This year, more than ever, as we gather around a tree, table, or screen, we can comfort one another with fond memories—a gift of continuity and hope.
Often, however, the memories we share with family members are fragmented and fluid, without a clear purpose in their telling. We might ignore significant family stories from the past or neglect to add more recent experiences. Over time, family tales can become random, superficial—their meaning lost.
Yet our family stories, once shaped into memorable forms, can still be saved and passed down through the generations. Just as pre-literate tribes shared a common sense of identity, history, and values in their stories, so we can discover exciting, new ways to both preserve and create a family tradition of storytelling.
Family stories matter. Family stories directly impact how we see ourselves because they give us an idea of where we come from and where we’re going. Each family story is a pattern in a patchwork quilt of many colors and fabrics. Like the all the pieces in a multi-colored, homemade quilt, our family stories are a combination of the cultures, histories, and traditions we’ve inherited.
And just like an embracing quilt, our stories bring us comfort: They give us a sense of belonging and create a core identity that can be a great source of empowerment. Sharing family stories can give our children an emerging sense of self, both as individuals and as members of a family. Family members overall can enjoy higher self-esteem and greater resilience—because they are able to draw from a deep, ancestral identity and contribute to it.
If we don’t preserve our family legacy through its central narratives, we will lose it by default. Each generation will be defined by the mainstream media—and given a superficial group identity: boomers, millennials, Gen X or Z.
Family folklore is a ragbag collection of true stories and traditions gathered from the remembered experiences of generations—past and present. It is transmitted through the art of storytelling, either in person or recorded. Storytelling is the main difference between family folklore and the study of genealogy or family history—those record data and information of the past. Family folklore is the age-old custom of passing down stories by word of mouth from one generation to the next. Since family folklore exists as part of the day-to-day life of a family, it is always changing and growing.
Family folklore is both traditional and evolving. It belongs to the entire family, to all the branches in the family tree, and everyone participates in it. Each generation forgets or changes the stories told by the previous generation and, at the same time, adds new stories and lore. In our modern times, with its rapid social and technological change, we might believe the previous generation lived in an entirely different historical era. Yet the lessons of their stories can have as much or greater value to the newer generations.
Collecting family folklore can be a daunting project that could require direct and wide-ranging family engagement. To be practical, you might want to collect, frame, and tell stories from limited sources to share with your closest family members. Even so, preserving past stories is only half the picture. You’ll need to keep your eyes, ears, and mind open to record the stories and lore as they are unfolding.
New traditions are as valid as those that existed for generations. So, even if your focus is just your branch of the family tree, and limited to those family members who live nearby, you’ll need to develop a manageable approach: how to organize lore from the past as well as new traditions and stories from an ever-changing present.
As you reflect on your own family memories and how to retrieve them as stories, you’ll increase your ability to recall them in greater detail. You’ll develop a sense of remembered place and people, enhanced sensory images, and clarity of dialogue. Once you connect to the story making process, you’ll be more able to guide other family members in interviews and recordings.
Unavoidably, you’ll develop your unique point of view, your historical perspective of family events. But be aware that your impressions are only the starting point. Family members can often have an entirely different take on the same event and widely divergent opinions of a family member. Invite members to tell their versions.
Nevertheless, continue to begin with your own memories and refine them in an ongoing process:
- Stretch your family memories into past decades
- Open your mind to new perspectives
- Test your information or interview relatives to verify
- Identify your gaps in information
- Collect new generational stories
- Become aware of new traditions today
Make this a holiday season to remember!
Kate Farrell, storyteller, author, librarian, founded the Word Weaving Storytelling Project and published numerous educational materials on storytelling. She has contributed to and edited award-winning anthologies of personal narrative. Farrell’s new book, a timely how-to guide on the art of storytelling for adults, Story Power: Secrets to Creating, Crafting, and Telling Memorable Stories, was released in June 2020. Recently, Farrell presented workshops for adults on the art of storytelling at the San Francisco Public Library, Mechanics Institute, and the San Francisco Writers Conference. Kate is now offering virtual workshops for libraries and writing groups, as well as performing virtually as a storyteller.