Holiday Visits: A Rich Resource for Family StoriesWritten by Thomas MacEntee
Growing up in Upstate New York, December was a special time. Early in the month, as the air turned colder and the snow settled in, you could just tell that this was no ordinary month. There were lots of activities and never enough time. Mom would start her Christmas baking by the second week of the month and as the days went by, tins and boxes and every available container would be filled with treats and goodies.
My mother’s signature Christmastime gift to friends and family was her Date Nut Bread and a small tub of whipped cream cheese (we were not fruitcake fans!). My brother and I were placed into production line service with one of us greasing the foil loaf pans and another mixing the batter. Baking 20 or more loaves in an evening after dinner was not uncommon.
And why did we pursue this ritual every year? To make The Visit, as Mom called it.
The Visit: Staying in Touch and Reaching Back
My cousins, aunts and uncles all lived within a 100 mile radius, but in rural areas. It wasn’t always easy to see each other as frequently as we wanted. And Mom came from a family of twelve children, and they all had children . . . you get the idea. Most visits were large gatherings which didn’t allow much time for individual conversations and really “catching up.”
But Christmastime was different. Mom made sure that several nights a week and most weekends, we made the rounds to visit relatives, deliver a container of goodies (including the Date Nut Bread) and just spend time talking, exchanging photos and telling stories.
Even as a child, for me it was the power of those stories that brought me to the kitchen table of an aunt or uncle. My cousins and I would hover, embraced by an arm of an adult or two, and be mesmerized by stories of growing up during the Depression. Or stories of how Grandma managed a house filled with twelve children and still worked as a nurse. And the stories of how the family stuck together despite being so poor.
Getting the Most Out of a Holiday Visit
Here are some tips on how to have a meaningful visit with family members you haven’t seen in a while and gather material for preserving family stories:
- Enjoy the moment. Sometimes the “story keeper” in us is so focused on capturing details that we don’t allow ourselves to simply enjoy visiting.
- Don’t force it. Let the stories and memories come up in conversation naturally. You’ll find that the content is more meaningful and the story teller will have more passion and offer more details.
- Bring photos. Family scrapbooks and photo albums are great touchstones for family stories. Also bring a copy or two on your visit and have a scanned/digitized version that you can send in a follow-up email.
- Kids count too! Very often holiday visits bring about a separation of adults and children with the “grown ups” talking at the kitchen table and the kids off playing in another room. Schedule an activity where the children are able to hear the family stories being shared.
- Use your tech savvy. It is likely that the relatives you visit will also pull out their own family photos. Load up your smartphone with apps that can scan a photo or document so you have your own copy.
- Follow up later. If you want to conduct a more formal interview, schedule that for another date. Work on catching up with your relatives during the visit and ensuring that you’ll contact them in a few weeks.
© 2013, copyright Thomas MacEntee
Bio: Thomas MacEntee is a genealogy professional specializing in the use of technology and social media to improve genealogical research and as a means of interacting with others in the family history community. For more information visit http://hidefgen.com.
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