I wish the old clock could talk.
My grandpa brought it home from England where he was stationed with the U.S. Army in World War II. Every time I walk by the clock, I wish I could ask him about it. For much of my childhood, it was broken and stowed away on a closet shelf. As a kid, I was intimately acquainted with the contents of every closet in the old farmhouse, of course, but by the time I was an adult, I had forgotten about it. I asked Grandpa a lot of questions about a lot of things, but never thought to ask about the clock.
Now he’s passed away and the clock has passed to me. I walk by it almost every day and wonder about its story. Where did he buy it? How much did he pay? How did he get it home? What possessed a 20-something farm boy from Delaware County, Ohio, to buy a clock as a souvenir of World War II?
I had all that on my mind last month when I was invited to speak to a senior citizens group on the topic of preserving family stories.
Sitting down and writing an autobiography is something most of us will never do. It’s too intimidating. What we can do, however, is think small-scale. I’ve written enough people stories to know that it’s the little details of life that are most precious. Chances are, our family already knows our life’s timeline and has a pretty good idea of our religious and political views. What they will hunger for someday are stories. And there are some pretty simple ways to document them.
Use family heirlooms as prompts. Look around the house for clocks, jewelry, furniture, quilts, even that iron skillet you inherited from your mother. Write down what you know about them and what they mean to you.
That’s especially important to do with photographs. Go through old photo albums and make notes about the people, events, houses, cars and pets in the pictures. It’s sad to have a family photo no one knows anything about.
Use recipes as prompts. Do you have handwritten recipe cards given to you through the years? Tell about the person who gave you the recipe. Share memories of family events or potluck dinners where that dish was always on the table. What a great wedding gift a recipe book like that would be.
Share about holidays. Recall what Easter, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah or Christmas were like for you as a child or when you were first married. Tell about traditions, cooking disasters and special gifts.
Write in books and Bibles. Some shudder at this, but at least make sure special books are inscribed with your name, how the book came to you if it was a gift, and why it’s important to you. Make notes in the margins of passages that are special to you.
Record your daily activities on your kitchen calendar. The spaces are small, so it doesn’t require time, only discipline. It’s a lot more doable than keeping a journal, yet what a gift to the future.
“Canned six quarts of peaches,” “Attended Megan’s recital,” Took Philip for a haircut,” “Picked berries,” “Roasted a turkey for the church dinner.” All those things tell about who you are and how you choose spend your time. File your calendar away at the end of each year.
Write a letter to a grandchild, niece or nephew, to be opened on a special occasion. Imagine a future birth, wedding, funeral, baptism, Christmas. Tell someone what you would want him or her to know on that day if you could be there. And in that way, you are there.
If writing is physically difficult, try speaking into a recorder. Ask for one as a gift. Then invite an electronics-savvy teenager over for cookies and to help you learn to use it!
And if you decide to try ideas like these to tell your story, make sure your files are well labeled and at least one trusted friend and one family member know about them.
The thing is, you can’t force a child or grandchild to be interested in family history. Most young people are busy with growing up and learning to be themselves. You just have to have faith that someday, when they are grown, they will discover that who they are has a great deal to do with where they come from. Then they will be starving for these morsels from the past.
Above all, maintain a sense of humor about yourself. Writing is not easy, so keep your thoughts on why you want to pass along precious family stories — your love for the people who came before you and for those who will come after.
Contact John Gladden at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @thatjohngladden.