserve it for the future.

From that interview, I then branched out to other family members either who were there or who had heard of the incident. I discovered that while I had swallowed some water and I was crying, I was seemingly unharmed on that sunny day in autumn. I remember riding back home in someone’s truck, wrapped in a blanket. I also know to this day that swimming and being in water is one of my least favorite activities.

Without the help of family members and others, an important event in my life would have gone undocumented and be lost for the ages. How many of your own life stories are waiting to be preserved and then shared with others?

Who Is Capturing Your Family Stories?

I have been preserving my own family’s history and stories for more than 20 years, and I have found the process of evaluating family stories and ensuring that they endure for future generations to be extremely rewarding. Here is what I have found to be true when it comes to taking on the responsibility of capturing the stories that matter:

  • Don’t delay. While it can seem overwhelming to record interviews with family members and to preserve them, don’t put it off for “another day.” In addition, don’t expect someone else in the family to take on the task. For each day you delay, you risk losing a family member and their memories. Stories preserved on media – slides, film and more – break down and deteriorate over time.
  • Make a plan. Even big projects that seem too difficult to take on are made easier when viewed as smaller tasks. Lists are your friend: make a list of “to do” and “action items,” as well as a list of existing items needing preservation.
  • Get help. Yes, the duty of story keeping usually falls to one person in a family but, if you look closely, you will notice how that person enlists others to help out. Seek out those with special skills such as writing, converting files, scanning photos, and more. Set up “work days” when family members meet to accomplish important tasks. Also, tap into the vibrant community of professionals and vendors who sell their services and knowledge of family history preservation.
  • Think long term. When setting your sights on preserving stories and mementos, think decades in the future, not just years. Make sure digitized items are stored using the latest technology and employ multiple backups. Keep up with changes to technology and upgrade – before it is too late.
  • Pass it on. Preserving your family’s history is more than just work; it can be a journey of discovery for you as well. Take time to document what you are doing, your thoughts and feelings – perhaps in a journal or online. Then look to the next generation of story keepers and make sure they understand the importance of family history preservation.

Tools for Documenting Your Life and the Lives of Others

The genealogy community is currently focusing on family history stories during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and many are working to ensure that all family stories are saved for the future. What can you do to be a part of this movement? Here are some ideas:

  • One Sentence Diary: This free website prompts you to write one sentence each day about your life. An easy way to capture your memories each and every day.
  • LiveScribe Echo Smartpen: This amazing device not only records everything you write but also what you hear during an interview or family discussion so you never miss a word! “Smartpens record everything you write and hear so you’ll never miss a word. Replay your meetings or lectures simply by tapping on your notes*. The free Echo Desktop application saves your notes and recordings to your computer for fast, easy access to what is important. Search for words within your notes and find what you need fast. Easily send and share your notes and audio via email or a variety of other sites and services.”
  • Saving Memories Forever: An easy-to-use app for Android and iOS devices, Saving Memories Forever not only records your stories and interviews, it also offers prompts to get your family sharing those stories!
  • Flip-Pal® mobile scanner – now with StoryScans™: One effective way to bring out the family stories and to get different voices and perspectives is to bring out the family photos! The Flip-Pal mobile scanner is a great tool for scanning any sized photo and now it has a great feature: StoryScans which can capture the audio storytelling about the photo being scanned.
  • Treelines: Treelines bills itself as “a robust storytelling platform with full family tree integration.” Click here to see a sample “story line.” You can upload photos, enter text and even upload a family tree file (in GEDCOM format), but you can’t upload audio files of interviews with family. The end product appears along a timeline for a specific ancestor.
  • StoryWorth: Billing itself as a way for anyone who wants to . . . “learn about family, connect with loved ones, and preserve memories,” StoryWorth will prompt you weekly with “questions you’ve never thought to ask” about your family. A neat feature is the ability for relatives to add their own perspectives via email or record a story via voicemail.
  • Preserving Your Family’s Oral History and Stories: One of my best-selling books (Kindle or PDF) offers a strategic plan covering technology, interview questions and more, to ensure that your family stories are preserved for years to come.

Once you begin to build a library of family stories, a great place to put them to work is at MyHeritage. Added to your family tree, the power of those stories will help keep your family members engaged in your family history research.

