A few years ago, my husband and I drove around Northern California in a rented camper van. We decided to take a detour to the coastal town of Ferndale. Ferndale is where Jim’s grandmother was born and where his great-grandfather lived to the age of 110. Or 112, depending on which family story you subscribe to.
Curious about family history, we explored the Ferndale museum and were lucky enough to encounter a volunteer who knew about the Kelsey family. She gave us directions to the original home and family grave site. Even more exciting, she gave us a cardboard box of photos, albums, and documents which had been in the Kelsey home when the new owners took possession. She said she was hoping someday to reunite these items with a member of the family, and we fit the bill.
Back home, we sorted through the jumbled treasures. There were articles from the San Francisco Chronicle acknowledging the longevity of Samuel T. Kelsey. There was a photo album from the time great-grandad visited his daughter in Alaska. We recognized many of the locations in the black-and-white snapshots.
Also in the box were a dozen or more portraits that appear, from the style and the clothing, to be from the 1920s and 30s. Posed studio photos of gentlemen, ladies, and children in their Sunday best; most mounted in protective folders. Who were these people? Were they family, or just a random collection?
I flipped each photo over, hoping someone had written a name or a date. Nothing. I even took advantage of deteriorating glue and peeled them off their backing, hoping for hidden clues. Nothing there either. So now these people sit in their box. Unknown. Their stories have been lost to time. This got me thinking about the hundreds of unmarked photos and digital files illustrating my life, as well as the boxes and albums my parents will pass on to me.
Yes, it’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but what about pictures that won’t betray even a hint of their story? I yearn to know about the lives behind the images.
A Gift for Future Generations
To fill in the branches of our history, we look to genealogy and construct ancestry maps. DNA can now point to where in the world our family originated. But it’s through stories we learn about the lives, the loves, and the livings of those who came before. Families with a story-telling tradition can bring to life those who came before, keeping them present in our daily lives. Even so, some stories are lost and forgotten, while others morph and change depending on the skill of the storyteller.
You make careful plans to distribute your wealth and possessions to the next generation. Shouldn’t you also document your stories? Sharing your history helps family connect with you, your times, your personality, and your values.
Telling your own story allows you to document who you are, what you’ve done, and the challenges you’ve faced and overcome. It’s a way to pass along the lessons you’ve learned and share life’s adventures. You’ve lived through vast societal changes and technological advancements. Think of what younger generations can learn from your experiences!
Controlling Your Narrative
Okay, so you’ve been telling stories for years, isn’t it enough to ask the family to remember them? Perhaps they will. Or maybe they won’t. Controlling your own narrative means documenting your stories the way you want them told, and the way you want to be remembered. And it can be a lot of fun!
Start writing, if you feel so inclined. If you’d like some help, hire a personal historian. A personal historian will help you decide which stories to tell, ask good questions to fill in the details, and do the hard work of writing the first draft. Since it’s your story, you can include (or leave out) anything you like. Your personal historian will then help you preserve your stories to be passed along to family.
Decide how you want to be remembered. And have fun doing it! Contact me so we can get working on your personal history project – one story at a time.