Your Personal History
Your Greatest Gift to Your Family Can Be Your Life Story
May 19, 2010
Have you ever opened a box of old photographs and had no idea who these people were and how they related to you and your family? Did you ever wonder about your parents' and grandparents' life choices?
These days, with an aging population and the fact that multiple generations no longer live under the same roof, there is no greater gift we can give our loved ones than the stories of our lives in the form of a personal history. A personal history goes beyond genealogy and brings a family tree to life. By telling our stories now, we allow future generations to get to know their ancestors' personalities, experiences and wisdom.
Everybody has a story to tell. Every person's life is interesting. No matter how ordinary you may think your life is, it can be extraordinary to your descendants and to future researchers. As Mark Twain said, "There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility." Your stories are unique and can be told only by you. Telling your stories helps you appreciate your struggles and accomplishments. You examine the events of your life and the feelings you had, explore choices you made and roads you took, and honor those who helped you along the way. You begin to see the overall path and themes of your life, and realize that your life really has made a difference.
For your family, friends and loved ones, your life story is your most important legacy. Your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will get to know the real you, not just as a parent, sister, uncle or friend. Besides entertaining your loved ones with amusing stories of pleasant times, you can describe how you overcame troubled times, teaching survival skills by example and providing inspiration for someone facing similar challenges in the future.
For example, last spring, the Ohio Department of Aging asked for stories about the Great Depression from Ohioans who lived through it. We wanted to gather recollections and lessons learned that people today could use for perspective on our current economic situation and perhaps some advice for surviving in adversity. More than 300 individuals sent in their stories of life during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. We posted excerpts of those stories on our Web site in September, where they have been viewed more than 6,000 times. You can find these stories at http://aging.ohio.gov/news/greatdepressionstoryproject/
In the process of remembering and sharing your stories, you regain memories that you may have forgotten. At the end of the process, you will have gained a wider vision of your life and your place in the history of your family and your world. There may be other discoveries for you, too, in the course of remembering past years. By exploring the lives of your parents and grandparents, for instance, you might gain insight into your family's health history or discover talents and affinities that run in the family. You also may reconnect with long lost relatives.
While documenting your personal history may seem overwhelming at first, if you do it a little at a time, you will find it much less intimidating. Begin with the basic structure. Start with you and tell where and when you were born. Then, tell a little about your parents. Later you may want to write about your parents' lives in greater detail. A concise personal history might describe a few of your childhood memories, your school days, your friends, favorite toys or pets, or it simply may tell where you grew up and what work your father did.
Write down the feeling of an event. In 40 years, your family will be more interested in how you felt about a wedding or birthday party, not what food was served. Be honest and, if times were hard, do not gloss over it. Leave out negative feelings about others unless it is important. Your children want to know your struggles and personal thoughts - not what an idiot you thought a certain relative was.
Remember that a personal history can be more than your own written word. Put your photographs in chronological order and label them. Compile your letters to and from family and friends. With today's technology, you can interview family members and record their memories, allowing future children to see and hear their ancestors in a way that has not been possible before.
There is no greater gift we can give our loved ones than the stories of our lives. By saving our stories, we create a legacy for our families, make history come alive, increase our own appreciation for the paths our lives have taken, and ensure that our lives will not be forgotten.
Barbara E. Riley