I wonder what it was like for my grandma to work day in and day out in their small-town café, with five young children at home. I wish I knew more about great-grandpa’s experiences in the war. I’d really like to ask my mom about her relationship with her father.
Questions about our parents and grandparents arise throughout our lives. If we’re lucky, the subjects of our questions are still just a phone call away. But that won’t always be the case. The only way to guard against being left with dozens of unanswered questions after our loved ones pass away is to ask those questions now. Ask them of your aging and younger relatives. Ask them of yourself.
The following stories show how two women have embarked on journaling projects with the goal of recording important memories, experiences, and insights so they’re not lost to history. Their experiences, while very different from one another, prove that preserving family stories doesn’t have to be all-consuming or overwhelming. It just takes commitment, a bit of a routine, and insightful journaling prompts from the #52stories project.
Kim Farah: Preserving Stories from Aging Parents
Kim, an empty nester who works in the Public Affairs Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was sitting in a meeting about the #52stories project last year when a thought hit her: “I need to be interviewing my parents.”
The #52stories project encourages participants to preserve one personal or family story every week for a year. It features 144 questions to choose from that are divided into 12 monthly themes. The questions are available to download in various formats. As she listened to discussions about the project, Kim felt an overwhelming prompting—and an unexpected urgency—to start preserving her parents’ history now.
“They’re at this time in their lives where they’re cleaning out a lot of boxes and organizing memories and pictures,” Kim says. “They have stories to tell, but you have to sit down with them and ask them the questions for them to have that opportunity.”
Kim printed all 144 questions, which are divided into 12 categories such as Goals and Achievements, Holidays and Traditions, and Love and Friendship. She included the questions in a notebook to give her parents for Christmas. She also bought a digital audio recorder and recruited her sister’s help.
“It’s exactly what my parents wanted,” she says. “They wanted their stories to be told, but they had no idea how to go about it.”
Kim’s Approach: Monthly Audio Interviews
Once a month, Kim and her sister sit down with their parents, Lynne and Elaine Stanley, and spend an hour or two recording their conversations on the digital recorder. The digital recorder creates audio files that she can easily upload to her computer when she gets home. At ages 83 and 81, the Stanleys feel much more comfortable with audio than video, and they appreciate having the questions available in advance. Rather than just picking a few questions each month, they answer every single one.
“They look at the questions, and they talk about them,” Kim says. “Many times they’ve gone through some of the mementoes from their childhood, so they’re prepared for these interviews.”
Elaine once even spent five hours on the phone with her sister before that month’s interview, clarifying details and stories from their childhood.
Kim appreciates that the #52stories questions are open-ended, making them easier for her parents to answer and insightful enough to have sparked some deep and meaningful discussions. “You end up having conversations about things you don’t normally have conversations about,” Kim says, “and you learn things about your parents as individuals that you didn’t realize.”
While her goal is to preserve family stories, one wonderful side effect has been the deepening of generational ties. “My kids just see grandma and grandpa as perfect; they don’t think of them as young people who really had to go through challenges,” Kim says. She has appreciated the chance to help her children understand what her parents had to overcome to become the people they are today.
Capture Now, and Edit and Share Later
Once she reaches the end of the interviews, Kim plans to transcribe the audio files and edit them so they’re more readable. She’ll fill her parents’ notebooks with transcriptions and keep the digital files as well. “There’s a lot of emotion that’s captured on those audio recordings,” she says. “The banter back and forth won’t be captured in that text version.”
Eventually, she’d like to bind all the transcriptions into a book and share it with everyone in the family and perhaps even record a short video about the project. She’s keeping an open mind about where the project will take her, knowing that the most important thing is to get the memories and stories captured now. There will be plenty of time to decide what to do with the content in the future.
Kara Hale: Preserving Your Personal History
Kara is a young mother of four living in Centerville, Utah, who follows @FamilySearch on Instagram. Every week, she sees one question from the #52stories project pop up in her feed, and she has made the goal to answer each of those questions on her iPad, often typing with one hand while she rocks her new baby. She started the project in January, and by the end of the year, she will have written 52 stories about her life past and present.
Kara’s Approach: Memories Captured in an App
Kara sets aside time every Sunday to type her memories into a journaling app called Day One. She cemented the weekly habit when her baby was brand new, and the two of them had a few hours alone each week while the rest of the family was at church.
