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Share oral history between generations

By Barry Ewell

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Sept. 14 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

Sharing oral history between generations is an important way to capture stories that otherwise would be lost for generations. Following are a few ideas to consider:

Meet and get to know your relatives

Take the opportunity to meet relatives. Often they provide important insight into the history and makeup of the family. For example:

Break the ice with relatives you hardly know by talking about your shared family history.

Aunts, uncles and cousins might have extra information that can help piece parts of your family history together, bringing it to life and at the same time bringing you closer to your relatives who are strangers.

Pulling out old family photo albums can really be helpful in finding out where you fit in with your relatives and where you came from.

As you become better acquainted with your relatives, you will also get the opportunity to meet even more relatives, such as the children and spouses of your relatives.

If you make an effort to form a relationship with them and get to know them personally, you will learn more about your relatives.

Meeting and learning about relatives who are virtual strangers can be very daunting because you will not know what to expect or how they will feel toward you.

In order to make the new relationship with your relatives work, you must be willing to open up, learn about them and tell them what you can about yourself.

  • One genealogist shares this experience: "I'll ever be grateful that I was able to visit my relatives in Iceland with my father and aunt. Here I was exposed to the language and the culture which I grew to love and appreciate. My Aunt Hulda there taught me how to make Icelandic pancakes, even though she did not speak English and I did not speak the Icelandic language. But one can feel the great love of relatives and learn to love them deeply."

    Here is a tip from Familysearch.org: Take your children with you as you visit with a relative and teach them how to talk comfortably with older people. Explain what is appropriate and what is not appropriate.

    Familysearch.org suggests asking these types of questions:

    >Where did you grow up?

    What were your parents like? Your siblings?

    What do you remember about your grandparents?

    Who were your friends?

    What was school like for you?

    What did you do for fun when you were a child? When you were a teenager?

    What movies and songs did you like when you were young?

    How did you meet your spouse?

    What important lessons have you learned in your life?

    Gather oral histories

    Recording or transcribing oral histories is an excellent assignment for a member of the family who loves to talk with older family members or for someone who is a good typist. Not a lot of training or equipment is required to record or transcribe these histories. A good quality tape/digital recorder or video camera, batteries, tapes and a curious mind are all that is needed.

    Many older family members love to talk about their lives to younger family members. These older family members are usually quite honored to have someone in the family interested in what happened to them in their earlier years. Most of these oral histories are full of wonderful family information and can be a great legacy for future generations.

    Have grandchildren interview grandparents and ask only four questions. Allow the children to choose the questions and record the answers. Grandparents will tell grandchildren things they will not tell their own children. If the children have a knowledge of history, have them ask grandparents about historical events, such as World War II. Combine and share these stories.

    Editor's note: The original version of this story posted on Sept. 14, 2013 failed to properly attribute all source materials, which violates our editorial policies. The story was revised on March 17, 2014 and attribution to original sources were added. A version of this column also appeared in the print edition of the Deseret News on Oct. 10, 2013. The Deseret News demands accuracy in attribution and sourcing and considers any lapses to be a serious breach of ethics. The Deseret News is no longer publishing Ewell's writings.

    Barry J. Ewell is author of "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips, and Tricks for Discovering your Family History" and founder of MyGenShare.com, an online educational website for genealogy and family history.

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