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How to tell family history through stories

Connecting with family through storytelling

It all started when my best friend discovered her ancestor was a famous musician. My other friends and I had never thought too intensely about our family history , but now we were interested. Who were our ancestors ? What did our family tree look like?

In an effort to find out, we decided to organize a family history challenge. The goal was to speak with the oldest person in our family tree that we could get in contact with and record the conversation. 

I chose to speak with my grandmother, who was in her seventies.

Seated at the dining room table of her Manhattan apartment, we chatted about what life was like for her growing up in New York City. 

“What was your biggest challenge growing up?” I asked her. Her story  was more complex than I expected. 

“Well, there was a lot of drama in my family. My mother and father weren’t allowed to be together because their families didn’t get along. They separated and me and one of my sisters went with my dad, but my other sister went with my mom,” she explained. “We were reunited ten years later and since I was so young at the time of the separation, I didn’t even know I had another sister. I was scared at first… I actually didn’t like her. But I decided to give her a chance. We’re still best friends.”

To my surprise, my friends discovered similar themes when speaking with their relatives. Through all of the interviews we recorded, we uncovered heartfelt immigration stories, family feuds and insightful connections. But the family stories weren’t even the most interesting part of the experience. It was actually the voices that made it so special. 

“Sure, you can look at photos or write down your family history,” one of my friends said, as we were reflecting on the experience. “But there’s something about the voice recording that makes it so much more intimate. The accents, the intonations. The dynamic between the interviewer and interviewee. You can learn so much just from their mannerisms and the way they are storytelling.” 


The benefits of family storytelling 

After completing the family history challenge with my friends, I decided to do a bit of research on storytelling. My friends and I all agreed we felt a lot more connected with our relatives after interviewing them. It turns out that this connection not only brings us closer to our families, but also benefits our personal development. According to an article by The Atlantic, adolescents with a stronger knowledge of family history have more robust identities, better coping skills, and lower rates of depression and anxiety. Family storytelling can help a child grow into a teen who feels connected to the important people in her life.

This type of intergenerational storytelling doesn’t just benefit kids who are listening to them. It also benefits the family members telling the stories. As noted in the Wall Street Journal, studies have shown that parents who include descriptions of the feelings they experienced at the time of the stories, like distress or anger, and explain how they coped with those emotions can actually help show children to regulate their emotions too. My grandmother’s story seems to be right in line with that. 

 The best ways to tell family history stories

Start with recording stories

Based on what I’ve learned through my personal experience and research, I recommend that everyone share their family history through stories. One of the simplest ways to start is to do what my friends and I did: record interviews. The process is simple, but modern technology can make it even easier. For example, the Rosy digital assistant has a “storytelling” feature that allows you to narrate stories and attach unique voice recordings to specific collections of memories all in one go. 

Add visual memories 

Storytelling can often expand beyond just one medium of exploration. Photos and mementos associated with your family members’ story can deepen the experience for listeners by providing even more visual details. With Rosy, you can digitize photos, cards, and other memorabilia and keep everything in one file for the story you’re creating. Your memories will be preserved for posterity so future generations can relive them.

Listen and learn 

A lot of the best stories unfold spontaneously. Intentionally seeking them out is great, but also be prepared for spur-of-the-moment stories. When you connect with relatives, ask insightful questions about your family tree and dive into the emotions that they were feeling as they went through specific experiences. Most importantly, don’t forget to ask if you can record their story  or even take a picture of them.

Expand on past stories 

If there’s a story you’ve already recorded, think about ways you can expand it further. Are there other family members you can interview about the same experience? Can you ask that family member to bring photos and mementos the next time you see them? Will it be helpful to look over a map of the area together for context? By building upon some of the stories you’ve already heard and documented, you will not only create a more insightful story for future generations, but you will also create a deeper connection with your family members. 

Start spreading the news 

Once you have your stories recorded, why wait to share them? Are there grandchildren in the family who would benefit from hearing this story? Have your kids heard this one yet? With the Rosy app and console, you'll be able to send these stories to your family members easily. They probably need to hear your oral history more than you think! Plus, it might get them excited to record stories of their own.

Have fun 

Above all else, make sure you enjoy the process. Storytelling can be complex, so you’ll need to be patient and investigative. But don’t forget to have fun. Some of the best recorded family stories are ones full of laughter, awkward pauses and interjections. It’s all part of being human, which is what your loved ones will remember you for most. 

Want to get started telling your family stories? Join the Rosy waitlist to learn when the Rosy app and console will arrive.


About the Author

Samantha Savello is a freelance writer and social media marketing from New York. She also performs stand-up comedy and spoken-word poetry. You can see her work at samanthasavello.com.