© 2015, copyright Thomas MacEntee. All rights reserved.


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  • Geoffrey J. Gill

    November 30, 2015

    These seem to be great tools to document both your own life and that of the entire family. You are quite right — time is of the essence. As I currently work with the genealogy of my family, I often wish I had been able to quiz my Mother & Father and aunts and uncles to a much greater extent. Many in our family don’t seem to have much time for genealogy. I think they are making a mistake.

  • John Barnett

    November 30, 2015

    After a tough cancer fight at age 68 (had been very healthy and strong until then) I began writing a memoir. It encompasses family and friends. It is a zeitgeist of the late 20th century as seen by my eyes, which should be interesting to my unborn great great nieces and nephews. I had never written anything much before.
    Finally done last year. Took two years., all 125 pages of it. Had it published privately (50 copies) for about $600. I gave it only to close relatives and and a few very dear friends; the remaining 30 copies will be given away after I’m outa here.
    This, and my genealogy of over 2000 relatives, will be a gift to my descendants that will last far longer than the meager money I leave behind.

  • Luisa Ribot

    November 30, 2015

    Mr. Thomas ,
    Very interesting your information.I have work in archivews and the most of people don’t know where the information found.Thanks ,

  • Anna Maria Masiak

    November 30, 2015

    Your point about not delaying is so true. We always procrastinate and put things off until ‘tomorrow’. Thing is, months and even years can go by, and we still keep putting it off. There really is no better time than right now to start preserving your story. You should also add to your list. I am a member there and they have a fantastic platform for preserving stories for future generations. Definitely worth a look!

    Thanks for the advice Thomas!

  • Yvonne Hudacek

    December 1, 2015

    Have already written three family history books, recording everything discovered fo all the years ahead. My own family don’t show much interest, but the extended one have been keen – purchasing my books, and offering information from research. Two family reunions have been the result, and empowering for all.

  • Ruby Casteel

    December 1, 2015

    Great ideas.

  • Jill Davy

    December 1, 2015

    Technology is great but it is not very personal. I think that handwriting should be preserved, letters, cards etc. Even a signature is a more direct link to a person. Some handwriting is beautiful and some shocking. The only sample of my mother’s writing is on the back of a photo she sent me 50 years ago. I have copied the photo and displayed the writing.

  • Maureen Whiting

    December 1, 2015

    Love the idea of “one sentence” a day. Inspiring as I go in fits and starts with my genealogy. Yes, I would love to be able to quiz my parents, too late of course.

  • Joyce Gillam nee Hampson

    December 2, 2015

    Joyce Gillam nee Hampson nee Singer. I am now 87 years old and wish that I had done this while as you say my Ancestors were alive but while we are young we are so busy living our own lives and doing our own things. I have been remembering heaps of things and lots of them are about WW2 as I was 11 years old when it started. I did not get to do any of the things that teenagers do because at the end of it I met my darling husband and we got married when I was 18. He had just returned from 4 years in the RAF in Burma. I have had a very happy life, 4 children, 8 Grandchildren and 8 Great Grandchildren.

  • William Power

    December 2, 2015

    I’ve traced my family tree and given all my family and immediate descendants the wherefores of why they’re here, but as for my 50 or 100 year descendants; if they’re really interested, they’ll find me with a bit of searching and without any help from me.

  • Maree Coombes-Pearce

    December 2, 2015

    If only we were blessed with the wisdom of hindsight . I have always loved just talking to people and hearing their life story . Now at the age of 64, my biggest regret is not asking more from my parents.

  • Al Opstal

    December 2, 2015

    Technology changes so fast that digital memories will fade fast
    Who’s to make a backup after we are gone? Or change the files from an obsolete format. All this effort is wasted if we do not first create digital files that can be read in the very distant future. I have photo and word files from 20 years ago that I cannot read anymore. A hard copy is currently the only option.

  • Daphne Johnson >Nee Thornbury

    December 3, 2015

    Great idea Family r always important but finding out where u really came from is fascinating and it is hard when your Family never talked about other members of their Family…
    Daphne Johnson…Nee Thornbury

  • Daphne Johnson >Nee Thornbury

    December 3, 2015

    Well Done..

