Sunday, December 30, 2012

Using Stories to Engage Your Family in Their History

I recently read an article by Roxanne Moore Saucier about “kindling” rather than “swamping” her family’s interest in their history and genealogy. (/ Ms. Saucier talked about responding to family interest in a way that interests them but doesn’t overwhelm them. It made me think of family stories.
          My family, at least on my dad’s side, are storytellers. Every event in their lives is a story. You never simply got up and went to school or work in that house. Every day was a potential epic adventure. To hear my dad tell it, his life as a boy on the farm was one narrow escape after the other, followed by record-breaking snowfalls, back-breaking labor, and hysterically funny pranks.
          Not only do my James relations like to tell stories, they like to listen to them. So I am fortunate when it comes to that side of the family. Anything I find, any piece of information, any fact or tidbit, is welcomed, if it is served up as a story.
Great-Grandpa McConahy c. 1911
          Great-grandpa McConahy worked in a tin mill. Boring.
Great-grandpa McConahy worked in a tin mill where his job was to keep the heated tin red hot until it was ready to work. That meant he spent the day in an unventilated section of a long shed of a factory, in front of a furnace, rotating sheets of tin to keep them evenly heated. 
The heat was so intense that he wore wool long underwear under a long-sleeved wool shirt and wool trousers, with leather gloves, a wool cap, and heavy leather shoes all designed to protect his skin from the sweltering heat. The tin factory was in western Pennsylvania where the summer temperatures can reach the mid-90s with a corresponding 90+ percent humidity. His working day began early in the morning and…
Now I’ve got a story. And I’ve got them hooked. From here I can tell my family anything I want to tell them about our family’s past, as long as I keep the story going.
They will remember the stories and pass them on to their children and ask to hear them again. This explains, in part, why my family has so much of their history all wrong, too. If we don’t tell the stories often enough, and carefully enough, they tend to get warped. We love a good story, and believe that there’s no harm in tarting it up a bit to make it even better. Thus we became related to Jesse James (we’re not) and had a half-Iroquois relative (we didn’t) and were heirs to thousands of acres of land in New York (we aren’t).

Finding the details necessary to turn the facts into stories takes time, curiosity, and a bit of detective work, but it is worth the effort to me. I discovered Great-Grandpa McConahy’s story when I read the 1910 U.S. Census and saw that he worked in the tin mill as a “heater.” I had no idea what a heater was or did, so I looked it up, read a few articles about tin mills, read a congressional transcript about the dangers of the work, and wove those facts into the story of his life. 
It would have been easy to say “Heater. Hmmm, wonder what that is?” and move on to the next task, but by taking the time to do the research, I came up with a story about a man who worked a terrible job and died very young. And this is a story that my sisters and their children, my cousins and their children, even me and my son, didn’t know but now will never forget.
The next time your family shows any interest in what you are doing as you gather and sort and compile your family’s history, may I suggest that you have a good story or two to tell them? Pique their interest and curiosity in their past with some tale of love or lust or labor or loss. I suspect that they will ask you for more.

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