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How You Can Use Your Phone to Record Family Memories

When my mom was a girl in the 1940’s and 50’s, she spent Sunday afternoons at her grandmother’s, along with a plethora of aunts, uncles and cousins. In college, she lived just a few minutes from her grandmother and three aunts. Like most other people at that time, she grew up surrounded by family.

She was around the extended family so much that she knew all the family stories – tales of an aunt who traveled around the world as a nurse, and always brought back exotic souvenirs; stories of a great-great-uncle who had married a Cherokee Indian woman and who was the source of some disapproval; an uncle who came back from World War II without physical injury, but with major PTSD.

When did she hear these stories? Playing in the backyard with her cousins, having Sunday dinner with the whole family, helping out when her grandmother got old- just being around the family week in and week out.

But in our fast-paced, modern culture, it’s normal for families to be scattered- across the country or around the globe. If your family is like mine, you wonder how you can make sure those family stories will stay alive. But over the winter holidays, families are more likely to be together. It’s a perfect opportunity to record some of those stories and moments while you have the chance.

How To Record

With the technology we have at our literal fingertips, there’s no reason not to record family stories. The most obvious tool to use is your phone. Just make sure that you have plenty of memory available, and that your phone can record more than a clip at a time. (If it can’t, there are apps for both video and audio recording in long format.) And remember to back up your recordings as soon as possible.

Of course, for higher-quality video, a separate digital camera with video is ideal – the file sizes will probably be bigger, and better for viewing on a larger screen. Sometimes older people are self-conscious or uncomfortable being videoed, so a small digital audio recorder might come in handy.

But in the end, the technology you use doesn’t really matter; you won’t be submitting anything for an Oscar, after all. The most important thing is to preserve all of the precious stories, anecdotes, and voices you’ll hear at your next family gathering.

How To Get the Ball Rolling

I don’t know what happens at your family’s gatherings, but at mine, it seems the topic always comes back around to a story that involved someone who’s no longer with us. The conversation naturally flows to people or things we all have in common.

But if it doesn’t, one of the best ways to get people talking is to pass around some family photos. Visual images trigger those neural pathways, jogging subdued or nearly-forgotten memories. Even for older people whose memory may have dimmed, some surprising things may come up when you start talking about the who, what, where and when in family pictures.

Use Physical Objects Too

Mementos and other objects can spark conversation too. Especially if you’re gathering at an older relative’s home, you might be able to ask about antiques, family heirlooms, pieces of art, old records (the musical kind,) books, or souvenirs. They may even have old letters or written records you can all look at.

Lots of seemingly mundane things can have stories connected to them. A souvenir from a vacation your grandparents took together when they were young, the first piece of furniture they bought after they married, a trinket one of their children made for them at summer camp – all of these things have a story behind them, and you might be surprised to hear details you’ve never heard before.

What Should We Talk About?

What you’re ideally trying to get to are stories, not just facts. Some people are naturally more open and forthright about their feelings than others are, so take that into account as you talk. Older generations may not be as comfortable with a group tell-all. And a large family gathering probably isn’t the best place to try to unearth family secrets, so don’t pry. But do try to get to thoughts and feelings, whether it’s a funny memory, or something more serious.

There are so many details about our everyday lives and interactions that we take for granted. But that’s what our lives are mostly made of- the little things.

So ask about where the coconut cake recipe came from, and who used to make it. What were the holiday traditions of their childhood? Did they take summer vacations? If so, where? How did they get there?

Ask for details on what a typical day was like for your grandmother- where did she shop? What did the store look like? What did she think when she got her first dishwasher? What did your great-uncle do for fun when he was a teenager? What music was popular? How did he and his siblings get along? Who taught your father how to drive? What was his first car? What did your grandfather think when your mother brought your father home for the first time?

Telling Stories

Hopefully these questions will lead to some good stories. At a family reunion when I was in my late 20’s, my grandmother, her sister and their cousin started talking about trouble they got into when they were teenagers. They were laughing and giggling as if they were 16 rather than 76. They went from one story to another. At one point, my grandmother was laughing so hard that she couldn’t talk. How often do you see that in someone that age?

I can remember feeling so grateful to have that little glimpse into my grandmother’s childhood – she was kind of an anxious person, so you didn’t always see that lighter side of her. And it wasn’t long after that that she was diagnosed with dementia. How much would I love to have that conversation on video?

Just remember to keep things conversational and easy. Most people aren’t their most comfortable being interviewed or recorded. Let things flow. Encourage people to be themselves, and keep the recording in second place. That way, you’ll get what you’re really after- the people you love, telling their own stories in their own way.

Just Start!

If preserving your family’s stories and memories is important to you, don’t wait! Even if you have no idea what you’ll do with the recordings once you have them, do it anyway. It’s human nature to think things will stay the same. We think we have the next holiday, the next family trip, next month, or next year. But we just don’t know when things will change.

So strengthen your family ties, have some fun, and preserve your family’s history at the same time. Take the very next chance you have to get out your phone and start recording!

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