Amy Tan was born in the United States to immigrant Chinese parents. She wrote The Joy Luck Club, The Bonesetter's Daughter and other best-selling books. Tan is literary editor for West magazine and plays in the band the Rock Bottom Remainders. Pat Boyd Photography hide caption
Amy Tan was born in the United States to immigrant Chinese parents. She wrote The Joy Luck Club, The Bonesetter's Daughter and other best-selling books. Tan is literary editor for West magazine and plays in the band the Rock Bottom Remainders.Pat Boyd Photography
I didn't used to believe in ghosts, but I was trained to talk to them. My mother reminded me many times that I had the gift. It all stemmed from a lie I told when I was 4. The way my mother remembered it, I refused to get ready for bed one night, claiming there was a ghost in the bathroom. She was delighted to learn I was a spirit medium.
Thereafter, she questioned anything unusual — a sudden gust of wind, a vase that fell and shattered. She would ask me, "She here?" She meant my grandmother.
When I was a child, my mother told me that my grandmother died in great agony after she accidentally ate too much opium. My mother was 9 years old when she watched this happen.
When I was 14, my older brother was stricken with a brain tumor. My mother begged me to ask my grandmother to save him. When he died, she asked me to talk to him as well. "I don't know how," I protested. When my father died of a brain tumor six months after my brother, she made me use a Ouija board. She wanted to know if they still loved her. I spelled out the answer I knew she wanted to hear: Yes. Always.
When I became a fiction writer in my 30s, I wrote a story about a woman who killed herself eating too much opium. After my mother read a draft of that story, she had tears in her eyes. Now she had proof: My grandmother had talked to me and told me her true story. How else could I have known my grandmother had not died by accident but with the fury of suicide? She asked me, "She here now?" I answered honestly, "I don't know."
Over the years, I have included other details in my writing I could not possibly have known on my own: a place, a character, a song. I have come to feel differently about my ghostwriters. Sometimes their clues have come so plentifully, they've made me laugh like a child who can't open birthday presents fast enough. I must say thanks, not to blind luck but to my ghosts.
Ten years ago, I clearly saw a ghost, and she talked to me. It was my mother. She had died just 24 hours before. Her face was 10 times larger than life, in the form of a moving, pulsing hologram of sparkling lights. My mother was laughing at my surprise. She drew closer, and when she reached me, I felt as if I had been physically punched in the chest. It took my breath away and filled me with something absolute: love, but also joy and peace — and with that, understanding that love and joy and peace are all the same thing. Joy comes from love. Peace comes from love. "Now you know," my mother said.
I believe in ghosts. Whenever I want, they will always be there: my mother, my grandmother, my ghosts.
Independently produced for Weekend Edition Sunday by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.
Grandma and grandpa. Nana and papa. Grammy and pappy. Whatever we call them, our grandparents mean the world to us. Even their nicknames conjure feelings of love and warmth.
Some people are fortunate to have a lot of time with grandparents, while others lose them far too soon. One constant is the important role grandparents have in our family history. Their stories add to the legacy we’re a part of, helping to define who we are.
Take advantage of any opportunities to learn more about your grandparents and add their rich stories to your family tree. When you do, you’ll enrich your own life while helping to ensure future generations will understand just what made your grandparents so special.
To help you get started, we asked some of our favorite family historians to share their ideas for collecting stories about grandparents. You’ll get helpful tips for preserving the legacy of family elders, including suggestions you can use with our family tree app to save grandparent stories for generations to come.
Involve Grandparents in Family Activities
Gathering grandparent stories doesn’t have to be something you do at one set time. For those who can, involving grandparents in the everyday life of the family can open up storytelling opportunities. Carrissa Rasmussen, founder of Carissa Miss, explains how.
Get grandparents involved in the everyday life of your family. You’ll be amazed at how much they’ll reveal and you’ll learn from these spontaneous moments together! We love inviting grandparents to dance recitals, school performances, birthday parties, and other events. Although they may not make it to everything, they come when they can.
At a recent dance recital, we learned about my grandma’s “song leader” days in high school; she told my kids all about how important they were in revving up the crowd before the big game. Grandma later pulled out pictures of her in her song leader outfit and we compared it to what cheerleaders wear now. A wonderful teaching and bonding experience ensued.
Have Family Night with the Grandparents
When it comes to discovering the stories of grandparents, why not make a night of it? That’s just what Mariel Wangsgard, founder of Or So She Says…, suggests families do.
One of my favorite things I did with my grandparents was to bring all my kids to their home for a Family Night. We each came armed with a list of questions to interview them.
We asked questions about my grandpa’s time in the Korean War and my grandma’s memories of her parents. The kids asked them about their favorite birthday party, their favorite animal, and other cute questions that I wouldn’t have thought of!
We recorded the whole interview on my phone, and I plan on preserving it forever. At the end of the evening, we had a picture taken of everyone together, and I’m so glad we did, as my grandma passed away just months later. It was a special evening that we will never forget!
Write Weekly Letters or Emails
Tami Osmer Glatz
For many families, distance can make getting together difficult. Tami Osmer Glatz, founder of Relatively Curious about Genealogy, says this doesn’t have to prevent families from getting grandparent stories. Look to letters, she recommends.
