Author Archives: Lin

What is a personal history film?

When I tell people what I do for a living, they often give me a puzzled look. “What is a personal history film?” they ask, wondering if I’m a historian, a filmmaker, or something else entirely.

I like to start off by explaining exactly what a personal history film is. Keep in mind there are a lot of names for this product, including video biography, video memoir, life history video, tribute film, or family history movie. For this article, we’ll call it a personal history film.

So what is it? A personal history film is a 30-60 minute documentary chronicling the stories, remembrances and history of an individual, couple, family, or a business. Think of it as a custom-made A&E biography. Rather than it being about someone famous, it could be about anything…including you or your parents. The film could be historical in nature, soaring through the highlights of a person’s life. Or it could be more philosophical, expressing one’s values, beliefs, hopes, dreams and the lessons learned from living life (commonly known as an “ethical will”). It could focus on one moment in time—such as grandpa’s experiences in the War—or cover 300 years of family history. The possibilities are endless.

With the use of today’s digital technology, a personal history film can record a person’s life as no other medium could do in the past.  What makes a personal history film so special? Rather than explaining it with a list, I thought it would be more interesting to ask you to consider the following:

  • Seeing your grandmother’s sweet facial expressions as she recalls memories of being a youngster in the 1920’s.  She tells of the summer she spent picking blackberries and being paid just enough money to buy a special dolly at the local Five and Dime.  Her cat Sally sits on her lap as she tells this particular story while being filmed.
  • Listening to the loving tone of your mother’s voice as she reflects on becoming a mother for the very first time.   She speaks of her initial concerns about being a good mother, but recalls that upon caressing you for the very first time, all her fears vanished.
  • Watching Uncle Joe smoking his cigar, telling his corny jokes and doing his all-too-familiar magic tricks. Somehow everything old is new again.
  • Hearing your great aunt Rosemary share stories of living through WWII.  She talks about ration tickets, black out curtains, not having real butter to spread on toast and having to walk to and from church on Sundays because there was no gasoline to put in the family car, a 1939 Nash LaFayette.

Did these elicit an emotional response? They are the sorts of memories of the past that can easily be captured on film (but less so in a book or an audio recording).  Of course your own stories will be a little different, but that’s what makes personal history films so powerful: they’re tailored to each person, each family, and each moment in time.

One of my favorite quotes is from Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), the Irish dramatist, novelist and poet.  Wilde said, “Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us.”  Today, think about moving some of your special memories from your (mental) diary to a timeless digital film. And if you’re interested in learning more about personal history preservation, I highly recommend the following books:

The Story Only You Can Tell – Creating Your Family History With Ease and Expertise by Toni Sorenson Brown

Ethical Will – Putting Your Values on Paper by Barry K. Baines, MD.

Tell us about your own personal history film. What has it meant to you and your family?

Why would anyone find my life story interesting?

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles titled “The Insider’s Guide to Personal History”. Each post will answer a different question that we’ve been asked over the years. Hope you enjoy it! If you have questions you’d like us to cover, contact us and we’d be happy to write about it. 

People often ask me, “I’ve lived a normal life, and I’m just a regular person, so why should I record my story?”

I’ve been interviewing people for the past fifteen years.  And I can honestly say I have never been bored by the stories and recollections I have been told.

How can that be? Well, here are six reasons why life stories are always worth preserving, even if you think your story isn’t all that exciting:

1.  You are a living connection between your ancestors and your descendants.
Your recollections are valuable to your descendants.  You are the one person who can flesh out the memories of the past and recall the stories of your ancestors.  Your children, grandchildren and those yet to be born will value knowing the stories of success, failure and perseverance.  We cannot know who we are unless we know where we have come from.  You are a living warehouse that provides that essential link.  Give your descendants this opportunity by telling your stories.

2.  The world is changing every day.
Preserve your memories of days gone by – tell your ancestors what things were like “back in the day”.  Tell them about the days before computers and cell phones (your young grandkids may be shocked to hear that you didn’t send your friends text messages).  Tell them about your childhood days during the war.  Tell them about family life before television.  You actually lived through those days; most of your family didn’t.

