Category Archives: Why Stories?

Why Worry About Family Stories?

Why Family Stories?

Unless we pause to ask, “Why that story,” or “Why that story told that way,” we may find ourselves trying to live the story we’ve always heard. In my family we tell great love stories. Listen long enough and you might spend your whole life waiting to be swept off your feet.

Stories get better with time. Families exaggerate because they want the stories to be remembered. Pay attention. The whoppers contain clues as to what the family thinks is important. George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree; never said “I cannot tell a lie.” So why, as an American family, do we keep telling that story? When we stop telling it, what has changed?

Stories have voices. If all our stories are about hardship, we may not be able to hear good news. If our stories are about old hurts, we feel a duty to right old wrongs. Old hatreds are passed along the same way.

Stories are slogans. “In our family we ___________” is a sentence most of us can complete. Question is, who decides how to fill in that blank?

If you come from a family of war heroes, does it become unthinkable to not put on a uniform? If you come from a family that goes to college, is becoming a plumber an option or a failure?

Giving a new twist to an old story can make a huge difference. Have you examined your family stories lately?


Filed under Family history, Family Stories, History, stories, Why Stories?

Where Are Your Old Photos? On Your I-Phone, Maybe?

shoebox of photosI did the hard way. Set up a photo stand and copied the old family photos via film using my old Nikon 100. THEN I scanned them, one by one, one by one. If you’ve ever tried to tackle the task of copying old family photos, you know why most don’t. It’s too hard, too iffy, and too time consuming. You could grow old yourself in the process.

So where are your old photos? Does this look familiar?

Enter ShoeBox–the same I-Phone app that let you scan receipts and business cards now lets you scan your old photos. You can even straighten, rotate, caption and tag the image. You might have to watch for glare, but that minor compared to the mind-numbing previous possibilities.

You can upload them directly to Facebook which is rumored to be creating a scrapbook function, soon to be available for those who want to document their life pre-Facebook.

OR, if that’s not to your liking, the photos can be stored in your I-Phone and/or uploaded to your computer. It’s nothing short of getting the old family photos out of the shoebox and into your busy life. I’m excited.


Filed under Family Photos, Keepsakes, Why Stories?

Share Your Colorado Story and Win a Trip

History Colorado Center and LogoHistory Colorado is calling all Coloradans to dress up, snap a photo and, most importantly, share it and the story behind it for History Colorado’s “Share Your Story” contest for a chance to win a family overnight getaway for four to Glenwood Springs! Entries should be photos of individuals, kids or families dressed up that tells a Colorado story — past, present, or future – along with a brief description of the story. The “Share Your Story” photo contest will be open to Colorado residents 18 years of age or older beginning on Monday, Oct. 24, 2011 at 8 a.m. MT and ends on Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011 at 11:59 p.m. MT.

Check out the details:

Sounds like a fun idea. Got a costume????

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Filed under Event, Family history, Family Stories, History, Why Stories?

We’re Related to Pirates!!

pirate drawing“Pirates!” my son exclaims. “We have pirates in the family? Awesome.”

“Vikings,” I repeat, thinking that isn’t exactly the same. I’m standing next to a Viking burial mound on an island off the coast of Denmark talking to him via cell phone. He’s responding on the wavelength of the current zeitgeist that includes Talk Like A Pirate Day, every September 19, and recent books that tell how to release one’s inner buccaneer–a California thing.

The island is Samsø—an hourglass shaped landmass in an arm of the North Sea. It’s twenty miles long, six miles wide, pinched to half a mile at the point where in the year 726, the Vikings dug a canal, a remarkable feat of engineering that allowed ships to sail from the fjord to the mainland with speed and safety—polite language for outrunning another ship. OK, think pirate, raider, explorer. Then also remember a remarkable shipbuilding culture complete with a pantheon of Norse gods. The Vikings gave us Valhalla and Thor. It is said that Samsø is where Odin learned magic.

I’ve returned to Samsø where my Danish ancestors once lived to see if I can learn anything about my family’s background. Vikings and/or pirates was not what I thought I’d find.

There’s more.

Near the remnants of the old Viking canal, there is a sandbank with newly uncovered Stone Age dwellings. According to a local pamphlet, pollen analysis indicates that grazing cattle and sheep on Samsø is a tradition reaching back to the beginning of Neolithic time, in other words, since mankind first began to keep domestic animals.

Cattle and sheep! That’s what my family raised on our ranch just above Bone, Idaho, even though sheep and cattle were not supposed to mix in the American West. Here’s the larger thought, since my family goes back father than written records on Samsø, I have to consider the possibility that my roots in this place might extend to the last ice age and that cattle and sheep have been part of my family’s livelihood for tens of thousands of years. Cattle and sheep still grazed in the island pastures that I passed. It was enough to give one pause.

However, nothing stopped me like the reproduction of an old Viking house. It exactly matched the description of the first house my Danish ancestor and her new husband made from the wagon that they’d brought across the plains. According to the family stories, they turned the wagon over, mounded earth over it, and made it through the cold months.

Cattle and sheep; pirates and dugouts, until you return to the old places you might not sense how far our stories echo across time.


Filed under Family history, Family Stories, History, Legend, Old Storytelling Traditions, Why Stories?

