Time Together and Life Stories – Thursday Thoughts

At this time of year when families and friends come together one of the things we either love to do or try to avoid is actually talking with one another. The festive season is a unique time together with family members and friends to share the stories of our year and more.

Lately I’ve been thinking about life stories. Several of my clients’ family history projects have started with the generation closest to home – with their own lives and that of their parents and siblings. It is clear that researching our own life story and the lives of our parents and forebears can bring powerful meaning to bare facts and bring knowledge into the gaps.

Recently I also had the wonderful privilege of reading a friend’s thesis on spirituality and Motherhood as a rite of passage, focussing on the significance of telling birth stories. My thoughts about life stories have been challenged further by an article on life stories written by Sarah Cain, a freelance writer and TED speaker, in which she insightfully considers the telling of life stories and the significance of the narrative we construct to retell and give meaning to life events.

Time Together - Your life story on a plate, napking, plate and festive biscuits on a plate.Everyone has a life story and sometimes this also incorporates the historical life stories of forebears. But perhaps telling your story and that of your family as a narrative is not yet a comfortable or audience-friendly enterprise. Gathering one’s life story can be a long-term process and I share Sarah’s view that on a personal level ultimately the “facts matter less than the narrative”, that is, the personal meaning found in life events and experiences. However for many of my clients there is a perceived need to get the facts straight or as close to the facts as straight as possible before they can begin to make sense of recent and historical family life experiences.

For those whose focus is firstly unlocking their family history, I see two preliminary stages before the telling of a family life narrative: firstly obtaining the historical facts, and secondly putting them into historical or circumstantial context. Once this has been done, from the facts and their setting, life experiences and their interpretation can be constructed into a meaningful narrative.

I like the old cliché “it’s good to talk”. Whether we spend time this winter holiday with family or friends, catching up and reviewing the year is a great way to make up for lost time and get up to speed with one another again. Some of us have busy years to recount, others have poignant family events to review, sharing both the facts and our take on them – our narrative. However there may be family facts which we still need to establish before we can go further with our life stories. Gathering with family members may be a time to gently ask your life story questions, to glean facts others may be able to provide. However impromptu those moments of candidness are, if there is a willingness to share information you might wish to make notes about what you are told, such as dates or names of people and places.

Your family life story has a deep significance not least for you and your family, but also for subsequent generations who would love to go beyond the key facts of your life and hear your personal narrative. But it is with the facts that we must start, as we begin to narrate our life stories.

We wish all our readers and their families very happy times together during this festive season.


Sarah Cain, “How to Tell Your Own Life Story”, online at http://www.quietrev.com/how-to-tell-your-own-life-story/

Revd. Jill Thornton, “Moments Marked: an exploration into the ways in which women are choosing to mark aspects of their Rite of Passage into Motherhood”, PhD Thesis, University Manchester, 2015.

Hannah, historytrace, 17/12/2015

Have your family gatherings sparked new insights into your family life stories? Or have your conversations brought to light new historical family information which historytrace could help you to contextualise? Get in touch with us using the Contact page of this website if we can help you take this information further.

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