Category Archives: Guest blogger

The Truth: But What If I’m Not Sure? (Guest Post)

When creating a memoir or family video, you will inevitably come across bits of information that you want to include, but which you cannot verify. You’ve ascertained all the facts that can be checked. But then you know all kinds of other stories that nobody can authenticate. For instance, there’s a legend in your family that your great grandfather almost won a Nobel Prize. Or you believe your parents were not in love with one another. Can these claims be proved? Not likely.

All you can do is use your best judgement to infer the truth. Here we offer 3 tips for doing that:

1) Include the “inferred truths” in your story. These stories can strengthen your recollections and add meaning which would otherwise be lacking.

For instance, your parents were married in 1930. Most young couples are without solid financial backing when they start out. Your parents, as much as you (and anyone else) knows, didn’t have a “rich uncle” to ease them through these first years. Are you justified in concluding they must have felt the effects of the Depression during their first days together?

You can’t “prove” this, of course. If, as scientists do with their theories, you proceed as if your hypothesis were true–that your parents must have had a lean time of it then–what insight does this assumption give you about decisions they made during those years, or about attitudes they held in their later life together? Interpretations like these, based on reasonable inferences, can make another person’s life more understandable and your portrait more colorful.

2) Attribute your interpretations. Start with phrases like “If that were true, it seems to me that…”, or “We’ve always been told that…” Your interpretation or inference will take its place as a possible truth in the story you are telling. And the reader or listener will be able to distinguish the cold hard facts from the stories that are harder to verify.

3) Avoid cliches. As you allow yourself to arrive at conclusions in this way, be sure to recognize clichés. These are the ill-fitting shortcuts that actually obscure the individuality of your characters. If you find yourself saying, “Everyone in those days was like that,” let the alarm bells go off! You have left the firm ground of inference behind and are tromping into the dangerous swampland of cliché!

Family histories are inherently uncertain. Don’t let that scare you away, or limit your storytelling to the basic facts. Although they are quite different from verifiable truths, your inferred truths have a rightful place in your story. Your readers and listeners will appreciate the effort.

This post was contributed by Denis Ledoux, founder of the Soleil Lifestory Network. Denis is an accomplished ghostwriter who helps clients write memoirs, one story at a time. Denis was selected as one of the top 10 personal history bloggers of 2011 by Dan Curtis. For more information on Denis, including how to get a copy of the free Memory List Question Book, visit www.turningmemories.com.

Touch Tomorrow (Guest Post)

Imagine

Close your eyes and imagine. You open a dusty photo album to a faded photograph of your great-grandfather. You gaze long and hard at his face. It is an interesting face. It is a face that reveals character, humor, tenacity. It is a face that resembles your face.

You’ve heard his existence led directly to your existence; the conditions of his life led directly to the circumstances of your life; his ingenuity and hard work created your destiny.

But who was he, really? What events shaped his life? What were his dreams and hopes?  Why did he work so hard? What were his choices and challenges? Why did he believe in the family business? What were his thoughts and feelings?

Unfortunately, no one bothered to ask.

You close the album, slowly, and ponder: just what was my great-grandfather’s story?

Intangible Asset

Families understand the importance of trusts and estate plans. Multigenerational transfer of tangible assets such as stocks, bonds, cash, real estate, art, jewelry, antiques, collectibles, and country club memberships is commonplace.

Although tangible assets are important, there is an even greater, often unrecognized, intangible asset: the family’s story—the story that tells what the family has been, who it is today, and what it can be.

Obligation

Mrs. Lavern Norris Gaynor, heiress to the Texaco fortune, suggests that is the family’s obligation to tell its story. She closes her memoir, Lal: A Legacy of Gracious Giving, by saying:

“This brings me to the end of my story—but not really. My story didn’t begin on my birthday. And, now, it won’t end with my death. Through the experience of telling my story, I’ve come to understand it was my obligation.

I close with love, blessings, and a peaceful heart. Finally, the Norris family legacy of generosity, caring, and gracious giving will reach out and touch tomorrow.” 

