Making the Holidays Count

Ruth Patterson’s four grandchildren. Claire was gratified to share information about her mother, Ruth, in a memory booklet she is putting together for the family.

...by Claire Gebben

Yes, holiday gatherings are about the food, but they’re also about the stories. That point was driven home to me during a recent visit with my brother and family.

For a few months before their arrival, I’d been working on a family history narrative of our mom, Ruth Ellen Lindsey Patterson. It’s hard to believe it’s been almost twenty years since she died. At my brother’s house last April, I had rummaged through a box of her memorabilia and taken photos of the documents, which gave me enough material to begin cobbling together a narrative about her life.

By the time of our family gathering, I had only made it as far as the 1950s, up to the earliest years of Mom’s married life. Even so, with photos stuck into my Word document here and there, the write-up amounted to 30 pages.

During our long weekend together, I shared copies with my brother and sister-in-law and with Mom’s four grandchildren. It was especially gratifying to see her progeny, now in their mid-twenties, reading about their grandmother, asking questions and learning so many things about her for the first time.

As the holidays approach, why not take the opportunity for this kind of sharing? Think about stories of the important people and mentors in your life. Depending on your upbringing, it may be a family member, or it may be the significant caregiver(s) who raised you. Think about your own experiences and the stories you might have to tell. Why not jot some things down in advance, or even make a small booklet to share as a gift?

If writing things down seems especially daunting, you’re not alone. But here are some ideas to help keep you on track.

• Write often – ten minutes every day is better than one hour once a week. Why? Because if you only write once a week, you’ll spend the first half hour trying to figure out where you left off last time.

• Be honest! This is part of your legacy. Everyone has failings, and no one is perfect. Include challenges you faced, but also remember to include how you overcame them.

• Don’t forget the humorous stories.

• Lastly, with the convenience of cellphones, don’t forget to keep one handy at gatherings. When a loved one launches into a favorite story, it’s so easy to make a video or audio recording, and who knows how that might be valued, now and for posterity?

No time to get it done this holiday? Then make a New Year’s resolution to be ready next time around. To that end, why not join or gather together a writing group? I’ve found it’s especially motivating to write with others, and feedback is key to helping us be sure we’ve said what we intended to say. My writing group is organized around member submissions of five pages every two weeks, a very manageable goal.

This Christmas, when all the family is gathered, be sure to share what stories matter to you the most. Studies have shown that sharing what we care about causes others to care as well, which strengthens meaningful bonds and traditions for the generations who follow.

Author Claire Gebben gives presentations on writing about family history, German genealogy, research and more. Her memoir, “How We Survive Here: Families Across Time” (2018), tells the compelling story of the discovery of 19th-century letters in an attic in Germany, which propels her on a challenging quest to trace and write about her ancestors. More at http://clairegebben.com.

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