“Who Do You Think You Are” Videos Are Free Fun

Maybe you’re a fan and haven’t missed a single episode of NBC’s TV Show Who Do You Think You Are? If not, the complete episodes from season two are available on NBC’s site.

Gwyneth PaltrowMy favorite is Gwyneth Paltrow discovering that she’s related to a long line of famous rabbis. She also uncovers the tragedy that scarred one of her grandmothers, making her withdrawn, described by her son as “an ambivalent mother.”

Steve BuscemiEvery episode uncovers surprising emotional material but not necessarily material that is storybook nice. Steve Buscemi finds an ancestor who deserted the army during the Civil War also abandoning his wife and children, leaving them to think he’s dead, while starting another family in another state. A dentist, he eventually dies of tuberculosis–an occupational hazard for dentists of the day.

The episodes center on a celebrity going in search of his/her family history with the help of experts and a camera crew. However, within the stories are suggestions that can apply to anyone interested in discovering his/her family stories. Near the end of her segment, Gwyneth Paltrow turns to the camera and says, “There’s energy in your ancestors, not just facts.”

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Filed under Family history, Family Stories, History, Television, Why Stories?

Getting the Facts Right But Not Necessarily True

caution signIn the latest issue of Creative Nonfiction, Sharon DeBartolo Carmack discusses the joys and hazards of writing family narrative. That’s the currently popular way of publishing one’s family history. Think, Alex Haley’s Roots. Think facts placed in an historical context that includes setting, character and plot. Often families hire writers like Carmack to create these histories for them.


About time.

Carry on.

caution signAs a fan of family stories, I have long had trouble with charts that reduce lives to birth, marriage and death dates. That said, there are problems trying to keep the history interesting and accurate. John Philip Colletta, a pioneer in melding genealogical facts with creative writing once wrote:

Attorney, litigants and witnesses exit the courtroom, descend the long iron staircase and step out onto the portico. Lighting a cigar or pipe, or tucking a plug of tobacco inside the lower lip, the men watch the starlings poking in the rain-saturated lawn.

caution signSounds perfectly plausible, until Colletta got an e-mail from an ornithologist who informed him that starlings weren’t introduced into the area until 1890, decades after the event took place.

M. Mark Miller, who writes a history blog on Yellowstone Park that’s strong on story  not to mention his book Adventures in Yellowstone, encountered a different problem. While writing an article on Fred Bottler for The Pioneer Museum Quarterly he discovered–a truth too true. One of the stories, told by Bottler’s son, Floyd, concerns a pair of needle guns, which were an early type of repeating rifle.

caution signIt’s a fun story, I’ll let him tell it:

Floyd said his father won the guns in a card game with soldiers at Fort Ellis, an army post near Bozeman. Although Bottler knew the guns technically were government property, he thought they would be handy if Indians attacked his isolated ranch. He decided to keep them.

An officer at Fort Ellis, Lieutenant Gustavus Doane, heard that Bottler had the guns and decided to retrieve them. Floyd said that when Doane arrived at Bottler’s house, the rancher invited him in and seated him where he could see the guns hanging on a wall.

Floyd said Doane would look at the guns, then look at Fred, and then back at the guns. Finally, Doane told Bottler that a man living on the edge of Indian country needed such guns and he could keep them—but only if he kept them out of sight when he visited the fort.

Then, Floyd said, “Their eyes met again and held for a long moment. Then both men rose and the hands met in a strong clasp”

I couldn’t resist quoting that directly in my article. But when I asked Ann Butterfield, the Pioneer Museum Associate Director, to read a draft of my article, she objected.  She said she liked what I had written, except for that “gazed into each other’s eyes” stuff. “Men just don’t act that way,” she added with a scoff.

I immediately checked my source and confirmed that I had quoted Floyd accurately. I assured Ann of that, but she wasn’t really  mollified. That made me think.

It’s my job to present old stories for today’s readers. I want people to read straight through my stuff and say: “That’s interesting.” I don’t want them stop and say: “This just doesn’t sound right”—even if it is right.

I also like to quote exactly what people wrote because their word choices make personalities and emotions shine through. It’s always a balancing act to decide when modern sensibilities might collide with old fashioned ways of saying things.

When I turned in final draft of my article, it didn’t contain the “gazed into each others eyes” quote. Writing narrative history is not just about getting the facts right; it’s also about getting the reader’s experience right. If it distracts, it’s got to go.


Filed under Definition, Family history, Family Stories, History, Why Stories?

The Ancestor Effect!

family tree graphicThinking about your ancestors makes you smarter!
Recent research at the University of Graz has identified an “ancestor effect.” Individuals who think about their ancestors just prior to a job interview or college exam boost their chances of success. Dr. Peter Fischer hypothesizes that “thinking about one’s origins . . . provides people with a positive psychological resource.” In other words, reminding the brain of the difficulties your ancestors overcame, you are able to approach a task with a stronger sense of identity and self-esteem—an edge that can make a measurable difference, which is probably why families continue to tell stories that emphasize how hard it used to be, how lucky we are now, blah, blah, blah, etc, etc, etc.
Is there a family that doesn’t tell their stories that way?


Filed under Definition, Family history, Family Stories, Old Storytelling Traditions, Why Stories?