Sharing life stories builds connections, maintains history

Posted July 28, 2008

From ancient oral traditions to journals, memoirs and modern-day scrap booking, parents and grandparents pass on family and individual life stories to younger generations to give them a sense of place and identity. In addition to history, these stories provide insight into cultural, ethnic and religious values. And when grandparents tell their life stories, a special bond with grandchildren is formed.

It’s helpful for children to know who they are and where they came from, according to Carole Netherton, education and family services coordinator for the Alzheimer’s Association chapter in Raleigh. Netherton notes that when stories are shared, children can identify with their grandparents on a different level and really get to know them as individuals. “It demystifies for a child where the parents and grandparents come from,” she says.

The importance of hearing grandparents’ life stories, Netherton notes, helps children “appreciate what they have and learn about history through the eyes of a family member.” These stories also demonstrate how everyone had to contribute to the well-being of the family and the sacrifices that were made, she says.

According to Meimei Ma of Cary, her mother, G.F. Ma, wrote and self-published a book about her family history not just as a grandparent, but as a senior member of her generation.

G.F. Ma’s father, Chu Cheng, was a well-known figure in China, but all of his personal letters and memoirs, as well as other texts about him, are in Chinese. Ma felt it was important to convey this information in English because of the many descendants outside of China who will never read the Chinese texts. She read these texts and personal letters and wrote a chronology of Chu’s life interspersed with Chinese history, along with family story notes.

From the cultural heritage standpoint, Meimei Ma notes that celebrating Chinese holidays or festivals is a significant way to pass on cultural identity since every celebration is a connection with family and social values. This holds true for all cultures.

“Sharing the family story, as well as traditions and culture, helps teach the rules and roles that define a family and how it operates – its heritage, especially if there’s distance between the grandchildren and grandparents or if there are multiple ethnic, religious or racial heritages represented in the family,” Netherton says.

Other ways to share life stories:

  • Conduct and record an oral interview, asking questions that will help your children better understand their grandparents. Kids might enjoy creating their own questions.
  • Assemble old family photos for your parents and children. Whether in fancy scrapbooks or plain photo albums, the pictures will encourage grandparents to share life stories.
  • Ensure your kids have plenty of visits with grandparents, if feasible. Your children can share these memories with their children and grandchildren.

Al and Catherine Blalock of Cary are retired and enjoy having the opportunity to be involved in their grandchildren’s lives, particularly their two local grandsons. Al regales them with stories about his childhood and does special activities with them. Catherine teaches them how to sew, paint and draw.

They share photos and stories of their daughter with their grandsons. “I like teaching the family structure to them,” Catherine Blalock says, “so that they understand their mother was a little girl once.”

They will share the vignettes Al’ Blalocks grandmother wrote about growing up in Warrenton when the kids are older, she says.

The Blalocks show their grandkids who they are by setting a good example. “I just hope to teach them by what I do or don’t do, and say or don’t say around them,” Al Blalock says.

It’s important to write or record memories earlier rather than later, before significant people pass away or lose cognitive function due to dementia.

Many how-to books are available on writing memoirs, interviewing loved ones or creating family history videos. Here are some resources to consider:

  • The Legacy Project, an educational, multi-generational project that offers free online resources. One of the programs, Across Generations, includes a Grandparents’ Day Kit with ideas for activities like storytelling, interviewing a grandparent and scrap booking. The project’s founding chair, Susan V. Bosak, wrote "A Little Something" and its soft-cover version, "Something to Remember Me By," which focus on the love and legacies passed from one generation to the next.
  • "In Grandpa’s Hands," a book that depicts items that serve as prompts for grandparents to share stories.
  • "The Grandmother Book" might be specifically aimed at grandmothers, but the book contains writing prompts and questions and includes picture pages. Ideas are adaptable to individual family situations, including grandfathers.

Whether written or oral, formal or informal, encouraging your parents to share their stories will enable your children to gain a healthy sense of self that will benefit future generations.


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