Family get-togethers are upon us and the moment has arrived to record the folklore that makes your family special.
No, not just the formal genealogy or the history of famous ancestors, but those funny old stories your Aunt Kate liked to tell about growing up with your father, and the devilish things you used to do with your brother to get even with your teachers.
Unrecorded in the family Bible and untraceable through he archives, these funny, poignant, unusual and even traumatic stories abound in the fragile storehouses of memory, making up the heart and soul of every family's saga.
Holly Baker, one of the Smithsonian Institution's gatherers of family folklore,concludes that these stories act as a "kind of glue" to hold today's far-flung families together. She and others in the Folklife Program offer their practical know-how to help you preserve your "glue" in a 75-cent Government Printing Office pamphlet entitled "Family Folklore Interviewing Guide."
You are the first step in the preservation process. Subconsciously, you have been collecting family stories all your life, so the Smithsonian suggests that you set down all you can remember. Fill in any gaps by interviewing relatives, friends of the family, long-time boarders and business associates.
The easiest interviews take place during what the Folklife people cheerfully describe as a "naturally occuring folkloric event" such as a family picnic. You might arrange one yourself, inviting those most immersed in the family's story. When they gather, just sit back in the kitchen, or wherever they are most relaxed, and switch on the cassette tape recorder, being sure to test the tape first. (Forget the pad-and-pencil approach - too cumbersome.)
Once the chatter dies down, gently lead your relatives into a discussion of their shared experiences, asking evocatives questions. Here are some subjects to get you started:
Names . Ask about nicknames, and you may learn something about your parents' childhood. A grandfather in Oklahoma, for example, branded his six grandkids with names like "Nothing," "Stupid" and "Mums" - real morale busters.
Surnames provide interesting stories. Immigration officers often changed names they found incomprehensible. Did yours survive Ellis Island?
Stories about parents, grandparents, etc. Here lies the real meat of family folklore. Can you get your relatives to share their warm (and sometimes cold) memories of family members? Jackie Summers of London, England, shared a tale of the day her mother accidentally emptied a slop bucket onto the preacher. When he confronted the woman, she protested, "I heard you coming, but I thought you were my husband."
Notorious or infamous characters . Every family has at least one, and some pride themselves on their closet's skeletons. Don't be discouraged, however, if family members clam up at this question. You may be the wrong sex, the wrong age, or talking to the wrong person.
The Folklife Program prodded a number of people with the question, including an 18-year-old girl with a humdinger of a story. An Italian great-grandfather, she said, "died by jumping out of his mistress' balcony window and missing his horse."
Rites of passage. Births, weddings and deaths engrain into memory, and may provide a wealth of stories about jilted lovers, unexpected multiple births and astounding deaths. Was anyone shot in your family?
Historical events . Every family seems to have a Great Depression tale; yours may even have one about the Civil War and the ending of slavery. Where were you when Pearl Harbor was announced?
Family folklore is continually being created, and you are one of the creators. How is the gas crunch affecting you and yours? Has the women's movement altered your lifestyle?
Family expressions. These are the poetry of the family, the in-house joke, the binding code; and a flavorful, wonderful lot they are. One family dubs those hassle-filled days "Socks-in-the-Soup Day" from a self-explanatory (and unappetizing) event in their lives. Another enjoys a built-in excuse - "My shoes were too big" - first used by a son to explain his intoxication.
What expression does your family use? Can anyone remember why?
Holidays . Which ones do your family celebrate, how, where, and with whom? These choices set each family apart - some a little further than others. One family celebrates "St. Grune's Day," and ad-hoc holiday that falls sometime in March at the whim of the mother. Others observe the dog's birthday, the Friday-night shoeshine and the first snowfall of the year.
Memorabilia . Photo albums, samplers, home movies, quilts and the stuff you tote around in a shoebox from one move to the next are some of the cherised items of family folklore. When one 84-year-old composed a memoir for his newborn great-grandson, he included what he estimated to be $3 worth of keppsakes, including heirlooms such as ticket stubs from Disneyland.
These treasures act as visual triggers to unleash the stories that go with them, and are worthy guests at your "folkloric event."
Recipes and remedies . An eat-in reunion is the perfect opprotunity to get the recipes for those traditional goodies (and Granny's recollections of eating them) out of her memory and onto paper. The late Oleita Diggs of Linthicum Heights, Md., at age 89 enchanted her great-granddaughter with the tale of her first taste of peanut butter. "I was 22 years old," she reported, "and I thought it was the best thing I ever ate in my life."
As long as you are probing Granny's memory, ask her for homestyle remedies. Does she heal a burn with butter or ice cubes?Or feed honey and water with a drop of whiskey to a colicky baby - not to mention the baby's mother? The Folklife Festival plans to set up a Home Remedies booth this year, and they invite you to bring the results of this search.
Once your tape (or tapes!) are full, the Smithsonian suggests that you label them with names, dates and places, and if possible type up some kind of report for the family to check. This is especially important if you plan to publish the memoirs, or use them, like children's author and illustrator Tomie de Paola ("Nana Upstairs Nana Downstairs"), as the basis for literary effort.
Whether it is for private or public record, gathering your family's folklore is an exciting way to tap the heartbeat of your special past. You may meet relatives you never knew you had, and get a fresh perspective on those you've known for years.
Best of all, you will see yourself in the fanciful, sorrowful, adventurous and determined context that is your unique heritage. CAPTION: Picture, no caption, Library of Congress