Safeguard the Story
By Crystal Hayduk
Three couples sat lined up at four-top tables as they nursed large cups of coffee at a fast food joint in the middle of the Corn Belt. Nearby, my daughter and I were finishing a quick lunch with hopes of making good time to our destination. But when we couldn’t help overhearing their conversation, I felt compelled to listen for a few minutes longer.
Their exchange transitioned from the history of farmland holdings and antiques to old photographs and 8 mm home movies. “I worry about these relics being lost with the way technology is advancing,” said one silver-haired gentleman.
“You know what else is priceless?” he went on. “Back in the 70s, I made tape recordings of my grandmother telling stories.”
“Movies?” his nearby friend asked to clarify.
“No, just voice recordings. On cassette tapes. What happens when we don’t have the devices to play these anymore?”
One person suggested that a business with the know-how could transfer the items to modern media formats, but all three couples agreed that the memories were treasures that should be preserved.
I spent the rest of the long drive reflecting on my family’s failure to safeguard its history. The old photos that my siblings and I shared after the death of our mother nearly 16 years ago were jumbled in a few shoeboxes. We can’t even identify a number of the people in the pictures. Relatives who might have known the stories have also passed away, resulting in huge gaps in knowledge of family history.
The only recording of our mother’s voice belongs to my brother, who saved her final message to him on a microcassette tape from his answering machine.
When I was a young woman, I had fleeting thoughts about learning past family stories. But I was busy with work and children. I fell victim to the magical thinking that my feisty grandmother and active parents would be ready to talk when I had the time. Until suddenly, they couldn’t. My ancestors, grandparents and parents--who survived some of the hardest times in history, who marveled at inventions of things I take for granted, whose existence is the reason my children and I are alive today--have gone to their graves. Now, only God knows their stories.
Ten Ways to Safeguard Your Family’s Stories
1. Seek out locally available help, such as life story writing classes at libraries, senior centers, or community colleges that your loved one may wish to attend.
2. Each time you talk to or visit your family member, ask a question about the past. Short, frequent sessions may be preferable to lengthy sessions that may be tiring.
3. Keep a journal to document new stories you learn or ones you’ve previously heard.
4. If permitted, video or audio record your loved one storytelling.
5. Ask to look at old photographs. Learn who is in them, where they were taken, and the events of the day.
6. Research services that digitize and preserve photographs and recordings.
7. Be sensitive to possible challenges involved in reminiscence such as poor memory, reluctance to recall or discuss difficult times, or potential inner conflict over unresolved past issues.
8. Accept the stories and thank your loved one for sharing important family history with you.
9. Understand that it may be easier to share personal history with a caregiver than a family member, especially if there is fear of judgment.
10. In the rare event that depression follows reminiscence, seek professional assistance.
Our Family Friend caregivers can assist with recording memories, taking clients to local group life story events, and observing behavior in the weeks following sharing sessions.