Kara Long Dec 1, 2021
In this 12-part series, we’ll be highlighting the life of a beloved family member: Uncle Al. He was a WW2 Vet, a Ford Motors man, and an amazing storyteller. This is a story about stories, and how your stories can shape your family’s legacy.
I learned more about World War 2 in one afternoon spent with Uncle Al than I ever cared to retain when I was in school. Was it because Uncle Al was a better teacher than any of my professional, teach-this-subject-every-year high school history teachers? I’m betting not (they were all amazing teachers!). No, I learned and absorbed this information from Uncle Al with a childlike delight because it happened to him. He lived through it. I was listening to someone who was really there.
I mentioned in an earlier article that I’m actually not a history buff and could easily get bored at a history museum. It would be an entirely different story if you put me in a museum of my family’s personal artifacts and stories and pictures. Knowing where I came from, where my parents came from, and my grandparents came from is meaningful and fascinating to me. Some of my favorite memories I have with my family—of each generation, I was lucky enough to know personally—were sitting together and sharing stories.
With this in mind, I want to talk about three benefits of recording your parents’ or grandparents’ stories that you might not immediately think about—or that you might unintentionally take for granted.
The first benefit is one I just mentioned: education. Our Elders experienced things differently than we did, in times when we either didn’t exist or didn’t know what was going on. To hear them talk about what life was like in a different time, whether they were in the middle of it or hearing of it in the news, is like getting a window into the past directly from the source. From Al, I learned that the entire auto industry converted during WW2; Chrysler made tanks! I couldn’t believe it! From Al’s wife, Bev, I learned a little about nursing before there was Penicillin, and how Penicillin was treated as a miracle drug no one really understood when it first came out. What innocuous tidbits of information do your parents and grandparents have that would blow your mind and give you a new appreciation for the luxuries we have today and society as we know it?
The second benefit is one that probably comes to mind immediately, but I’m going to put a spin on it that you might not have thought of. The benefit is connection. When we sit down together and share stories, we are connecting to one another in a very critical way. In these past years during the pandemic, everyone around the world has likely felt the importance of connection, and sadly, there were countless who suffered because they could not receive it. When we include our Elders in these conversations, it is a point of integral connection that extends to everyone involved. But what we may not consider is how this connection extends outward, endlessly. In my family, all the children born from this point forward will one day have access to Uncle Al’s stories. They’ll be able to grow up “knowing” him in a way that would not be possible without the record of his stories. Maybe it will inspire them to serve their country, or to take after Uncle Al in learning about machines or not taking life too seriously. Descendants a hundred years from now could know of Uncle Al and his heroism. I can’t think of a better way to honor him.
The last one really strikes a chord, especially in light of the isolation many of our Elders experience at assisted living facilities, retirement homes, in hospitals—in normal circumstances, but made infinitely worse by the pandemic. The third benefit is appreciation. At my company, I have talked to Elders who truly seemed to believe they had nothing worth sharing—that no one would ever want to or care to hear their stories. This was heartbreaking on so many levels. If you’re an Elder reading this, I want you to know that this just isn’t true. At the bare minimum, there is one person (me!) who would be fascinated and enchanted by your stories, no matter how small they might seem to you. But I would go out on a limb and say you do have family and friends who would share my belief that you have so much stored in that amazing mind of yours—who would appreciate you and everything you’ve experienced in your lifetime. If you’re the son, daughter, or grandchild of an Elder reading this, please understand that having these conversations, recording their stories, ensuring their stories are saved and passed down can help our Elders feel seen, heard, valued, and appreciated. Tell them how much it would mean to you to have recordings of your favorite stories, or of their entire life’s story. They may have no idea it would mean anything to you until you tell them.
Education, connection, and appreciation are three deeply impactful reasons to have a conversation with your Elders about recording their stories. Some Elders still may not want to share their stories, and you’ll have to accept and respect their wishes on that. But please don’t make the mistake of assuming they know how much it would mean to you. It could make the difference in creating your family’s legacy.
Stay tuned for Part 10, where we’ll dive deeper into an appreciation of our own journeys and explore what is worth sharing. Or, if you’d like to read this series from the beginning, click here for Part 1.