Summer gatherings: a great way to learn about your family history

If your summers are anything like my husband’s and mine, you’ll find yourself at quite a few family gatherings—weddings, birthday parties, picnics and barbecues—hosted by close, as well as distant, relatives.

Those of us who are interested in our family histories and family stories can take advantage of these perfect occasions to stroll over to a cousin, uncle, or grandparent, and talk with them about their lives. This is the time to capture forgotten or overlooked segments of your family background; you might be surprised to find that many of your relatives have been waiting years to share this information.

Make sure to put a pen and small pad in your purse or pocket so you’ll be prepared to take notes or get contact information for follow-up questions or to arrange an interview.

Why write about your family?

I teach memoir and family history writing and have had the pleasure, besides researching and writing about my own family’s history, of hearing the engaging, enlightening and often revealing stories written by my adult students.

Writing about your family enables you to preserve history that might otherwise be lost. It allows your current family members and future generations to gain insight into the obstacles their ancestors overcame and the joys they experienced. The stories you write can commemorate family members’ achievements and help you share family values. And you will profit by a new perspective on your family—and yourself.

How to record your family stories

Writing about your family doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated. Here are some ways you can develop your stories:

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A simple collection of unconnected anecdotes. One of my students wrote about an excessively frugal member of her French Canadian family. She also wrote about family vacations when she was a child. Another student wrote a 60th birthday tribute to his sister by recounting anecdotes from their childhood together.

A single aspect of your family’s history. You could explore the unusual ways your family celebrated certain holidays. Or assemble their favourite jokes—you know, the ones told at every family event that provoke as much laughter as if those present had never heard them before. In my case, I wrote about my mother’s side of the family’s peculiar monetary practices.

Here’s another example: My husband’s mother and her five siblings moved around a lot when they were growing up. One year, my husband’s sister went with their mother to locate all the houses my mother-in-law’s family had lived in over the years. They noted the addresses and took photos of the houses. They then surprised my mother-in-law’s sisters and brothers with their discoveries.

What a delightful treat this was for the recipients! For some, it brought back memories of their times in a particular house. For others this was new information, as only a few of my husband’s aunts and uncles had lived in more than a handful of the houses. Some hadn’t been born when the family lived in certain houses; others had gone off the to the military or to get married, when the family lived in different homes. So, this modest collection shed light on a part of the family history they were unaware of.

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A fully-fledged family history. You might want to use information collected from relatives to create a complete family history or genealogy, which documents and illustrates relationships on a family tree.

At these summer events, you could explore blood connections and marriages, and even countries and hometowns where different members of your family originated and the reasons they spread out to parts unknown. Your story could focus on how they coped through big upheavals in their lives, like my grandmother’s house being moved from the neighbourhood she had lived in for 50 years to make way for a highway. 

Assembling and distributing your family stories

You don’t need to produce a fancy book. A student of mine copied his family stories onto CDs and presented them to family members at a party.

A client assembled her stories, including legal documents and newspaper articles, into loose-leaf books and distributed them to her family as Christmas gifts. Each year she supplied additional pages containing any new information she dug up, which they added to their books. 

Documenting your family’s stories can be fun, and you’ll enjoy a sense of accomplishment when you’re done. Using the opportunities summer gatherings present is the perfect way to learn more about your family and preserve your family’s history on paper.

About Lynette Benton

I'm a published writer and writing instructor. I guide others in writing about their lives or families. My work has appeared in numerous online and paper publications. My essay, “No More Secrets and Silence,” about how I wrote my memoir, My Mother’s Money, won first prize in the contest sponsored by National Association of Memoir Writers and She Writes Press. It was also anthologized in the collection, The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey. An excerpt from my memoir was a finalist in a 2014 memoir writing contest.