This holiday season, preserve your family history.

by Jordan Green

As Christmas draws near, you might be wondering how to pass the time with your family members during get-togethers.

Most folks despise small talk. We live in Oklahoma, so the answer to any question about the weather is always going to be: “It’s crazy.” And if you don’t like the weather here, don’t worry.

It’ll change. But here’s something that won’t change: the passage of time. The clock never stops ticking. And with the passage of time often comes the loss of memories, dates and details that make up a family’s history. How about bringing that up this December? Family history is something that people need to be familiar with – yet often know little about.

A 2019 survey by One- Poll and Ancestry, a leading genealogical research database, found that one-third of all Americans couldn’t name all of their grandparents; 34% of Americans couldn’t name any family members who lived before their grandparents. And 14% didn’t even know about their grandparents’ careers. Are you in those numbers? And can you change that?

In some cases, younger family members may lack familial knowledge because their family members have died, or because challenging family dynamics keep them from making meaningful connections. Either situation is a tragedy. So, if you’ve got family to spend the holidays with, don’t just consider yourself lucky.

Realize that you’re blessed, and then show how grateful you are by investing in those people. That starts by learning more about who they are. Starting a conversation with a grandparent, an aunt, an uncle or even an “adopted” family member doesn’t have to be hard. I’ve found that the older a relative is, the more willing he or she is to open up about the past.

Not all people are this way, and you may have to use a little persistent persuasion to convince your loved ones to share their stories. But I promise you this: It’ll be worth it.

During Thanksgiving, I sat down with my Great Aunt Marilyn for an hour or so to talk about her life. I knew she had lived through some interesting events, but little did I know just how tough she was. As a child, Aunt Marilyn had polio. She was one of those American children who suddenly were stricken with this potentially fatal disease. She went through multiple agonizing surgeries in her youth, enduring great pain and having to learn how to walk with a limp for the rest of her life.

But the strength and resilience she had to overcome that vicious illness – along with the love of her parents and their faith in God – is powerful to learn about. She’s kept that same strength, love and faith her entire life.

She’s still a beautiful lady with a wide smile and a laugh that fills the room. But she is beginning to lose some of her memory, a condition with which all too many people are familiar. Thanksgiving was the right time to ask her to talk about her life.

One day, it will, sadly, be too late.

I’d wager that at least some of you have a family member who is grappling with some kind of serious condition. For you, it’s especially important to preserve your family history while you still can. Here are some tips I’d offer about asking a family member to talk about his or her life.

First, ask open-ended questions, and then ask clarifying questions for details like dates and places. A good starter is this: “What did you do in your career?” This could lead down a number of winding paths, but you’ll probably find treasure at the end of each one.

Even if it’s not a humorous anecdote, perhaps there’s a valuable lesson to be learned.

A person’s job is a crucial part of a person’s identity. How did that affect them? Some other questions: Ask about starting a family of their own.

What was that like? What were the challenges? What were the joys? Ask about their hobbies.

What was something they always loved to do? What are their favorite childhood memories?

Second, don’t interrupt your family member. Getting someone off track can derail a quality story, and you might not be able to get the person back on that topic.

Instead, be an active listener by nodding occasionally in understanding or agreement. Lean slightly toward the person to convey your interest. This will help keep the person talking.

Third, make sure to record your interviews – and keep the recording in more than one place. If you’ve got a smartphone, you have everything you need. Turn on your camera and make sure that your phone can pick up what the person is saying.

Once you’re done, send the recording to the rest of your family. No matter what happens, you’ll more than likely always have a copy somewhere. If you don’t have a smartphone, you can purchase an inexpensive voice recorder or video camera at many stores.

And if nothing else, a pen and notepad can still do the job.

Finally, enjoy the time. It’ll be one of the most meaningful conversations you will ever have with your loved ones. If they want to talk for two hours, let ‘em. Get as much of their story as you can. Because their story is your story, too. You can spell “I” and “my” with the word “family.”

Once the storytelling starts, everyone at the Christmas dinner table will want to hear it. Because this is no small talk. This is the big story. Don’t let your family’s story get lost to time this Christmas. Make this holiday a December for everyone – present and future – to remember.