3.  Values, beliefs and life lessons.
Give your descendants a sense of what has made you tick.  Why did you make the decisions you did?  What beliefs grounded you when life got hard?  What were the lessons that life taught you along the way?  Tell your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren what kept you going and guided your actions.   Teach your family from the wisdom you have acquired over the years.  The sharing of this kind of knowledge is truly priceless for loved ones who haven’t had the experiences you have.

4.  “When writing the story of your life, don’t let anyone else hold the pen.”
This quotation speaks to telling your life story in the way you want it to be told.   Make this opportunity happen – tell your story in the way only you can tell it.  Nobody knows you as well as you know yourself. Speak your own truth—because nobody else will.

5.  It’s not too late.
Many people I meet tell me how they’ve thought about interviewing their mother, father or great uncle and recording family stories.  They will say ‘What a great idea!’ However, a lack of time or skill often gets in the way of actually preserving those precious stories. And then the door of opportunity is closed permanently – a mother or father passes away. At that point, you realize how cherished these stories are, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  If I had a dime for every time someone said “If only I had met you a few months ago, before my father passed away”, I’d be a happy camper. But it’s not happy to hear these laments. So start today—it’s not too late, but one day will be.

6.  The nuts and bolts of personal history preservation
It’s not as difficult as you might think. Just start writing (or recording), and you’ll see that it’s actually a fun, educational, and often therapeutic process. If you get stumped, there are companies that can help you – whether you desire a video biography, audio records, or a written memoir.

Mark Twain once wrote, “There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility.  Inside the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy and a tragedy.”

After reading this quote you can see that I’m in really good company.  Be assured that in the years to come your family will be appreciative that you spent the time to recall and preserve your memories. You’ll be amazed to learn just how special your life has been.

Will you begin to tell your story today?

How it all Began: 15 years ago, 15 hours of tapes

Fifteen years ago, I had no idea what a personal historian did. I hadn’t heard about the value of preserving one’s life stories. And then everything changed.

My budding interest in personal history began one sunny morning in San Francisco. I was sitting in my grandmother’s lovely second story apartment.  We had just eaten breakfast together and were sipping cups of lemon tea and talking about our lives.  My grandmother, Frances was 95 years old. I was 45.

That’s when the moment happened.

My grandmother casually began to speak about her long life and the year she came to San Francisco from Sellwood, Oregon.  The year was 1922 and she was 20 years old.  She was making that big ‘break’ from the grips of parental control.

San Francisco was quite a place to live in the 1920’s.   This was a decade full of events that would forever impact a young impressionable woman from the quiet suburbs of Portland, Oregon.

My grandmother told me about dancing the ‘Charleston’, watching Al Jolson perform at a ‘speak easy’ while bottles of pure grain alcohol were hidden under the table, just in case the establishment was raided.  She spoke about her new short, cropped hairstyle, and wearing her custom-made ‘flapper-style’ hat that fit close and tight to her head (see photograph above).  She recalled hearing about Charles Lindberg’s now famous flight in the Spirit of St. Louis and about the Scopes’ Monkey Trial that shocked the nation.

I sat in awe as I listened to this sharp and introspective woman speak.  Then I stopped her. “Grandma, this is too special,” I explained. “Would you mind if I record this conversation?” She was surprised that I wanted to do this, but didn’t put up a fight. She almost seemed excited that I cared that much about her stories. So off I went to Radio Shack to purchase several audiocassette tapes so that I could record her memories.

So that was the beginning.  Over the next five years, and through many visits to San Francisco, I was able to obtain 15 hours of my wonderful grandmother’s stories and reflections. What a treasure these recordings have become to my family! Every once in a while we sit down as a family and listen to them. My kids and grandkids love it just as much as I do.

This experience turned me into a vocal advocate of preserving personal history.  I am pleased to know that since those first interviews at my grandmother’s kitchen table, I have gone on to help many many others to record their memories. And that each and every one has become a priceless family treasure, just like ours.

Are you as excited about family stories as we are? If so, tell us how you first got interested!

