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Our usual ways of telling family stories could put anyone in the grave. “Ben was born July 27, 1851 to good parents in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, England. He became a Methodist circuit preacher who followed his girlfriend to the United States. They settled in central Utah where he taught school and sold books.”
Not much there to inspire.
Years ago, Nancy and I started gathering photos and papers from our ancestors. We organized them. We evaluated them. Then we copied the best and put them in binders for descendants. We made hundreds of binders which included important documents, written histories, vital pictures, and a chronology of our grandparents’ lives.
Years passed. We gathered at reunions. We told stories and were amazed that no one seemed to have ever heard the stories that we had put in the binders.
We repented. We realized that we needed to tell stories and not just pile up facts. So, we made some rules for ourselves. We would tell stories of interesting incidents in the lives of our ancestors. Each story would be less than a page long and include a picture of the ancestor.
What are the stories like?
Grandpa Wallace was an important man in Salt Lake City—the county attorney for seven terms. When he and his girls were riding downtown and passed a street sweeper, one of the girls commented that she was glad her father was an important attorney and not a street sweeper. Grandpa pulled the car to the side of the road and took his girls to meet that humble sweeper who loved his family and worked hard to care for them.
Great-grandpa Goddard was a Methodist circuit preacher in England who warned against the Restoration yet became one of the greatest messengers for the Church in modern times—serving the Church for 27 years as the founding leader of the Bureau of Information on Temple Square.
Years ago, Grandpa Thacker noticed that the widows in the neighborhood had to drag heavy garbage cans to the curb every week. He decided to do something about it. He went to the dump where he found sheet metal, wood, and wheels with which he made carts for the “widow-ladies.”
When great-grandpa Goddard was stranded in Fillmore after an afternoon priesthood meeting, he honored his promise to his young son and walked the 14 miles home arriving at midnight. He kept his promises.
These are summaries of some of the dozens of one-pagers we have created for our family. But how are the stories used?
At a family dinner, at home evening, traveling in the car, or in church talks family members share the stories.
At family reunions, a group of grandchildren will act out one of the stories while the others try to name the people in the story and give the details.
A daughter drew facts from the stories and created a Jeopardy game that we play at family reunions.
We created cards with a name and facts on one side and a picture on the other. Grandkids look at the pictures and try to name and describe the ancestor.
We post our one-page family stories on Family Search so that all our relatives can access the stories.
There is a key question in all of this: Why? Why should we care about family stories? Why should we put effort into discovering them and sharing them with our children? What is the value of having family stories?
It is in heaven as it is on earth. As we invest in getting to know people here on earth, we become interested in them. They become friends. The same is true as we invest in getting to know our ancestors and their stories. We become interested in them. And we begin to feel their interest in us. We sense their longing to be connected with us and their desire for our well-being. They are willing to be advocates and resources for us from beyond the veil.
Family stories help us and our children to feel anchored to a family. They give us a feeling of identity—of where we came from, of being a part of something greater than just ourselves.
Family stories can provide us lessons about life. Perhaps we learn of ancestors who had challenges and overcame them. Maybe there are stories of ancestors who made mistakes, but kept going forward trying to do better. Perhaps there are stories of tragedy or loss that help us to develop compassion for others and appreciation for our own blessings. Maybe we learn of ancestors who lived their values and it inspires us to do the same. And we can pass those lessons on to our children through family history stories.
Family stories takes family history beyond names on a tree and gives life to those names. They bind our hearts and the hearts of our children with those who have gone before us.
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her helpful additions to this article.