Preserving the Past

The value of documenting your family history through storytelling

Preserving the Past

By Jenny Timberlake Bellamy

From the time I was old enough to form memories, to as recently as last week, I have been told to always remember who I am and to never forget from whence I came.

The latter would be nearly impossible if it were not for the stories passed down through generations of my family. I have spent more than a decade on one story, in particular, writing a book about how one man’s split-second decision echoed forth and shaped generations of women in my family.

There are legends and lore in every family, and I came to know ours through time at the dinner table and campfire circles, hours wiled away deep in conversation. When a moment in life lent itself, my mother never missed an opportunity to pass down wisdom, injecting a “Once upon a time, your Aunt Mildred…” story, which became more commonplace as my sisters and I grew older. Life lessons, left turns, large moments. Though great aunts and grandparents were long gone, their shared experiences no less still managed to inform my life. There was always a comforting or cautionary tale offered, and I have subsequently developed a profound sense of connection to those that went before me.

I searched for all the tangible bits and pieces remaining that I might use to round-out what was delivered via oral tradition. I found both gifts and signposts left in my great-grandmother’s journals from the early 1900s. I found heartbreak in my grandmother’s journals and letters, and I found courage, survival, and love in my mother’s. I discovered court documents and found family Bibles hand-scrawled with births, deaths, weddings, funerals, and service records. Siphoning through my ancestors’ evidence was an unwitting study where I came to recognize myself more clearly, see my sisters, and understand my parents more deeply.

All are satisfying side effects of coming to know my roots, for all roads that led here to illuminate. In many ways, the preservation of family stories has served as a roadmap of sorts, and if nothing else, the awareness of a larger history that I belong to.

Author Sue Monk Kidd said, “Stories have to be told, or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.” Our lives are comprised of an ever-growing collection of stories that we experience, that others tell us and that we tell ourselves. In essence, storytelling is life. No matter what your story is, it is valuable and worth sharing. No matter how you share it, around the dinner table or firepit, by journaling, or even in today’s world, a simple social media post — all of these add up to way-markers for those that will come after us. These stories ground us in our roots, inspire us in our now, and at the end of it all — our stories are the legacies we leave.


Storytelling Traditions

Storytelling is our original and oldest form of communication.

Since the dawn of humankind, stories were communicated with hieroglyphs, formations, carvings, and symbols. Across every culture, storytelling transcends time and space with oral tradition, the written word, art, dance, ceremonies, poetry, and song. Not a single human is without their own unique story, and it is the common thread that runs throughout the arc of every story that moves us forward, connects us all, gives us perspective, and teaches us. Storytelling remains our most critical tool and serves still as the record-keeping of our individual and shared histories.

In the present day, storytelling has become more visual with the advent and prevalence of social media. Facebook and Instagram provide platforms to share the content of our lives with photographic support in posts that can be engaged with, looked back on, saved in our “memories.” These platforms furthered our ability to share real-time life with live-feeds and actual “Stories” features, where users employ snippets of video, pictures, with blurbs or paragraphs to tell our tales to large audiences all at once, and to all corners of the globe.

The digital age has, in many ways, transformed storytelling, with more access to a never-ending sea of information. However, these stories’ ability to endure the same as all prior storytelling methods is subjective and largely dependent on how technology continues to evolve. It is a good reminder to make sure to otherwise retain our stories, to preserve our legacies and the evidence of our lives, for whosoever comes after us.

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