A Tribute to a Strong Irish Woman, and a Curious Question of Fate

 Kate Byrne Mackin (1861-1918)

Although I never met my great-grandmother Kate, I’m guessing that she was a tough and determined women.  Kate married Joe Mackin on September 6, 1877 at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in Drogheda, County Louth, Ireland.  Kate gave birth at least ten times, maybe eleven.  My grandfather Raymond often argued with his older brother Henry over this fact. Who knows.

The Mackin family immigrated to America in 1884. At this point, the family numbered only six individuals.  They stayed in New York City for a short time and eventually made their way to Portland, Oregon.  Joe loved Kate. Unfortunately, his love for whiskey and beer caused much trouble for them. The story handed down to me is that Joe was a steveador (dock worker).  Every two weeks, Joe was paid.  However, between the pay master’s office and Joe and Kate’s home were a number of drinking establishments. By the time Joe got home, his pay packet was often gone.

Kate, being the smart woman that she was, decided that she would be the one to pick up Joe’s pay packet.  I have often wondered whether her decision ever provoked bitter arguments between the two of them. But the scheme worked perfectly.

Because of Kate’s decision to manage the money in the Mackin family, they were able to buy two homes on Garfield Street in a suburb of Portland, Oregon.  The second home became a rental property, and provided additional income for the growing family.

In November, 1918 Kate died from pneumonia at the age of 57. She was a victim of the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918. Joe died much later, in 1937.

At the time of my great grandmother’s death, my grandfather Raymond was in the US Army and stationed at Camp Lewis, Washington. He was due to be shipped out with his regiment to fight in WWI.  However, he was given permission to attend his mother’s funeral. His regiment left for Europe without him, and soon WWI came to an end. He would never leave the US.

If my grandfather had left with his regiment, I wonder if he would have survived the war. Would he have been injured? Would my branch of the Mackin Family Tree ever have grown? Those are questions I often ponder, but will never be able to answer.

As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, what stories have you been told about your ancestors? If you could ask one question of an ancestor, what would that question be?

The Titanic, and my Irish vacation

My husband and I have deep ancestral roots that go back to ancient Ireland. So for our thirtieth wedding anniversary we went to Ireland to do a little genealogical research and some sightseeing.  With a Fodor’s guide on my lap, we drove around Belfast, the modern-day capital of Northern Ireland, looking for a place to spend the night. We eventually found a spot that met our needs and reserved a room. Much to our delight, this particular B & B  not only gave us a comfortable bed for the night, and a full Irish breakfast the following morning, but also a story that we would never forget.

Once we got settled into our room, the owner asked us if we would like a tour of this charming old home.  “Dunallan”, we were told, was built in 1881 and had been the home of the Andrews family at the turn of the 19th century.

Mr. Thomas Andrews, Jr. was an Irish business man and shipbuilder.  Okay, I said to myself, that makes sense. Belfast was after all a ship building town. But my ears perked up when I heard that Mr. Andrews oversaw the building plans for RMS Olympic for the White Star Line and its sister ship, the Titanic.  What? Did I hear that right?  The Titanic? Yes, the Titanic.  This serendipitous choice of a night’s accommodation had become an opportunity to touch and experience a little bit of history.

The owner of this quaint old house went on to tell us that Mr. Andrews and his family had lived in that house during the time he worked on building the Titanic. In addition, the design of the fireplace mantels and the adjoining tile work in this home were modeled for use on the Titanic. They were stunning.

We were told that Mr. Andrews was on board the Titanic, and died in the fateful crash.  And he died a hero.  Many survivors recounted stories of Mr. Andrews’ selfless actions which included urging reluctant people to get into life boats. He was also seen throwing deck chairs into the ocean for passengers to use as floating devices.

Gone are my Hollywood images of Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet.  They have been replaced with the thoughts of Mr. Andrews, his wife, and their young daughter. I wonder how they coped with losing a husband and a father, and a man who had designed one of the grandest ships of all time.

RMS Titanic sunk on April 15, 1912.  SS Nomadic is the only ship to survive that was designed by Thomas Andrews, Jr., and remains the only White Star Line ship still afloat.

On this St. Patrick’s Day, tell us about your family’s Irish roots. What stories did you uncover when you returned to Ireland? Are there any stories passed down from your parents and grandparents that you re-tell on special occasions? If so, we’d love to hear them!