This morning I took my breakfast out to the back porch to enjoy a crystal blue sky and a beautiful early September morning. With the September 11th anniversary upon us, I couldn’t help but remember that on the morning of 9/11 the air had a very similar feel to it. Crisp, clear, and with no hint of what was to come. My daughter was in Kindergarten and I remember running to school to pick her up, wondering how to explain to her what had happened. The other day I asked her about it, because I wondered what the memories would be like from her perspective. It was interesting to hear the things she remembered and what stood out to her.
As family historians, we go back in time and learn about the things that happened to our ancestors and if you’re like me you wonder what it was like for them. The immigrant ancestor crossing an ocean to a new world, the Civil War soldier preparing for battle, the housewife finding a way to support her family when her husband is unable to work—what was it like from their perspective?
Sometimes we get lucky. We may have correspondence, a diary, or perhaps some pieces of the story passed down through the family. Or maybe we find insights into a time or event as it was recorded by our ancestors’ contemporaries—a neighbor’s diary, or a letter written home from a soldier who fought in the same battle as a relative. Too often though, we have to satisfy ourselves with small clues found in records and by reading a generic and impersonal history. Don’t you wish your ancestors were like you and had left some sort of legacy in their own words?
Some of you, like me, may have felt a little guilt twinge there. It’s time. I am determined to leave my stories for my daughter and her children—and their children. I don’t want future generations wondering, “What was that like?”
I have several journals lying around where I’ve recorded a handful of memories, news from our family, and reactions to events in the world around us. Too many of them begin with, “Today I will get organized and start recording my personal history.”
Today is that day, and I’ve got some ideas to make it work this time.
Use What You Have
In this day and age, we may not realize it but we’re journaling all the time—probably more so than in years past. Our Facebook status updates, Tweets, emails to friends and family, blog posts, calendar entries, holiday letters—all of them chronicle our lives. Even if they’re not detailed, they can form a framework we can work with. Make a habit of copying and saving relevant electronic updates into a document on your computer.
To organize these mini-entries of sorts, start a folder and just add to it as you go. Begin the name of each document, photo, or other memory with the date like this: 20110911Trip. That way if you sort by file name, when you look into that file your memories will be in chronological order.
Break It Down
When you look back at your entire life, the prospect of putting it on paper can be daunting. Break down the task into segments—perhaps a decade at a time. Use photographs and timelines to prompt you. Pretend you’re one of those ancestors you’d love to know more about. What would you like to ask them? Then ask yourself that question. (See today’s second feature for a list of even more questions to get you started.)
Don’t feel like you have to do it in order. Let your memories take you where they will and enjoy the ride. When you’re reminded of something or a memory comes flooding back, just take a few minutes to capture it. It doesn’t have to be edited and ready for public consumption at that moment. When you get more time, go back to it and fill in the blanks, making it into a story. As you continue to collect the stories in this way, soon you’ll realize you’re on your way.
Find It a Home
One of the biggest challenges I have is finding the right medium. I’m one of those people caught between the paper and electronic world, wanting the best of both. The small journal I can curl up with in the yard and the computer where I can quickly copy and paste all those emails and Facebook posts both have a place in my journaling world. What I need is a place where paper and electronics can live happily together. I have a lot of stories in those unfinished journals, and I have electronic notes that I’ll need to bring together when I begin compiling a more cohesive story. In the case of my journals, I may have to go in and weave those words into stories I have in electronic form. In some cases, I may take the easy way out and scan a few pages. After all, how cool is it to find great-grandma’s words in her own handwriting, right?
For the compiled version of all the stories and thoughts I’ve collected, I’ve just created a word-processing document. It’s easy to edit, add photos and images when I’m inclined, and I can rearrange portions easily without worrying about format problems. I can also export sections. For example, a story about me and my grandma can be copied into the Stories section of my online tree and attached to both of us.
“But My Story Isn’t Interesting.”
Perhaps the biggest obstacle when you’re trying to preserve your family story is the notion that your story isn’t interesting, or that no one is interested in learning how a historic event impacted you. Think about it this way. When you’re trying to decide whether to include something, ask yourself whether you’d like to hear a similar story if it was your great-grandmother. My guess is, the answer will be yes. So today, on this day of reflection, let’s start together.