October 17, 2016 / Esther Choy
In Part I of Telling Family Stories, Esther wrote about why it’s important to preserve family memories.
Here, I’ll tackle how to collect and preserve the stories others tell you. I’ve learned a lot since I moved to Florida at the end of May. I’ve learned that when “dolphin” shows up on a menu, it’s actually a fish called mahi-mahi (not Flipper). I’ve learned that people pay money to scuba dive with sharks. I’ve learned that a friend once whistled for an alligator and it came lumbering over, like a pet dog.
I’ve also learned a lot about family since we moved here. My husband and I moved to be closer to his parents and his sister’s family, and we have shared many family dinners—which has sometimes meant that we get to hear family stories that are completely new to us. And while most of them are not as shocking as realizing that an alligator thinks it’s your pet, one story my mother-in-law recently told did take me by surprise.
Sure, I knew that my mother-in-law, Gayann, has a strong work ethic. I knew that as a young mom she cleaned houses for money to send her two kids to private school. And I marveled at her outgoing confidence in befriending all her new neighbors after moving to Florida a few years ago.
But I didn’t realize what force these character traits could have in combination. That is, until one night right after dinner, when a debate about raising the minimum wage turned into a session of trading stories about work.
Gayann, it turned out, had worked at a warehouse during the 1960s, where she and her coworkers filled orders for hardware stores. She used her exceptional organizational skills to the hilt in this job. She wanted to do her best, hearing her father’s advice in the back of her mind: “Your work is a reflection of who you are,” and “If something is worth doing, it is worth doing well.” So she performed this physically demanding work thoughtfully.
She started recording aisle numbers in a notebook, and as she would go to pull inventory for orders, she made a note of which aisles contained which items. Soon, she knew the aisles’ contents by heart and could group the day’s orders and pull inventory in an orderly, efficient fashion rather than taking multiple trips to distant parts of the warehouse.
The one problem with the job? The men were not being so efficient. In fact, if they noticed that orders for heavy materials had just come in —often chains or large containers of nails— they would “go lie in the weeds,” as my mother-in-law put it. They disappeared whenever hard work came around, leaving the women to hoist the heaviest containers.
This just was not right, Gayann felt. But even worse than that, these men were being paid more than the women who were doing more work. “Well, the men have families to support,” went the logic from those in charge.
Gayann knew for a fact that the men weren’t the only ones supporting families. One woman she worked with was the sole support for her family. Even so, that was beside the point. What it came down to for my mother-in-law was that the women were doing the exact same work but being paid less. But the powers-that-be were not about to change their policy.
So Gayann urged all of the women she worked with to extend their breaks and lunch hours every day until the management was willing to discuss the policy. Her plan worked. The management noticed, the supervisor explained to the management that the women had a grievance, and the women received equitable pay.
Hearing this story deepened my respect for the powerful combination of my mother-in-law’s work ethic and confidence. And her sense of justice came into focus for me, too. It’s the same sense of justice that motivates her, every year, to spend the entire year planning Christmas shoeboxes to send to children who would otherwise not receive presents! It also made me wonder what other stories she and my father-in-law will tell while we are living in Florida. It gave me a new appreciation for how many stories people have to tell. And it made me want to remember, collect and preserve the stories.
Collecting and Preserving Stories
How do you collect the stories that people tell you—either people in your family or at your organization? Sometimes I have opted for low-tech, time-consuming options.
I once sat in my parents’ living room and, with my handheld recorder rolling, talked with my dad about his own career path. Then I painstakingly transcribed his words into a Word document, converted it into a PDF, and shared it with him and my siblings.
Sometimes I jot stories or funny family quotes in journals, or email to these to myself (shamefully low-tech, I know). What I would not recommend is simply trusting memory and hoping your memories will surface and help you recall family stories later on. It’s important to be intentional about it, because, as Esther pointed out in Part I, it matters that we belong to something bigger than ourselves. So that means it matters whether or not we collect family stories—and that organizations keep track of their own pivotal stories. It’s important, then, to consider options for preserving these stories. Thankfully, technology comes to our rescue. Many of the following tech options are truly timesaving, so that story collecting can take as little as 30 seconds.
- Grand Prize Winner of the 2015 RootsTech Innovator Showdown and profiled in the New York Times, StoryWorth allows you to invite members, choose questions for them and get their responses in your inbox. At the end of a year, the stories are bound together in a keepsake book.
- This app—a Knight Foundation Grant Winner— makes it easy to ask questions, record audio narratives, and combine these recordings with images and text. The end result is a collection of quality videos for archiving and for sharing with friends, family and generations to come.
- This one’s a little different—a journaling app designed to get you writing more (which may mean that you capture family and workplace stories as they happen or as you reflect on them). You can use Day One as a daily log, add photos, and do long-form expressive writing. As apps go, it’s a little pricey, but we hear that it is quite worthwhile for getting journaling done!
- And of course, where would we be without mentioning the StoryCorps app? It’s free, well regarded, and designed to get people talking to each other.
- This is a great resource for storing information of all kinds—notes, images, articles and more. And it’s easily searchable, so you won’t be scratching your head wondering where, for instance, you filed that hilarious story of the prank your dad once pulled on your grandfather.
Has someone just told you a story? Lucky you! Maybe you are thinking about how to collect stories like it. Or maybe you are thinking about how to craft it into an inspiring story to share with others. Let us help you! Schedule a complimentary consultation today. For more tips and insights on storytelling, sign up for our monthly guide.
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