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Family Stories

VW Bus scenic picI learned as an adult that my grandparents had owned a Volkswagen camper van and had driven it from India to Europe. It was in passing that one of my aunts mentioned that my grandparents had owned a van like mine. I asked a bit more and the story trickled out that they had purchased the 1960’s era camper from Europe, had it shipped to India where they were missionaries, and then they drove to Europe.

This is epic. My brain nearly burst with a sudden realization that my grandparents had been adventurers when people quietly did amazing things without making a big deal of it.

VW Bus Journey

For those of you who, like me, aren’t sure what a trip like that entails, let me share a couple key things. It is about 6,000 miles, and Google estimates it would take 112 hours and over 368 turns. It has a warning that the route requires passage on private land. Presently, it would require you to go through portions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and a whole host of former Soviet countries. There are also side trips to places like Iraq, Syria, and countries I’d include, but can’t spell.

Since hearing that first hint of their journey, I’ve seen one slide showing a white VW camper along a dusty, rocky landscape which could be in any of those rocky countries. I don’t know their route, the hardships they encountered, or how they figured things out.

One of my regrets of my life is that I didn’t know my grandparents as adventurers. My grandfather was an accountant and my grandmother had a fear of flying. If only I could sit with them now…but it’s years too late. My grandfather died just over thirty years ago and my grandma over 20.

My family isn’t the exception in forgetting to tell me about epic things from the past. Most people assume they know the important family stories, but few do. I’m going to write my theory in bold.

We rarely get to know people that we assume we already know.

Have you noticed how much you learn when you bring someone new and inquisitive into a family conversation? They aren’t afraid to look stupid or ask potentially embarrassing questions, so they ask all sorts of things and you end up learning a lot.

I remember a road trip I took with my wife Kelly’s dad. I learned a bunch about her dad and we had a great time. I assumed she knew all these great family stories and it slowly came out that I knew a bunch of things that she didn’t, not because her dad was hiding them, but simply because they never came up

Here is my question: Are you putting as much thought into your conversations as you are into the menu, football, and shopping plans? No, you don’t need to start an interrogation, but why not learn a bit more about your family before it’s too late?

If you do a search, you will find a dazzling number of methods on capturing your family story. Many involve using technology ranging from a digital recorder to video equipment. I think there is a time and place for documenting the story, but don’t over engineer this thing. Start with the following as a foundation and then build on sophistication like recording and preserving.

  1. Be open to learning. Your attitude of respect and true interest will set the tone for them to be comfortable sharing.
  2. Ask. It doesn’t have to be a perfect question. You can always clarify and ask more, but start by showing interest and asking.
  3. Listen. The majority of us spend most of our listening time thinking up our response, or coming up with our ‘topper’ story. Instead, listen and allow for pauses. Be comfortable with silence or interruptions. Do the active listening stuff, which includes non-verbals, listening posture, nods, rephrasing, empathy, questions, and appropriate laughing.
  4. Thank them. Affirm every chance you get and thank them for sharing. It isn’t always easy to be in the limelight or to be put on the spot. Don’t assume it is easy and so be thankful for what you get.

I encourage you to spend time this holiday season focused on learning your family’s stories, and don’t forget to preserve those stories by sharing them with your kids.

Question: How have you gotten your grandparents and other relatives to open up and share family stories? Do you have a great story to share with us?

2 Comments on “Family Stories

    • Thanks Mike, I’d like to hear about any family stories you uncover. I heard from a few people this week who learned surprising and inspiring things about their parents. Nice to know I’m not the only one needing to ask questions.