When my grandfather passed away three years ago, he left behind a house full of stuff. Incredibly, we are still sorting it out today. (Just last week, my boyfriend/live-in partner bought his old convertible.)
My grandfather was a prolific traveler who had been to every U.S. state and every continent, including Antarctica. So there were plenty of souvenirs from his world travels for the four children and 12 grandchildren who survived him.
Still, the most precious things I received from him are intangibles with no monetary worth. They are the traditions and stories that give context to who I am and how our family came to this great country.
Capturing family history
My grandfather’s health started fading several years before he passed. For once, I started to imagine life without him and what that meant for my family.
I was always interested in family genealogy, but I didn’t have a firm grasp on most of it. I decided that needed to change.
So I started stopping by his house more often. Those visits were interesting, to say the least. My grandfather became active on Facebook in his later years, and he was constantly asking me to give him tips and tricks on how to use it.
After our social media tutorials, I would travel back in time to make the cabbage rolls his mother made back in eastern Europe. I took that recipe down, along with my Italian grandmother’s delicious lasagna recipe.
One day, I videotaped them talking about how our family came to America, where they grew up, how they met and what life was like for them through the decades.
I made that video just in the nick of time; a few months later, they both suffered major health setbacks.
How to preserve family traditions
I’m forever grateful that I spent that time with my grandparents. Today, I give these tips to anyone who wants to preserve family traditions:
- Come with a list of questions. Many people get nervous in an interview—or they will give one-word answers. That’s why I came with lots of specific questions for my grandparents. Instead of “What was your childhood like?” I asked about their schools, their hobbies, who their friends were, etc.
- Get it on video. Written histories are great, but seeing someone in action adds a whole new dimension to things. Video helps their true personality come through, which can help future generations understand them better.
- Write out a family tree. This is one instance where you’ll want things written rather than said. Have a knowledgeable person in your family write down everyone’s name and how they are related. Other relatives and ancestry.com can help fill in the holes.
- Make the recipes together. Many people never followed a family recipe—it was just something they learned to do. By actually making the dish together, you’ll learn the small nuances that make that recipe so great.
- Protect your memories. Some things like my grandfather’s extensive coin collection need insured. (Your homeowners or renters policy should usually do the trick—however, more expensive items may need an inland marine endorsement). For family documents and other materials, it’s important to store them somewhere like a fireproof safe. Also make sure to create copies and backups.
- Start now. Perhaps the most important tip of all is to start ASAP. Even if your older family members are in good health, you never know what tomorrow will bring.
I still miss my grandfather. But knowing that his memory is preserved and protected means he will live on for many years to come.