“I just thought, I need to quit handwriting this,” Kara says, who remembers helping type all of her grandmother’s old journals as a teen. She didn’t want to subject her posterity to the same thing.
“You definitely had to sift through a lot to find the little gems,” she says of her grandma’s journals. “Her life was a lot of work, so it was a lot about daily tasks and just kind of a log of events—‘I went to a church meeting. We went to visit so and so, and it was so and so’s birthday.’”
Kara appreciates having weekly memory prompts to answer because it’s not easy to figure out what to write about. “I don’t want to write that I did the laundry or vacuumed,” she says. “I want to write about meaningful things.”
She appreciates the variety of questions available in the #52stories project. Some are lighthearted and fun, while others are more serious, and they cover many aspects of life.
Being a busy mom, Kara likes to sit down and have one specific prompt waiting for her: “I’m not in the mode of life to sift through the questions. Just give me the question, and I’ll answer it. That’s the beauty of it. No prep time spent.”
The Side Benefits of Storytelling
As Kara has completed the writing prompts week after week, she has been surprised by three important life lessons:
1. Writing Invites Quiet Reflection
Inspired by one of the weekly writing prompts, Kara imagined what it must have been like to be in her grandmother’s shoes. While she worked hard throughout her life on demanding physical tasks, much of that work was quiet and repetitive, leaving room for the mind to wander, remember, and reflect.
We no longer have “those quiet moments when you’re out in the fields or doing laundry,” Kara says. We tend to plug in our headphones and drown out our thoughts with music, podcasts, news, and more. As great as these things can be, they also rob us of time to think. The #52stories project has encouraged Kara to spend more time reflecting and making connections.
“It’s a healthy habit as a person living in the present to write things and think about your life, and not just live it,” she says.
2. Writing Sparks More Writing
Kara had been meaning to establish a journaling habit for many years, and her original plan was just to answer 52 specific questions in one year and call it good.
“This project unstuck me,” she says. “And as a result, I do write about some of the important things that are happening in life right now too. That’s getting recorded. It wouldn’t have gotten recorded before.”
Kara has no problem mixing stories from the past and the present in the same app. She doesn’t feel tied to a chronological approach, knowing she can always reorganize her collected stories later if she wants to.
3. Writing Helps Us Expand Our Comfort Zones
Every now and then, Kara encounters a question that makes her uncomfortable, but she answers it anyway. We all have episodes in our lives that remain sensitive and tender, even many years later. These are, perhaps, some of the most important stories for us to record.
“I’m constantly trying to get my kids to try new things,” Kara says. “I get to live in my comfort zone all the time, and yet I want them to be exploring and trying new things? It’s nice to be pushed out of that comfort zone.”
Why Preserving Stories is Worthwhile
As Kara and Kim have both learned, when we commit to writing about our lives or helping loved ones record their memories, we don’t have to wait decades into the future to reap the benefits. The advantages are immediate—deeper conversations with loved ones, greater understanding about where we come from, a changed perspective about what’s important in life, strengthened ties between generations, and profound feelings of gratitude.
Before you begin, you don’t have to know exactly what you’re going to do with the stories you gather, how you’re going to organize them, or how you’ll share them. The most important thing is just to start—and to start now.
How to Start Now
Try these tips to help you get started preserving your personal and family stories in simple but meaningful ways.
1. Just start somewhere. Begin with what’s inspiring you right now. There’s no rule that says you have to start at birth and record your life story chronologically.
2. Capture now, organize later. Write or record stories in the moment, or when the memory first arises. You can decide what to do with your captured stories later.
3. Establish a routine. Set aside 30 minutes every Sunday for personal journaling, or schedule a regular monthly interview with your grandparents. Just be consistent.
4. Use prompts to spark memories. Don’t know what to write about? Rely on insightful writing prompts and questions, like those found in the #52stories project.
5. Make it conversational. Skip the formalities. Whether you’re writing your story or interviewing someone else, encourage authentic voices to shine through. Be real.
Tip: Whether you’re gathering stories about yourself or a loved one, upload them as Memories to the person’s profile on FamilySearch.org, a permanent and free archive that aims to create the world’s largest genealogical database. You can even add audio files and pictures. For mobile access, try the FamilySearch Memories app and the FamilySearch Family Tree app.