The Story of a Lifetime

The best stories ever are the ones told by your family members.

Picture your grandmother at 16 years of age. What kind of clothes did she wear? Did she sing in the school choir or play on a sports team?

Can you imagine your grandfather on his first date? Do you think he was nervous? When did he first learn to drive a car?

If you are fortunate enough to have grandparents who are still living, you can ask them these sorts of questions. And if your grandparents haven’t written their personal history, you can help them write it. It’s a big job, but if you ask January Winterton, 18, of St. George, Utah, she will tell you it’s worth the work.

January’s grandma, Karen Vlam, is a woman of great faith and courage. Confined to a wheelchair now, she has battled multiple sclerosis for more than 30 years. Despite her daily challenges, she is still smiling. Her dedication to the gospel and to her large family is a wonderful example to January.

“I want her to be more than just my kids’ great-grandma that they see in an old picture,” says January. “I want her to be a person that they know a lot about.”

That’s why January spent two-and-a-half weeks last summer living with her grandparents. Each day January asked her grandma questions about her life and typed the answers on a laptop computer. Once her notes are edited and compiled, January expects to have more than 50 pages of facts, stories, and pictures about her grandma’s life.

Thanks to these stories, the children January will have one day will know a lot about their great-grandmother. They will know, for one thing, that she loved animals. January laughed when her grandma told her about trying to take home a frightened little bat from the woods when she was five years old. “She wrapped it in toilet paper and took it to her parents,” explains January. “Then her parents freaked out and told her to put it back.”

She still loves animals. Though she has never had a pet bat, she now has at least 11 birds.

Along with funny stories, January’s grandma also shared her testimony and expressed her love for the Savior. January says, “I was impressed how throughout her life she turned to the Lord in her trials. She isn’t resentful about her disease, but instead she has learned to have a good attitude and move forward.

“Talking to my grandma made me realize that my trials are so small,” continues January. “If she can stay strong with all that she has been through, I can too. It may take a little faith on my part, but I just have to follow her example, her example of faith.”

After writing her grandma’s personal history, January feels she knows her grandma a lot better than before. “I know where she is coming from. I know her life experiences,” she says. January also knows that writing a personal history is hard work. It isn’t easy to summarize a life on paper. Because of this January suggests you help your grandparents or older relatives write their personal history, especially if they have health challenges that may prevent them from doing it themselves. She says the best thing to do is to get them thinking about their life by asking questions and just talking with them. Before you start, however, make sure you are ready to record their answers on tape, on video, on a laptop computer, or on paper.

With this preparation, you are ready to sit down and get comfortable. Your relative will enjoy reminiscing while you record the stories of a lifetime.

A Place to Start

The most important thing is to start. Everything you record will become more valuable with each year. Here are a few questions to get your family member talking.

  1. 1

    Where and when were you born? Name the members of your immediate family.

  2. 2

    What is your earliest memory?

  3. 3

    What do you remember about grade school or elementary school?

  4. 4

    What are some of your memories of junior high and high school?

  5. 5

    What are some special family activities or vacations you had as a child? as an adult?

  6. 6

    Tell me about your Church experiences starting with Primary up to the present.

  7. 7

    Did you attend college after high school? If so, what do you remember about it?

  8. 8

    Tell me about your courtship and marriage.

  9. 9

    Describe your work experiences throughout your life.

  10. 10

    Tell me about your children and their personalities. Describe any special memories, problems, or joys you have had with them.

[photos] Photography by Caroline H. Benzley and courtesy of the Vlam family; background photograph by Welden Andersen

[photo] January Winterton wants her future children to know and love her grandmother as much as she does. So she did something about it.

[photo] For two weeks one summer, January devoted every day to recording her grandmother’s memories. The result was a collection of stories that were funny and full of wisdom in the face of hardships. These family stories will become more precious as time passes.

Caroline H. Benzley is a member of the Iowa City Second Ward, Iowa City Iowa Stake.