I truly value copies of family letters – some dating back to the early and mid-1800s – full of family details: who moved where; news of births, deaths, and marriages; and stories of everyday life – all written with the express purpose of sharing and preserving information, and all written very close to the time that the events occurred. Genealogy treasures for sure!
Letters are still a great way to gather family stories from grandparents, especially when they live far away. Sending weekly letters or emails – depending on what your grandparents are comfortable with – can be a great way to get information about their lives. At the same time, sharing stories about you and your own family can provide a written record for descendants to learn about you.
When my daughter wanted to learn more about her grandfather’s life, she started emailing him once every week with two or three very simple questions. Many of them were about subjects that my dad didn’t really talk about with my sister and me, such as what he did in the Navy in World War II, so the answers that he sent were often news to me. My daughter is putting together the responses in a memory book, and I’ll be able to create a fuller biography of my father for my genealogy files.
Record Memories of Grandparents in All Kinds of Ways!
For Allison Kimball, founder of simple inspiration, it was the words of her dying grandfather that inspired her to look for ways to further preserve his legacy. Learn what she recommends others do to capture grandparents’ lives and enrich a family history.
I sat on the edge of my grandfather’s bed as we visited. He was more reflective in his speech, and he finally asked, “Have I done enough? Have I made a difference?” As I looked at my dying grandfather and thought of all people he had served and influenced, I was overwhelmed by his humble plea. I told him he had done all required of him and, in a tender embrace, I had to ask if I was doing all I needed to.
That night as I sat in front of my journal recording the events of the day I was so thankful for these tender moments together with my grandfather – moments where he shared his life experiences with me. I hadn’t always recorded his stories, and I thought about how I, a mother of many young children could preserve more of his life. Here are some ideas I came up with for capturing family stories:
- Use technology. My grandfather was nearly blind; writing was not an option for him, but I recorded his stories on my phone. He also used a tape recorder to capture memories in privacy.
- Involve family, especially youth. Documenting someone’s life can seem overwhelming, but if many people help, you can preserve more family history while sharing the experience.
- Create a family website. Make this a place where everyone can share their stories and experiences. You can also create an account on Instagram or another social network dedicated to family history.
- Keep things simple. Creating a formal history can be intimidating; if the person knows they are being recorded they become self-conscious. Look for ways and opportunities just to listen. The stories will come more freely.
- Don’t forget to ask the “why” questions. The who, what, when, and where are necessary in family history, but the why questions are often the ones that will have the greatest impact. Look beyond the facts and you will find meaningful stories that change lives.
Pass Along Stories of Grandparents
For those of us whose grandparents have passed, opportunities remain to preserve their legacies. Carol Rice, founder of Family Storytelling, explains one powerful way to do that.
Want to preserve the legacy of your grandparents? Tell their stories – as little or as much as you know, tell it, share it, pass it down.
Recently, my daughter was asked to do some public speaking. She wanted to share some thoughts about her grandma. She did a great job with her talk, but just as important, she took time to document her memories. Here’s some of the story she shared:
“Grandma smiled when she saw us and walked into the closet. She knelt down and took out two little perfumes, and told me, ‘Oh Brookie, you have olive skin and a wise personality, this perfume will smell perfect on you,’ and ‘Chelsea, you have a kind heart, and beautiful eyes, this smell will fit you.’ She taught us to dab two spots on our wrist, and one on our neck and rub it together. I felt beautiful, like my grandma.
“Fast forward with me two years, I was now nine, and my grandma, only 58, had fought a hard and valiant fight with cancer. Her thick full blonde hair was gone, her beautiful feminine figure now frail and thin. It was time for all of us cousins to come into her hospital room and say goodbye.
“We sang to her ‘Families Can Be Together Forever.’ I had been taught the words in Primary and I knew them to be true. I had been taught by my parents how the Spirit felt, and I knew it was there. That moment and my love for my grandma have stayed with me and will linger forever – just like the sweet smell of her perfume.”
Anyone that story is shared with – friends, cousins, siblings, future children, and grandchildren – will be able to know just a little bit more about Brooke’s grandma because she told it.
Don’t Forget to Share Your Own Story!
Valerie Elkins, founder of Family Cherished, has some advice for grandparents themselves – and grandparents-to-be!
My best advice is for those who are grandparents now or who will be some day: The best thing you can leave your posterity is a bit about yourself and memories of your family. You are the bridge that will link the generations.
What were your grandparents and great grandparents like? What were the visits like? How did you celebrate holidays, and what were the foods and games you played? Our memories and stories will knit our families together, to stay connected and help the younger generations to feel special about the people who are theirs.
The Africans have a proverb, when an old person dies, a library burns. “Our libraries” – our memories, stories, and knowledge – can be passed on from one generation to the next.
Write information about events down, record audio stories, take video in which you interview yourself. Whatever form works for you, begin today! Your grandchildren will thank you.
Start Preserving the Stories of Grandparents!
With so many ideas for collecting the stories of grandparents, why not get started right away? When you do, you’ll enrich your own life while preserving the legacy of family elders for generations to come. FamilySearch’s Family Tree app can help you to forever safeguard the stories that help make up your heritage.