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This year I finished a two-volume pictorial history of my grandma. I did it to honor her after she passed away. My only regret is that I didn’t start this project sooner, while she was still alive, and I could hear her stories.
So that got me thinking about recording stories from my family. In 2018, I’m going to help my parents write their memoirs. I hope this will be a keepsake for their grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.
Each week, I’m going to email them one question about their lives. At the end of the year, I’ll have it bound through a self-publishing company. I wanted the questions to be comprehensive, so at the end of the year I’d have a full picture of their lives. These questions also include topics specific for Mormons.
I hope these questions might inspire you to start your own memoir project, for yourself or a loved one. Feel free to use these as a starting point!
52 Memoir Questions
- What were your parents like? What is your favorite story about your parents?
- What did your parents do for a living? How did this affect your life?
- Where did you grow up? What was your home/community like?
- What were your siblings like? What were your relationships with your siblings like?
- Describe the pets you had growing up.
- What were your birthdays like growing up? Any traditions or particularly memorable birthdays?
- What vacations did you go on growing up? Which one was your favorite?
- Tell about when you were baptized.
- What was school like? What kind of student were you? What were your favorite and least favorite things about school?
- What did you do over the summer breaks?
- What were your hobbies growing up? Do you still do any of those things?
- What was your favorite book as a child/youth? What did you like about it?
- What was Christmas like growing up? What traditions did your family have? Any particularly memorable events?
- Who were your friends growing up? What did you do together?
- Tell about a mistake you made as a child/youth that you learned from?
- Who was your first crush/first date? What did you like about that person?
- Who taught you how to drive? What was your first car? Any memorable driving experiences?
- What important spiritual experience(s) did you have as a child or youth? How did you gain a testimony of your own?
- What was your first job? How did you get it? What were your experiences like?
- What other milestone(s) did you experience as a child or youth?
- Tell about your college years. Where did you go? What did you study? Why did you choose that?
- Tell about when you went to the temple for your endowment. How did you feel?
- How did you meet your spouse? What was your courtship like?
- How did you know your spouse was “the one”? Describe the proposal.
- Describe your wedding day.
- Where did you go for your honeymoon? What did you do?
- What major historical event(s) have you lived through? How did these impact your life?
- What did you choose for a career? Why did you choose that? What have your experiences been like?
- What activities do you enjoy as a couple? What do you do to strengthen your relationship?
- What have you learned about what makes a good marriage? What advice would you give to a new couple?
- Describe buying and remodeling your home.
- How/when did you decide to have children? How many did you want to have?
- How did you choose each of your children’s names?
- Tell about when your first child was born/a baby.
- Tell about when your second child was born/a baby.
- Tell about when your third child was born/a baby.
- Tell about when your fourth child was born/a baby.
- What traditions did you pass on to your children that were important to you? What new traditions did you create with your family?
- What vacations did you take with your family? What was particularly memorable?
- What was challenging about raising children? What did you learn from those experiences?
- Tell about a memory of raising your children that makes you happy.
- What makes you most proud of each of your children? (This could be an event or a character trait, etc.)
- What callings have you had in the church? What calling did you enjoy most and why?
- What calling have you had that was very challenging? What did you learn from it?
- What hobby(ies) have you started as an adult? What do you enjoy about it?
- Describe your relationships with your parents as an adult. What changed? What stayed the same?
- Describe your relationships with your siblings and friends as an adult.
- Describe the transition as your children became adults and you no longer had small children at home. How did you feel about these changes?
- How did you feel about becoming a grandparent? Tell about a happy memory with your grandchildren.
- Describe your plans for retirement. How do you feel about retiring? What do you want to do when you are retired?
- What other important events happened in your adult life?
- How do you want to be remembered?
I sort of consider myself the unofficial family historian. I make about four photo books a year, plus two for my mom, and occasionally I make books for other family members.
I scrapbooked for several years, but quickly found myself falling behind. I started making photo books when I got a coupon for a free book from Shutterfly. I quickly put a book together and was very pleased with the results.
