Why we should all record our family stories for posterity

We all have precious family memories, but all too often they get lost in the mists of time. Jayne Dawson meets one Yorkshire woman who is helping preserve them.

Thelma Barlow

I have had this conversation with members of my family, and possibly you have had it with yours.

It’s the one about recording the family stories. Those tales told by your grandma, or maybe your mother or father. They are the anecdotes that come out at family gatherings, often accompanied by shrieks of laughter even though they can be, at heart, accounts of poverty and hardship.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“We must capture them in some way, before it is too late,” we say. “Next time we are all together,” we say. But usually, the last time we hear them is at a funeral, told by a different voice, when it is indeed too late to listen to the person who lived that story.

Sarah Wildon and Molly James

Because that’s the thing with family stories. Lots of us recognise their value: that they are social history, oral history, a precious fund of bonding memories - but rarely do we actually get down to the business of preserving them.

Which is where Sarah Wildon comes in. Because Sarah, who lives in Kirkburton, Huddersfield, is now doing that very thing we all promise ourselves we will do one day but, in the end, don’t.She has set up a business called The Sound of Life which allows clients to record their memories along with a soundtrack of music chosen by them.

One of Sarah’s first clients was actress Thelma Barlow, who appeared on Coronation Street for many years and later played one of the ensemble of entertaining women of a certain age in Dinnerladies. Thelma, who was born in June 1929 and is now 85, sat down with her sister Veda, who is three years older, and chatted about growing up in Huddersfield, about the war years and about life when they were young. They talk about changes over the years, including when the family got its first indoor toilet.

Both Thelma and Veda also leave what Sarah calls a “life legacy” of messages to their relatives and descendants, along with advice on life lessons they have learned. The result is a CD lasting about 50 minutes with favourite pieces of music playing in the background, from Glen Miller’s In The Mood to Enya’s Wild Child.

Sarah said: “This wasn’t about Thelma the actress, it was about the person, and she told me she found it easier to talk to me precisely because I wasn’t a member of her own family. Her stories were entertaining, funny and moving. She started the family history right back in 1800.”

The business is a change of direction for Sarah, who ran her own successful PR company for 30 years, before events in her own life made her priorities alter. She said: “ My mum became ill with Alzheimer’s and cancer. I looked after her and I spent a lot of time with her just talking about her memories, because her long term memory was very good. She talked to me about things I sort of knew about but I had never considered their impact before

“She told me about her own childhood, which had been difficult, and how she had felt going to live in East Africa as a young bride and giving birth to my brother there during the time of the Mau Mau Uprising. With my dad it was different. He was terminally ill for eight years but we never talked. I wish we had.

“After my mum died I became ill myself. I had breast cancer and I also had to have abdominal surgery and knee surgery. It all meant that I emerged a very different person, and wanting to use the skills I had built up during my career in a different way. I had helped put together a photo album for my mother during her illness, but I began to think how much better it would be if the person with the memories could put their own stamp on them.”

Sarah decided that she wanted to record her subjects’ voices, but not film them.

“I could have filmed them but in the end I decided it was better not to. There is something so incredibly powerful about the human voice. Listening to it is so personal and evocative. Once you put a camera on them they tend to try to tell things chronologically, but they will talk more spontaneously without one.”

The recordings are always emotional, Sarah says. “People do generally tend to find it easier because they are not talking to a member of their family. I think the skills I have built up over my working life, plus the empathy I have developed because of my own experiences mean I am the right person to do this. I know what it is like to be frightened and ill. But the editing is always a fine balance. The emotion needs to be left in, without overwhelming everything else.

“I just try to capture exactly what that person wants to say, I will ask questions in the right places but I don’t prompt or guide in any obvious way.”

One of Sarah’s clients was a terminally ill father in his 40s who had been told he would live only another six months.

“He had a teenage daughter who was finding what was happening so difficult that she found it hard to even speak to him. He said he didn’t want to leave it like that. He wanted to leave messages for her, letting her know that he understood. He said all sorts of things, from explaining why she had been called her name to saying that he supported her in her ambitions. People don’t just leave a life history, it is often more than that.”

Molly James, 99, decided not only to tell stories from her life but to thank her children for all the care they have given her, especially since her husband Henry died 14 years ago. She met him during the war when she was a bus conductress. Henry, a miner, was one of her passengers and at the age of 22 she married him.

On her CD Molly tells many of the stories her children cherish about her war years. She said: “I tell the story of how one day I had a line of nappies out, they were all lovely and white, but I forgot to bring them in and that night there was a loud knock at the door. It turned out my nappies were so white they were breaking the blackout. I got a telling off.

“Another time a bomb dropped three or four miles away and my budgie was so shocked it died. Just keeled over and died. Life has been full of stories, like the time I gave their dad’s jacket to the rag man because I was fed up with him never wearing anything new. I had to find that rag man and sort through hundreds of bits of old clothes the next day though, because what I didn’t know was that Henry had been saving our holiday money in that jacket. I found it eventually - I would have searched for ever until I did.”

Molly also chose a piece of music for each of her children, including Every Time We Say Goodbye for her daughter who lives in Vancouver, Canada. Molly’s oldest child is now 75 but in the early days she had four children aged under six.

“That was difficult but they have all been marvellous to me over the years and that was why I wanted to make this CD. I wanted to tell them all that. I jumped at the chance to do it. We did it in one session, the whole thing was lovely.”