Don’t Lose Your History


             Many of you went to RWA in Atlanta and came home, heads swimming, with exciting ways to put stories the ‘voices’ in our heads keep telling us on the page. Many of us stayed at home dealing with the people in our heads and the stories they demand we write. As writers we scrap for time to listen to what these voices tell us. We carry pen and paper everywhere in case a new voice pops up.  Are you listening as carefully to the stories of the people you see and hear every day?  Voices of the people who shaped our lives, played a part in building your community and this country?

Do you know the stories of your family and friends?   

People write wills to bequeath money and tangible valuables but rarely think about sharing their most valuable treasure. Family history. Don’t lose you history. You are writers. Please take time to talk with family and get their stories before this history is lost forever. This doesn’t have to be some spit shined publishable memoir. But a treasure a family member a hundred years will marvel over what you’ve put to the page.

When I talk to people about this I encourage them to ask the following questions.

Do you know how your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles met?

Do your children know how their parents met?

How did they feel when they first met?

BTW when you ask, be sure to ask both parties. Men have a different perspective. I’ve heard poignant stories from men that will bring you to tears. More important some have never shared this with their wives.

Did you have a favorite relative, or an infamous one?

Did you have a childhood that the kids of today would be amazed at?

Ask parents, grandparents and family to talk about what childhood was like for them. Include your own experiences.

Looking back my family (extended also) was poor. We didn’t know it. My daddy went down to the end of the street twice a week and caught fish for 4 households while the cousins dug clams and caught crabs. Free food.

Chores. Were there specific chore days?

I can guarantee most children today do not know what it’s like plow with a horse, clean a barn or collect chicken eggs. Or if you lived in the city, how were the chores different?

Were there any unusual events that stand out in your childhood? Did you live through a war, a natural disaster like hurricanes and or a tornado?  Did a local tragedy shape who you are and how you think today?

Did you grow up with someone who became famous.

Were you named after a special family member?

Note schools attended.

Could you wear makeup to school?

Was there a certain subject hated or loved?

A favorite teacher?

Did someone quit school early to go to work and help the family?

Who had a special talent, was a sports hero or active in any clubs? In the olden days girls played basketball on a half court if indeed they were allowed to play at all.

Who served in the military?  Dates of service and where.

What was it like to be a woman (mother, sister, wife or daughter) of a man shipped off to war. How did you celebrate the holidays?

How does your ethnic background have special traditions?

What were all the addresses the family had?

Also, if there were sicknesses in your family.

This could be important to younger relatives. Cancer, diabetes, and mental illness, just to mention a few, are diseases that can be passed down and are important for medical histories.

Did your family help found the town, city or county that you grew up in?

What were weddings like? Find out if wedding dresses were borrowed, handed down, or bought.  Did the man wear a suit, a uniform or a tuxedo? Was the wedding big or small and cozy with family. An elopement.  Record feelings of that day and if you have one, maybe a photo as well.

Some other things to think about.

We sprinkled our clothes with water before ironing. Ironing?  I know families today that don’t own an iron.

Did you have AC?

What was the coolest room in the house in the summer?

Busy signal. Party lines.

Ice box.

Drinking from the hose.

Riding in cars with no seat belts

Saturday evening dances

In the 50’s women wore girdles or they were considered loose women.  Explain that one.

Riding bikes without a helmet

List friends and enemies. Make note of the special relationships.

List jobs held and educational experiences.

Historical events and trends that shaped each era, especially those that had an impact on you.

What were favorite toys, games, hobbies, and pastimes.

List goals, aspirations, and dreams.  What did you want to be “when you grew up?”

What were the painful things that happened?

Do you wonder what happened to kids that moved away?

Get out that box of old photos and sit down with someone who can identify the people .

Write down who each person was. How they were related, and what was each person doing?

Who took the photo and why?

Don’t you want to know what’s going on in this pic?  scan0147

 Take some time and listen to the voices around you. 

Please share any history stories you have. 


21 responses to “Don’t Lose Your History”

  1. Janet B says:

    History and (her)story definitely change with each generation. I tried to tell my nephew (20 years ago) that grandpa grew up without electricity. (It didn’t get to the more rural areas until well into the 1950s) And his response was “Grandpa didn’t have TV and videos”?? And I grew up without indoor plumbing until I was in school. So I am not a fan of camping. Ha!
    It’s amazing how we never thought of safety when we rode on the tractor fender, in the tractor scoop or in the back car window. And we survived anyway, fortunately.

    I learned to drive a tractor, ride a small motorcycle (Honda 90) and drive a pickup when I was 8. And I learned older than my cousins did.


    • Rita Henuber says:

      Janet I hope you have made notes of this. My daddy’s mother didn’t have indoor plumbing until the mid 50s. I loved pumping water in her kitchen.


  2. Elizabeth Langston says:

    My husband is a geneologist. So he’s recorded a lot of family history. My daughter caught the bug and managed to get some great stories out of my grandmothers before they passed away.

    One was from my paternal grandmother. Marianna. She got her bachelor’s degree in Art in the 1920’s. She received her master’s degree in Art History in 1940. Her mother was ABD in History in the ’30s. I have one of her watercolors. It is a prized possession.

    Marianna painted nudes. with live models. When my daughter told me that about my sweet, smiling, prim-and-proper grandmother, I gave her a call. “You painted with nude models?”

    “I was an *art* major. Of course, I did. Male and female.” A *duh* hung in the air between us. “I didn’t like one of the female models. She had too much attitude. So I gave her a big butt and tiny breasts.”

    Oh, yeah. Family history is great.