At first, I intended for photo books to merely supplement my scrapbooks, but I quickly abandoned that idea and switched entirely over to photo books. With my transition from film to digital photography, the change made sense.
Making a photo book can seem intimidating. I want to make every detail perfect, which sometimes makes it hard to get started. So here are my tips for making a photo book:
- Write – Sure, you can make a book with only (or mostly) just pictures, but how then will you remember all the things you want to remember? I generally write at least a sentence or two about each event, describing context and my feelings about it. Names and dates are especially important to record.
- Buy the extra pages – Most companies give you a certain number of pages and you have to pay more for extra. It’s worth it! If you feel you need more pages to tell your story, then you will regret trying to squish it into fewer just to save a few bucks.
- Keep your pages uncluttered – I have a near-phobia of empty space on the page, and am the complete opposite of a minimalist. On the other hand, trying to cram in too many pictures or adding a lot of decorations to the page can overwhelm the story you’re trying to tell.
- When it comes to fonts, simple is better – Using too many different fonts is distracting, and the more decorative the font, the harder it is to read. I typically pick 2-4 fonts to use throughout a book, but don’t use more than 2 on any given page.
- Use all the photos you want – Many designers advise photo book makers to use only a few photos per page. I typically use 4-9 photos per page. I’ve found that with more than that, your pictures are too small to see much detail, but don’t be afraid to use more than the recommended 1-3 photos per page. Above all, if you really love a picture, make sure to include it.
- Customize – There are a lot of options in how exactly to design your book. You can use the preset backgrounds and layouts, or you can customize where you want your photos and text, how big to make them, etc. Customizing your book is more work, but it will let you showcase the pictures you really want to focus on.
- Do what makes you happy – Ignore any advice that you don’t like. A photo book isn’t about impressing other people (okay, it kind of is), but it’s really about preserving your memories. Do whatever helps you record the things you want to remember.
- Done is better than perfect – I read this advice about essay writing, and it seriously changed my life. You can agonize forever over making every detail just so. But as long as it’s nowhere but your computer, it might as well be lost in cyberspace. At some point, just print it and be happy.
Below are links to some sites that help you make photo books. There are many more, but I’ve only included ones that I’ve looked into and seem to me like a good product. I don’t recommend Snapfish; I’ve ordered prints from them a few times and was not at all happy with their quality. I’ve used Shutterfly for several years, and they make quality books. I’ve seen books from Blurb and Mixbook that my friends made, and they looked like good products. From their website, My Publisher also looks like a good product.
Remember film cameras? I sure do. It was agony to send my film off to be developed, hoping I would get good pictures back. I was just getting started with photography, so a lot of my pictures didn’t come out too well, and film was expensive, so my parents would only buy me so many rolls.
Digital photography was revolutionary. Suddenly, I could take hundreds of more pictures without any additional cost, and, I could see the pictures right away. If a picture didn’t come out well, I could take another one right away, rather than missing the moment. Because of the immediate feedback, it was also easier to see what worked and what didn’t, helping me hone my skills.
Printing physical pictures created a lot of clutter. I scrapbooked and made physical albums for several years, but I could never keep up. (In fact, it took me 9 years to finish my wedding album.)
Social media allows us to share our photos with all our friends and family in an instant. It can even be immediate, if we use our smartphones.
Now, instead of physical clutter, we have digital clutter. I don’t even know how many photos I’ve uploaded to Facebook. Don’t ask how many are on my computer. I’ve started saving my photos to flash drives to make room on my hard drive.
So what do we do with all these photos?
Physical albums still have an important role. A physical book preserves our personal and family histories, without having to scroll through your Facebook feed for ten minutes looking for a specific picture or event.
I actually love to go back and look through my photo books. I tell my husband that someday he will, too, when he’s old and sentimental.
I don’t know if my many photo books will be meaningful to anyone else, since so far I don’t have any children. But I hope that someday, my efforts to photo book these hundreds of pictures will matter. Someday, someone will look at these books and learn about their grandparents or great-grandparents or…you get the idea.
