Family talk

Column by Hallie Beard, Opinion Editor

As an adult, holiday parties can be cruel and unusual punishment.

On top of the exhausting cooking, cleaning and decorating efforts, there’s the dreadful aspect of interacting with distant family members and having to summarize your life to them.

For a twentysomething, the questions “Do you have a boyfriend?” or “What will you do after graduation?” can seem like the equivalent of asking,“What good are you as a person, anyway?”An honest answer would probably send you into an hour-long existential crisis and end with you crying or laughing hysterically over a piece of apple pie. Instead, you give them stock answers and are left feeling like a robotic fraud who doesn’t value family.

Well folks, I have a thought about how to fix the pains of relative talk at these required gatherings. It will take a lot of work, but it might be more interesting than forcing yourself to repeat the same one-liners about your life.

Here’s the task: talk to your family members. Not small talk, not pre-fab answers you give to all acquaintances and distant relatives. Instead, get a computer, a notepad, recorder or video camera and make a relative tell you a story about themselves, about the family, about their place in the family tree.

I realize this sounds like the plot to a bad Lifetime movie. But, family history is important, and in the tech-obsessed age we’re in, we – the trendy millennials who can’t get off our smart phones – have the power to record and save our family history better than anyone else. Gone is the family Bible with stained and fading illegible handwritten records. We can put our family tree in the all-knowing Cloud if we want.

Most likely, the interactions you fear most are the ones with elderly relatives who seem to have no interest in your very cosmopolitan life. Those relatives, though, are the ones who are headed to the grave before anyone else. I’m not making light of death – losing family members is hard, no matter how distant the relationship. So forcing yourself to have an intentional, purposeful story session with one of those relatives might make it easier for you to endure the quiet hot-chocolate sipping on the couch.

Maybe you don’t dread conversations with family, but your gatherings are chock-full of elderlies who repeat stories all the time. Well, here’s an easy fix: make them feel useful by recording the story. It doesn’t matter if you’ve heard it a thousand times –they’ll enjoy getting to tell it again and know it’s going down on paper. And, unless they have a serious memory condition, knowing it’s being recorded might prevent them from repeating it again.

If this task seems too large for you, or it would be a violation of your Grinch-like holiday character, assign it to someone else. Got siblings? Divide the responsibilities amongst yourself. Youngest kid is the camera man, middle child is the interviewer and oldest is the stenographer.

This idea might sound more painful than regular holiday festivities, but it’s worth a shot. So many people love the idea of genealogy and will dream of having enough time and money to get scientific results back from, but they’ll never consider actually hearing the verbal anecdotes.

Stories change; I guarantee if you ask five family members about one unclear story, you’ll get five different answers on when it happened, where, who was involved, how it was resolved and why it mattered. That’s interesting, and a better time-passer than a tense game of “let’s all make eye contact uncomfortably when someone brings up the election.’’

Happy holidays from mine to yours. Get cracking on that family history book!