You had to be there (to really experience it).  Imagine sitting at a family gathering and listening to the elders telling stories about their youth.  Something is said and you immediately sit up and wonder what this story is about – was that story about your father, your uncle, or someone else in your family?  Or maybe it was about a friend that was involved in something family related.  Either way, you speak up and asked who or what that was about.  Then you hear the infamous comment.  “You had to be there.” How many times have you heard that phrase?

“You had to be there” is normally a response used when the story or event may be too difficult for the story teller to put into words to make it real enough for someone who was not there.  Imagine your grandfather being present when Barney Oldfield drove his 1910 Blitzen Benz to the unheard of speed of 70 miles per hour.  It is easy to say: I was there that day.  However, what about the emotion that was experienced, how is that explained?  Or what was really seen, just a car setting a new speed record?  What about the dust, the cheering crowds, horses rearing up from the noise, and maybe people swarming all around Barney and his car afterwards?

All families have those episodes where the elders will start talking and end with, “oh, you just had to be there.”  Getting an elder in the family to open up about stories with more detail is all about them reminiscing about their past.  Images or photos of the events or people are a great way to trigger some story. 

Family Story

My father died unexpectedly at 43 years old, so I do not have many stories from him.  However, my aunts and uncles were always quick to share tales, adventures along with any number of ways my dad got into trouble.  One story in particular I will remember forever came from my uncle Jack.  Jack had missed the school bus and would be late for high school; he and my dad were still living on the family farm about 5 or 6 miles away.  My dad, Max, who had quit school to work in a metal shop offered to give Jack a ride on his 1934 Indian motorcycle.  That could easily have been the end of the story.  But wait, there is more.

When Jack was telling me this story, we were at the Valley View Cemetery, outside of Warsaw, Ohio where most of our family is buried.  He was looking around and I asked him what was on his mind.  He said he was just thinking of a time when he thought he was going to die on a motorcycle.  Jack was looking across the cemetery at one of the gravel roads leading to our old family farm.  He started to tell me about being late for school.  But, he went into great detail about how his brother, Max (my dad), a mad man on his motorcycle, offered to give him a ride to school that morning.  They took off down the long driveway toward the gravel road that passed in front of the farm tossing gravel behind them. Coming up on the crossroad and needing to turn left to head down toward the cemetery, Max did not slow down much and almost had the bike slide out from under them in the turn.  Jack looked at me and said, “Image that old Indian motorcycle traveling about 60 miles per hour or more going into curves and intersections.”  Then he added, flying dust, no helmets and half expecting a horse, cow, deer or wagon in the road around those blind curves.  Jack said he kept holding on hoping he would to get to school in one piece.  Jack arrived on time for school.

Sharing Family Stories

Many years later, after Jack had passed away, while visiting that cemetery with Jack’s daughter Sheila, I shared that story with her.  She had never heard about that day when my dad scared the daylights out of her dad on that fateful daredevil trip to school.  When she heard the story, we were looking at that same gravel road that our fathers were on way back around 1945 or so.  And I did not have to be there to have those sensations running through my mind – I had ridden motorcycles on gravel roads before.

After leaving the cemetery, Sheila and I drove up that old road to the family farm and I told her more stories about the family, pointing to where the old house stood and where the barn was on top of the hill.  She is much younger than me and was not around for much of what I shared that day.

Family Stories Lost

It is amazing how many family photos end up in thrift stores to be sold.  These are the photographic records of what has happened in the family over time – many are one of a kind that cannot ever be replaced.  Recently I came across an article about a TikTok posting: “Your parents donated all your photos man:” A viral TikTok shows a person’s childhood pictures being sold at a thrift store.  Although it is unclear who those photos really belonged to – it may have just been a random person snapping pictures of images in a thrift store, not knowing who the young man was.

When I was younger, I went to an estate sale in my home town.  I was standing beside one of the grandchildren of the deceased.  A box came up for bid that contained old photo albums and school annuals.  She did not bid on any of the boxes of family memorabilia.  I asked why she was not interested – she just shrugged her shoulders and said that the family was not close.  Wow, I knew the winning bidder, so all that family history ended up in a thrift store someplace.

Preserving Family History

With the recent trend of decluttering, there may be family members who would be happy to pass along their collection of family photos or family memorabilia to someone else.  Now might be a good time to reach out to your family and make a plan to secure the family’s treasures.  Future relatives will be grateful for your efforts.

Happy Treasure Hunting.


Michael Hawthorne

Founder and Chief Guide to the Past


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