Articles on the impact of digital photography:
- from the BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-16483509
Articles on personal and family histories from lds.org:
You’re going to think I’m totally weird. Okay, I am totally weird, but keep reading anyway.
This might change your life.
I am about to explain to you how to make mashed bananas on toast, or, as I usually call it, “mashed nanas on toast.” I learned this from my dad, who learned this from his mom. I don’t know if it goes back any farther than that, but that’s far enough to say it’s been passed down in the family.
Use bananas that are ripe, and even heading towards overripe. Add a glop of the fruit spread of your choice.
Then you mash it all up. I ended up adding a third banana. You can add more banana or more fruit spread as suits you.
Then you spread it on toast. I grew up on wheat bread, but once I started buying my own groceries, I found I rather preferred sourdough. You can also spread butter on the toast first, but I didn’t (sorry, Dad).
This made enough for 6 pieces of toast. On average, one banana yields enough for two pieces of toast. You may need several napkins.
Go ahead, try it.
It may change your life.
As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, family history is a big deal. But recently, with the death of my grandma on my dad’s side, and the decline of my grandma on my mom’s side, I realized I have little of my family history preserved. At least, family history going further back than my own childhood.
We have the genealogy, so that’s not a problem. But many of the stories about my grandparents and the stories of their lives have not been written down, and now there is no way to ask them. (Both my grandpas died during my preteen years.)
So I’ve embarked upon family history projects, to scan old pictures and write down (and badger my family into writing down) stories about our grandparents/parents. The work is going slowly, but at least I’ve started. Today I felt impressed to share what I’ve written about my mom’s parents:
Going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house was always exciting. Their house had three stories, which was very exciting to kids whose house only had two, and were only allowed on the first floor. Grandma would let us eat sugary cereal and cookies, play Nintendo, and watch the same two cartoon movies over and over again (Tom and Jerry: The Movie and The Magic Trolls and the Troll Warriors.) Downstairs we loved to play fooseball and table hockey. The backyard was an adventure land, with overgrown plant life and lots of places to hide. Every time we left to go home, Grandpa would offer us a candy orange slice.
Thanksgiving was always at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. I remember Grandma adding flour to the turkey gravy to thicken it up. She told me not to tell Grandpa, since he didn’t like her to add the flour.
Christmas Eve was also always at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, with the extended family. There was always a boot present from them to each grandkid. One year they bought me a brown teddy bear, which is named “Benjamin.” At their house was a Christmas tree with a model train running around it. Grandpa read to us How the Grinch Stole Christmas every Christmas Eve, with lots of great voices.
One Christmas Eve, Grandpa told me a special visitor would be coming. The family was so surprised when a magician arrived! Grandpa looked at me and said “I told you someone was coming!” It was like our little joke. I was entranced by the magic show. There was one trick with color-changing wooden rabbits, which was an especially funny trick to play with our family, since all the boys except one are color-blind.
When Mom and Dad wanted to get away from us kids, we always went to Grandma and Grandpa’s. One year, when Mom and Dad we’re going to the Renaissance Faire, they asked us kids if we wanted to go to the faire or to Grandma and Grandpa’s. I said to Grandma and Grandpa’s. As much as I enjoyed faire, I couldn’t resist the lure of visiting Grandma and Grandpa. (When Mom and Dad came to pick us up and were dressed in their costumes, I started crying because I hadn’t gone. Ah, an early lesson in opportunity cost.)
I used to sit with Grandma and she would tell me about her life. She told me about when she was a girl in Utah and she would go to the local cemetery and have picnics on a stone lion that was there as a memorial for someone. She told me about how she and Grandpa eloped. I wasn’t quite sure what “eloped” meant, but I was sure it was something exciting.
I know how much Grandma has missed Grandpa since he died. When she is gone, I’ll miss her, too, but I’ll be comforted to know that she is with Grandpa again.