Spend time with your relatives to record their histories. That’s the advice of Beryl Pielli, who years ago taped interviews with her mother, Alice Pruett Bell, about life in the farming town of Wilbur, Washington.
“I met with my mother in Wilbur and recorded stories that all seven of us siblings grew up hearing,” said Pielli, who is 73. “She had a sense of humor and was a great storyteller.
“I was so afraid I wouldn’t get it written down before she died, and I could never remember all the stories she told.”
Later, when transcribed, Bell’s stories led to gifts across generations. Pielli and her husband, Leonard, worked with family to compile the oral history into a spiral-bound book given as an 85th birthday present to Bell, who teared up upon receiving it.
Years later, Pielli again teamed up with family and computer-savvy friends on an expanded manuscript with even more photos to create a book she had printed locally.
At $7 a copy through Gray Dog Press, “Bell Family Memories” went to multiple relatives at a July 2012 family reunion. Pielli also gave one copy to a local historical society.
While a manuscript is one way to preserve family histories, smartphones and technology offer some fast-track ways to capture memories that fit around busy lives, said Stacy Julian, 51, of Liberty Lake, Washington, who also gathers relatives’ stories to forge connections.
Julian, a mother of five, worked in the scrapbooking industry for 25-plus years and was founding editor of Simple Scrapbooks magazine. Today, she teaches about ancestry storytelling methods, including at the annual RootsTech conference (rootstech.org) on the convergence of technology and family history.
“I’m trying to make family history simple,” Julian said.
To get started, she suggests creating a one-page questionnaire to give relatives by email or at family gatherings. The questionnaire asks for basics — full name, birthplace and date, but also other tidbits, including favorites for a color, song, holiday, and place to visit. Other queries: the name of someone they admire and why, a “life’s work,” notable accomplishment, and three words that best describe them.
“The beauty of it is someone can fill the sheet out in about a minute,” Julian said. “People love to write about themselves, if it’s simple.”
In 1994, Julian asked her husband’s grandfather, Russell Julian, to fill out a family sheet and she later filed it away. After Russell Julian died, her husband gave the eulogy. The history form helped bridge memories, including a favorite song, she said.
“Afterward, Russell’s daughters came up to my husband and said, ‘How did you know what his favorite hymn was?’
Julian once heard that her great-great-grandfather Joseph Hall kept stick candy on a clock shelf to give to grandchildren. With research, she ordered old-fashioned candy in a tin, put his picture inside each lid, and gave them out at a family reunion with a one-page story about him.
Pielli suggests that if people are compiling family archives, they keep information and photos in one place. That way, they can add more details as time allows.
Her friends who helped compile a formal manuscript used computer software to repair the images of old, damaged photos, Pielli said. Later, all photos were saved to a computer disk, with copies attached inside of the book’s back page.
Her adult children have enjoyed the family lore,” she said. “I think if you’re interested at all in family history, it trickles down. If someone doesn’t record it, they’ll lose it.”
For old family photos, Julian suggests also using a smartphone camera to capture original images as time permits. She uploads the smartphone images to an ancestry website, such as FamilySearch.org, and later adds facts and history for each picture. Invited family members can see the information online, and it’s another way to preserve photos.
“Once they’re uploaded, then once a week or once a month, I’ll add descriptions,” Julian said.
Using a StoryCorps app is another way to record family oral histories, she said, with a built-in script and questions. People can save a recording on a smartphone, or it can go to the Library of Congress. Another quick tool Julian uses is a Chatbooks app, and the Chatbooks business creates monthly family story books with photos. For an $8-per-month subscription, Chatbooks mails Julian the book of photos and her accompanying written posts she puts on Instagram.
The service can link to Facebook, and users receive an email with the option of editing items before that month’s book is published, Julian said. Extras can be printed to give as gifts.
“The No. 1 question I get is, ‘I’ve got all these old photos, what do I do?’ You pick up the smartphone; they have good-quality cameras. You put the old photo on a floor in front of a window with natural light and take a picture of a picture. You’re not scanning; that’s overwhelming.”
A smartphone also is useful for its standard voice recorder to capture family dialogue when a relative shares a memory, she said. “I think the important reasons to do that are the family stories and connections. Once you realize you have a connection, and you feel it, then you’re motivated to learn about a person.”
That was true when her own sons were very young, and Julian first heard details about a great-grandmother named Minnie, who raised 10 boys.
“I started to dive in and learn about Minnie. I was 28 years old and I didn’t even know her. I later learned she’d bake cookies and put them in a big five-gallon honey tin.”
Julian found a smaller antique honey tin, and when she bakes cookies, they go into her tin and she sets it out on the kitchen counter. Her kids know what the tin’s appearance means, and also something about grandma Minnie, she said.
“She’s the honey-tin grandma. Honestly, they’re not interested until they’re older, but they have enough interest now if you create connections. It’s like a seed’s been planted. Then they’ll discover connections.”