  • Wardney Duane Landacre

    December 3, 2015

    As far back as I can remember, I have had an interest in my family geneology. Unfortunately, I waited too late to do anything about it. About thirty five years age, I started taking a more active role. I attende a family reunion, on my mother’s side of the family and, while there, I meet the family historian. We talked about the family and I told him I was in the process of preparing my family history, both on my mother’s side as well as on my father’s side. He asked if I would be willing to share information that I collected on my mother’s side of the family. Agreeing to do so, he kindly told me he was willing to share what he had collected. He pulled out a six foot long piece of computer paper with my mother’s side of the family going all the way back to 1610. All the time, I thought my mother’s maiden name (Clowser) was Scot. Much to my surprise, he informed me it was German. I had already determined that my father’s last name was German (after so many years listening to my grandfather claiming to Dutch). From this point forward, I have been very actively searching for information about the family. As part of that process, I decided to write my memoirs-mostly for the benefit of my granddaughters. I believe I owe it to my granddaughters. My son has developed an interest in our family history and is now taking an active roll in developing it.

  • Joan von Brughan, nee Macmillan

    December 3, 2015

    I’ve researched family history records since about 1990 but have very few stories, mainly names, dates and places. I’ve also kept journals of my immediate family’s life for the past 30 odd years. I would like to get ideas of how I can use these best in order to stimulate other family members to keep records.

  • Robin Stinton

    December 3, 2015

    I agree that keeping disc files may be the best bet technically but Im afraid a large number of us are onlyLuddites.
    Whatever else you do you MUST go and talk to Grandma and Auntie Elsieas once they’regone you lose so much !!!!!!

  • Ruth Johnstone

    December 4, 2015

    i have made several attempts to get my life story going ,get so far and then leave it off,not sure that anyone would be interested.

  • Jane Jackson Rhoades

    December 5, 2015

    I’m 73 now and stared tracing family two years ago I wanted to finish the work a first cousin had started in the 70s in1979 he stopped search in the request of his six children they felt he spend more time searching for people they would never know.And they wanted all his time for them. He closed what had written in1979 asking with a hope someone take over an search.In 2011 I found his work in a trunk of my deceased Mothers and as I read I knew what I had to do.He found great grandfather 7th I’ve found 15th.I would like to put it in book for the family.

  • MaryAnn Mouritz

    December 6, 2015

    Your account has made me see how important it is to write down what you know about family while there is time! I am in process of beginning an account of my grandfather who died before I was born, but who appears to me to be quite an interesting character in what I do know about him. I just need to get on with it. I began the processing of copying some of his archival material he left behind some years ago, but clearly, I need to get on with it, not to mention, my own life stories! As an aspiring writer, the least I can do is leave behind a few stories of my own and of others, which however, require some fairly extensive research from family members still surviving and other sources, and as many others have commented, I need to do that whilst the key family members are still with us!

  • Jaquix

    December 6, 2015

    Ive just finished a book of 252 pages, including 4 photos and scanned documents. If took a year of hard slog but I am very pleased with the result. Its now been printed and sent to 9 cousins who are interested. I found out so much while doing it, and thought it would never end. But it did, and it was a labour of love really. I started with the life of my paternal grandfather, and went from there, back to his grandparents and their 13 children. Not sure how best to store electronically for long term.

  • Sirkka Stephens

    December 8, 2015

    I have a wealth of information, my mother kept all the letters she received since a teenager. My father and she wrote letters to each other before their marriage and when he took part in two wars, there are also letters she wrote in answer to his. She and I corresponded when apart especially while I lived in Australia and she in Finland. I interviewed her many times, so did some other relatives, we wrote travel diaries, she was interviewed in the TV on a day in her life. My maternal grandfather wrote a diary, of which maybe a bit over a third has been preserved. I have written many sentences on different things that happened in the past, in order to enlarge on them later. I wrote over eighty pages on my divorce and on things happening around it.That is in English, my native language is Finnish.
    That presents a problem, I have written much in English but most of the material is in Finnish. Because of circumstances, my daughter will be the last of my descendants who can speak Finnish, so I have lots of translation to do into English, so my grandchildren can read what I write. I have done lots already but the task is huge.There is not so much material about my other relatives. Some older relatives only exist as names in my memory, and though my mother lived to 99, I had not realized I should have asked her more about them, there are many relationships between many people i do not know.