    • Rita Henuber says:

      Snort “big butt and tiny breasts” Little things like this certainly get us to look at family in a different light. Very glad your daughter is getting these stories. Thanks for sharing.


  3. Jeannie says:

    Great topic Rita, and it brings back some stories near and dear to me.

    I was always very close to my grandmother, yet I never asked her about her life. She was just grandma, you know? The woman who took care of us and told clever stories and had everyone in the family wrapped around her finger.

    She was always a very resourceful woman. She raised chickens in the backyard, chopped their heads off to make soup, had crazy knife skills and smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. I swear she would stay up knitting sweaters all night for the family and lived off of three hours of sleep and a good afternoon nap (something I seemed to have inherited). She had a gambling habit that we all sort of affectionately made fun of, was four foot ten and afraid of nothing.

    I always thought she had grown up on a farm to have learned all these things. Or that she was poor like Mum’s family, using her cleverness and stubbornness to rise above. It was only after she died and my sister and I were chatting one day that I learned the truth.

    Little Sis: “Did you know grandmother was the daughter of a really wealthy family? She lived in the capital and had ALL these servants.”

    Me: “Really?!?”

    I was thinking of all those chickens’ heads.

    This changed everything. Things that had never fit together about our family started to make sense to me. It wasn’t that my family didn’t talk about the past–just so much had happened. Most people go through their lives without experiencing one regime change. She’d lived through two.

    This moment changed my identity and how I saw myself, how I thought about history and, in subtle and mysterious ways, it defined what sort of storyteller I would become.


    • Rita Henuber says:

      Jeannie such a poignant story. Having her be such a defining influence in your life. Thank you for sharing. Does the family have a written record so it won’t be lost for future generations?
      A cousin learned my paternal great grandmother left a wealthy family in England to marry. They came to the states to avoid being found and, they thought , being killed for the disgrace brought on the family. Eeep!


  4. Jenn! says:

    Over the years, off and on, I’ve asked questions, jotted down notes, checked out family trees. It takes loads of time and I never finished the work and research. But I still do ask questions. I think, for me, it’s compiling the information into something coherent and enjoyable, it’s daunting.

    One interesting fact about my grandfather – he served in WWII and the Korean War, surviving 9 airplane crashes, 2 air raids, and a take over of a base where he was one of only 20 men out of 200 to escape alive.

    I love these questions you’ve posed, Rita. Maybe I’ll print these out and have a questionnaire for my parents to fill out.


    • Rita Henuber says:

      Jenn amazing story. Every day stories of heroism are lost. I know it takes time. But having anything on the page about this brave man is better than nothing. Did you ever ask how his mama and wife reacted when he told them what happened. One vet told me his mama took a broom to him for doing such dangerous things


  5. Tamara Hogan says:

    Over the weekend, AMC aired “A League of Their Own,” a wonderful movie about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), which was formed when WWII threatened to shut down major league baseball because so many men were at war. I was tweeting with Liz Talley about how this movie just makes me bawl like a baby – especially the last scene, where the real-life members of the AAGPBL, now in their seventies and eighties, are shown playing a pretty damn spry game of baseball to the accompaniment of Madonna’s “This Used To Be My Playground.”

    While tweeting with Liz, I finally figured out why this scene makes me cry. I grew up just before Title IX was instituted. I wasn’t allowed to play Little League baseball because I was missing one key piece of equipment: a penis.

    It’s amazing how much has changed – and sadly, stayed the same – just within my lifetime.


  6. Great post, Rita. I love old family stories.

    “During the depression we were so poor we had icicles on the INSIDE of the house. A good meal was potato pancakes and tomato soup.”

    This is all I heard from my dad while I was growing up. It was like Bill Cosby telling his kids he had to walk to school up hill–both ways–fighting off bears with his book bag.

    Personally, potato pancakes and tomato soup sounds pretty good to me. 🙂


    • Rita Henuber says:

      People and families who survived the depression are special treasures. So musch of their knowledge is forgotten and over looked. Any one have family that were in the CCC the Civilian Conservation Corps?


  7. Great questions! And I realized the importance of them when my mother became sick, and over past few years when my siblings would come to me to ask “How are we related to so-and-so?” We have a lot of relatives, and I’m the oldest of my family, so they come to me with those kind of questions. Quite the honor and responsibility!


    • Rita Henuber says:

      In my role as keeper of the family word i discovered some things didn’t add up and researched. Lots of lies. Owie. A couple of people were not happy. No one else cared. I thought it was a way better story. LOL!


  8. Anne Barton says:

    Yes! Family stories are priceless! Thanks for the wonderful reminders, Rita!

    My grandmother was an oral historian, so she loved to interview people. Not famous people, just regular folk who lived through incredible times.

    Anyway, it was a tradition of hers to interview each of her grandchildren on their birthdays. She had an old cassette recorder with a little microphone and would ask us questions about school, our friends, and any special activities we did.

    When we were little we loved it, and when we got to be teenagers we rolled our eyes a lot, but still did it, and maybe secretly enjoyed it.

    Now that my grandmother’s gone, I realize those tapes (as well as the memories from making them) are such a gift. Wonderful little glimpses into our pasts and our unique relationships with an amazing woman.


  9. Gwyn says:

    Thanks for the grins, Rita.

    My mom’s dad walked off the boat from Scotland in 1906. He drove a milk wagon for a while and lost half his stomach when his horse bolted, dragging him down the street and into a fire hydrant. He was a tough little (About 5’6″–but that’s how I recall him in a family of tall men) dude. Somewhere in Gram’s attic is a picture of his father in full regalia. Gram was our family historian, but one uncle still lives in the house, so the things in the attic will probably remain undiscovered for many years yet.


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