Friday, 4 April 2014

The Little Things Matter

Most of the time we are so focused on our specialized genealogy (one-name studies and one-place studies), our volunteer projects, or our educational pursuits (webinars, hangouts, seminars and conferences) that we forget to take a step back and focus on those living family members who can fill in the blanks, tell us the stories, or describe in detail the ancestors for whom we only have the basic facts.

Over the past year, I have had two great experiences to "chat up the living" and I suggest that you make a point to chat up the living too!

Our Family Reunion
Last summer we had our family reunion (held every five years) and being an A-type, I came up with a few games for our reunion. I should mention that we are a petty competitive bunch and we will do anything for a prize so it seemed like a good idea to get family members to interact a bit more and have some fun.

Friday evening was devoted to getting your name tag and finding your team members for the Saturday games. We separated family groups and age groups (how I love RSVPs and Excel worksheets) so there was a family elder, and a person from each generation on each team and no one was on a team with someone from their immediate family. We used containers of treats and had people guess the amount (skittles, pretzels, m&ms, goldfish) or the length (twizzlers). People had fun guessing and even more fun winning - luckily the winners shared their haul with everyone.  It helped to meet your teammates on Friday night because the games started bright and early on Saturday morning.

Warming up with the puzzles & mazes
Saturday morning, after coffee and breakfast, we started with word jumbles and an Ireland to USA maze (a children's edition and an over-10 edition). We used our teams for a scavenger hunt and a 20 questions game. The first game was to get extended relatives to work as a team and the second game was to help them learn a bit about our family history. The scavenger hunt was timed and it was amazing to see how the team members interacted and the ideas they came up with to find the items. The 20 questions game (since we are over-achievers there were 50 questions, some easy and some hard) was a four hour event and each team could get 5 minutes with an elder of their choice and one other person to "pick their brains" for the tough questions. The one caveat was that the person could lie. It was up to you to give their answers some serious consideration.

Working together on the Scavenger Hunt
We awarded a variety of prizes -  from gift cards to kitchen or home items, and chocolates to bottles of wine. We had a prize table and the winners got to select the prize they wanted. I can't tell you how thrilled I was, when with all the choices on the prize table, my 6 year old second cousin choose a Barnes & Noble gift card because he could buy some books!!

The 20 Questions game was so much fun because it was interesting to see what people knew or thought they knew and, more importantly, what they did not know. My cousins all went to my father (one of the family elders) to get him to answer questions - the only thing they didn't know was that my father was more than willing to (and did) lie because he wanted his team to win! (And they did!)

Taking names and giving away prizes - what's not to love!
Bottom line is that all the games were fun, they got family members to talk with others they might not have talked with, and did I mention prizes? Even better, some of the extended family members wanted to learn more about our family and share more about their families (I am always happy to expand that family circle). We got lots of comments - "best family reunion ever," "it was amazing to see my husband chatting with Aunt Peggy, he has never really spent time with her before, "and "let's not wait 5 years for the next reunion, let's start planning it for 2 years."

 Asking Questions & Letting Them Tell Their Stories
I have made a point of getting together with my parents on a regular basis and asking them questions. More importantly, I am trying my best to listen and let them tell their stories. It helps that I am recording our conversations on my smartphone and then listening and annotating the conversations soon after the meet-up. It helps to have some documents or photographs to share with them and nudge their memories. The journey we take during these short (30 minutes) conversations is amazing.

During one get together I showed each of them the 1940 US Census from their neighborhood. It was fun to nudge their memories of the neighbors (and then they wanted to look for extended relatives). My mother took a look at the farm community where her grandfather and aunts and uncles lived and had some great stories from her very early childhood. My father simply wanted to find his early childhood friends.

To help you get started, find a list of questions or areas you want to learn more about and then break those topics into manageable conversations. Whether you meet up in person, hangout via Google+, or get together via the telephone, chat family members up and get those recordings now. What would you give if you had recordings with the voices or images of family members who are no longer with you? Do it today, the chance might be lost to you tomorrow.

Get Everyone Talking!
image courtesy of ID-100203880
Spend some time with your living family members. You might be quite surprised to learn that they can be as fascinating as all those dead family members. How do you get family interested in talking about their family history and how do you preserve their stories?


  1. You sound amazingly organised. I am sure my immediate family would not co-operate with any party games!

  2. Ah that is too bad Anne. I have to say that family members were surprisingly good sports and several wanted the correct answers to the 20 questions game. I think if you make the games fun, short and encourage teamwork you are halfway there. Plus it helps that we are super competitive in our family.

  3. I am so impressed. Sounds like a huge amount of work, but, so much fun.

  4. I always have a partner in crime (one of my crafty sisters) and for this reunion, my cousin (the one with a Sur La Table connection) spearheaded the prizes part of the project. It was crazy but fun. Only tips - give yourself enough time early on and have a couple of answer sheets so you can quickly grade the sheets (advice and help from one of my teacher sisters). Lucky me I have scads of siblings with all kinds of skills.

  5. My husbands family does games at their reunions. I can't think of any games for my family gatherings. We talk and talk and talk. I have got lots of good information from my elders. There is only one left and her memory isn't what it was but I still run questions by her

  6. Kirstin (and others) here are a couple of really good websites with games for family reunions (also think outside the box and come up with games for children or adults from party ideas that are online). I often use the various teachers' websites because they are so clever (love crossword puzzles, mazes and word scrambles). Our biggest hit (and that floored me) was the scavenger hunt - once the teams got together they found the actual items or came up with clever ideas. We included balloons as one of the items and then I forgot to pack them so I thought no one would get that. Well our tablecloth had balloons on it and a few smart ones asked to cut off the edges - saved the day and put them over the top!

    And if you are going to be talking with any family members - be sure to record those conversations. We brought my Livecribe Pen, a handheld recorder, and used our various smartphone apps for these conversations. Huge hit! However, giving anyone in my family a microphone is dangerous - they love to talk and the stories were always at the expense of a sibling!

  7. Over Easter, one of my sisters pointed out that I made a mistake in my post in that I referred to us as a "petty competitive bunch" - we both laughed and I told her I would make the correction. She then told me to leave it as "pretty competitive" and petty competitive" both fit our family when playing games! So Karen - thanks for reading and thanks for the catch, I will leave it as is.


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World Wide Genealogy Team