What binds your family together? Is it a common surname? Shared rent? A teapot passed from generation to generation? These form the fabric of the family, of course, but its texture and color flow from family folklore -- the stories, expressions, traditions, and shared experiences that make each family unique.
Penciled in the fragile storehouses of memory, the stories grow and change and escape over time. An oral tradition may last a week or a century, depending on who does the talking -- and who the listening.
The Smithsonian Institution suggests that we all become better listeners. In a 75-cent government pamphlet called "Family Folklore Interviewing Guide," it lays out techniques for gleaning your family's tales, and setting them down for the generations to come.
They suggest you begin with yourself, by writing all the stories and incidents you remember. Then gather the clan (including longtime boarders, servants, and "adopted" family members), turn on a tape recorder, and get the conversation going with questions like these:
* What do you know about your family surname? Did it undergo change coming from the Old Country to the United States? Are there are traditional first names, middle names, or nickmanes in your family? The nicknames are especially interesting -- and sometimes regrettable. A woman from Virginia laments that everyone calls her brother "Pud, because her was 'Mama's Puddin' Pie' as a little baby. He's 50 nw and everyone still calls him Pud. Nobody knows his real name."
* What stories have come down to you about your parents? Grandparents? More-distant ancestors? These are the core of your family's lore, and worth harvesting from as many members as possible.
* Do you have a notorious or infamous character in your family's past? This is a delicate question, and must be posed to just the right person. If you do not get the answer right away, try again -- with someone else.
* How did your parents, grandparents, and other relatives come to meet and marry? Rites of passage -- birth, marriage, death -- tend to inscribe themselves in memory, making this a fruitful question.
A woman from Maryland recalls, for example, that her mother was a sent-for bride who left Europe with the intention of spending some time in the United States sizing up her would-be bridegroom. But the officials at Ellis Island would not let her enter the country unless the two were married, so a service was held there on the spot. "She was sort of a victim of her own plot, you might say," the daughter concludes.
* How have historical events affected your family? Nearly every family has a Great Depression story, some of which prove useful in these inflation-beset times. One family described its "rent parties" held before the first of the month, when neighbors gathered together to make a donation and have a good time. The money staved off eviction.
History is ongoing, and so is your family's relationship to events. How have the gas shortages affected you and yours? What happened to your family during last summer's heat wave?
* Are there any stories in your family about how a great fortune was lost or almost (but no quite) made?
* What expressions are used in your family? Many relative devise a kind of shorthand, like the parents who announce FHB (Family Hold Back) when a guest comes for dinner.
Child-invented words make great family expressions, sometimes sticking for life -- like the family that makes it a practice to "hudge" (pick up a child and give him a big hug).
* How are holidays celebrated in your family? The activities each family chooses for Christmans or Passover form a large part of their traditions.
But asking which holidays are celebrated should dig out even more information. Some celebrate TGIF (Thank Goodness It's Friday), or the first snowfall, or the dog's birthday. One even has a family folklore day; each Sunday, the grandfather takes one child aside and tells him stories about his ancestors.
* Have any recipes been preserved in your family from past generations? The foods we eat delineate our history, and become one of the measuring devices we use on new experiences.
Two young girls from Virginia were so enamored of their grandmother's chocolate cookies, for example that the recipe became their standard for all food. A particularly good cutlet became a "chocolate park chop," a scrumptious salad was a "chocolate sald."
* Does your family have any heirlooms? These should not be limited to silver baby cups or the contents of your grandmother's cedar chest. They may include old ticket stubs, letters your grandfather wrote during World War I home movies, Atlantic City souvenirs, or floor plans.
One woman wrote a thorough description of the house she grew up in, going from room to room and detailing stories involving each area -- a precious heirloom for her great-and great-great-grandchildren. The ability to trigger such stories gives heirlooms their intrinsic value; find out what yours unveil.
These questions may steer family members onto fascinating tangents, or provoke whole other questions. You may find that you can answer but a small portion of them at any one sitting. Take your time.
Once your tape or tapes are full, label them carefully. A transcript of the tapes would make good gift for all participants, and ensure that the traditions are passed on to the next generation.
Such insurance is comforting, for the ties that bind a family are often funny , sometimes traumatic, occasionally bizarre, and always, like the family itself, worth preserving.