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Make Your Family Stories Come to Life

When my granddaddy, C.V., was a young man, he was quite the tough dude. He grew up on a farm in Kokomo, Ind., and worked at the Haynes Auto Co. But he had an adventurous soul.

He joined the Army in World War I (and later the Army Air Corps, which became the Air Force), worked on the railroads, homesteaded in Wyoming, was a bodyguard for the owner of the Studebaker Corp., ran a Civilian Conservation Corps camp during the Great Depression, and had a career in the Air Force, which took him to Germany and Japan.

In retirement, he considered himself an armchair coach for Notre Dame (when I was young, I really thought he had some sort of an official role with the Fighting Irish coaching staff), shoveled a heck of a lot of snow in South Bend (when he was 96, one of his neighbors told me he went to shovel a foot of snow on Granddaddy's walk at 8 a.m. one day, but Granddaddy had already done it), and bowled in a league into his mid-90s. He was bigger than life, and stories flowed from him like milk from a cow, as he would say. At the drop of a hat, he'd launch into a spirited description of one adventure or another.

Granddaddy passed on many years ago, but I still remember many of his stories. I learned about my family history through them. Why did they stick with me so well? In addition to the colorful language he frequently inserted, he had a way of painting a picture with his words and really getting our attention with his voice, his face and his actions and a few props thrown in here and there. And he had fun with it.

He didn't just tell me that he worked on the railroad. He described how fast the train between Chicago and Pittsburgh went and showed me how he'd stand up—plastered against the wall—while trying to sort the mail. He included just enough detail to make it real but not so much that it got boring. Believe me, no one could ever describe Granddaddy as boring.

When he told me about the time he and his family went across the creek to visit friends, and he and a neighbor girl snuck out to the summer house to eat all the whipped cream, I asked him if they hightailed it 'outta there to avoid getting in trouble. "Oh no," he said, "We stuck around … but I bet that girl got in a heap of trouble after we left!" And he'd hoot and holler. He got such a kick out of his stories that no one else could help but have fun with them too. And from his description, I could taste that fresh whipped cream and feel how he must have felt to get away with eating all of it!

But he also taught me lessons about life.

When he was a soldier in World War I, describing how hot it was in training camp one day, he remembered that one of his buddies wasn't keeping up with the platoon, so he carried his buddy’s gun for him. In telling the story, he grabbed a wooden spoon and acted the whole thing out. I could just see the sweat pouring down their young faces.

Did he lecture me about being a loyal friend? No way. But you'd better believe I got the message from his story.

He taught me about "family values" when he proudly told me about the way his family took my grandmother in when he brought her back to Indiana from Wyoming by joking about the fact he thought they were happier to see her than him. He taught me about tenacity and not giving up by describing the way he had to hang from the wing of an early airplane to balance it out when it landed on a dirt field with a blown tire—although he always said he wasn't sure if it was survival instinct or stupidity.

And he taught me about love when my grandmother developed Alzheimer's Disease. He told me stories about how cute she was when he met her at 17 and that she was just as cute at 82—and stories about the way he had just recently figured out how to coax her up the stairs at night more easily, or about the night he figured out that she could still sing hymns with him even though she couldn't talk. Granddaddy never stopped telling me stories until he died at age 98.

I'm lucky to have a strong tradition of storytelling on all sides of my family, and I'd bet you do, too. Storytelling traditions are common across all cultures and ethnicities. Through stories, we can share family history, talk about things that are difficult or scary to address, and share good or even sad memories.

Everyone has stories to tell, and we all need to tell them. Some people, like my Granddaddy, seem to be natural storytellers, some are even professional storytellers. But you don't have to be either one to be a good storyteller.

Keep it simple, make it fun, paint a picture with your words and actions, and let the stories tell themselves!

Here are some tips on how to share your family's stories:

  • Have fun and don't act your age. Humor helps people connect, especially when you tell a story about yourself. Everyone needs to be able to laugh at himself/herself now and then, and you can model that for your family.
  • Share your story instead of lecturing to make a point. You've got something great to share with, rather than instruct, your audience. People are more open when the lesson is subtler.
  • Move your face and use your voice. I used to work with young children, and I noticed they especially loved listening to one of my coworkers. When asked why that was, they replied, "He moves his face when he talks!" Exaggerate your facial expressions, speak softly and loudly as you tell your story; it grabs people's attention.
  • Use props and tools, such as pictures, music, keepsakes. Stimulate your family’s imagination by using any object nearby as a prop. Build in fantasy. Stories don't all have to be totally realistic.
  • Get your audience involved. Ask them questions, get them to act things out, ask them to hold the props; make it their story, too.
  • Address tough topics through stories. There are many subjects that are difficult to talk about, especially for children. Don't be afraid to talk about fears and challenges through stories about making choices and what happens as a result.
  • Mind the attention span. A good story can vary from a short anecdote to a nightly bedtime story with many segments. The key is to match the length of your story to the attention span of your audience. Sometimes less is more.
  • Listen. Especially with children, give them a chance to share their stories, too, and they will be more receptive to yours. Storytelling is an exchange, not a one-way street. Enjoy the stories you hear and the ones you tell.
  • Document your family's stories. I'm lucky because I have audiotapes of my grandfather telling many of his stories, and I have videotape of my parents. And now, there are great resources for digital storytelling. Don't waste any time: Record your family’s stories while you can, so their stories can live on.