Touch Tomorrow

Family stories can touch tomorrow in a range of ways. I’ve touched on a few of them below:

  • Recording and celebrating the family’s history
  • Passing on values, traditions, goals, and culture
  • Affirming the family’s mission, core purpose, and original dreams
  • Bestowing knowledge and wisdom
  • Sharing hard-learned life lessons
  • Sustaining and building family relationships
  • Creating a sense of belonging and loyalty
  • Offering advice and guidance
  • Documenting and preserving philanthropic traditions
  • Giving meaning to the human experience
  • Building a lasting legacy 
  • Promoting the continuity of a family business

Story Forms

Many people tell me they understand why it’s important, but don’t know where to start. Luckily, we have a variety of forms to choose from when telling a family’s story:

  • A Family History is a comprehensive approach to recounting the people and the events that span generations. Family histories include genealogical research and are rich with social context events.
  • A Memoir is usually told from the perspective of a single narrator.
  • An Oral History preserves stories in a question/answer format. Transcribed verbatim and lightly edited, it records the exact nuance, flavor, tenor, and tempo of the narrator’s voice.
  • A Chapters of Life Memoir preserves life’s defining moments—life’s steppingstones. It is an anthology of short stories usually built around a collection of photographs.
  • A Business History records the stories, mission, values, and aspirations of a company’s founder(s).
  • A Culinary Memoir preserves favorite recipes, stories, and photographs. Recipes are scanned in the cook’s handwriting and, complete with spill marks, they memorialize life’s favorite meals and events.
  • A Tribute to Life Memoir honors the life of a deceased loved one. The story is told from the perspective of a family member or cherished friend.

Ultimate Memoir

Then there is the Ultimate Memoir. The Ultimate Memoir is, well, ultimate. It is a beautifully designed, heirloom-quality book and companion video. Any of the above story forms are appropriate. Narrative, combined with custom design, complemented with a professionally orchestrated video, creates a vanguard presentation of the family’s story.

Someday List Syndrome

Whichever form your family selects, the operative word is “selects.” Way too often a family scribbles “tell our story” on the Someday List. But when the Someday calendar page turns, it’s too late.

Please don’t allow your family to become a victim of the someday list syndrome. Start today. You won’t regret touching tomorrow. And your family will thank you– for generations to come.

About the author:
Dr. Judith Kolva is a personal historian, with a Ph.D. in the psychology and practice of preserving life stories. Her seminal doctoral research investigated the relationship between telling life stories and identifying meaning in life. She is the founder and CEO of Memoir Shoppe, an international organization that preserves and protects the stories of exceptional families.  Please contact Judith at judith@memoirshoppe.com or www.memoirshoppe.com

Annie’s Mother’s Day Message to Lin (Guest post)

Photo courtesy of Shannon Abbott Photography

I didn’t realize how truly wonderful my mom was until I became a mom myself. Granted, I knew she was wonderful even as a young child, but didn’t know the depth of her strength and sacrifices until I too was the mother to another human being.

I grew up as an Embassy brat, meaning we moved to a new country every two years. I was born in Amman, Jordan, where I lived for the first year of my life. Until I read the letters my mom wrote to her grandmother of her experience as a first time mom, I had no idea how remarkable the whole experience really was. Picture this: A first time mom in a foreign land, speaking a completely different language, a place where, at the time, the water had to boiled to prevent illness, her husband worked 12 hour shifts, would come home, sleep a bit and do it all over again. She was alone in a strange land. That description in itself would make any new mother cringe. And forget the usual support network that rallies around a new mom here in the States. My mom’s support networks were the few young wives of the other Expats but there were no “Mommy groups” at the local library or grandparents eager to babysit.

I read these letters when our first child, Emily, was about 2 years old. At this stage, we had survived the first yet. But I had a mom network that stemmed from high school friends to Facebook to coworkers to reach out to. I didn’t have to boil water every time I wanted to clean a bottle. My husband worked a normal 8 am -4 pm job and I knew he’d be home and available in the evening and late at night should our daughter wake up. There were no language barriers. I could take a walk up the street and be in shorts and a tank top without offending anyone. And when my husband announced to his co-workers that he was having a daughter, they were happy for him and not saddened that the family name would not continue due to the birth of his first born.

My mom endured it all with grace. She adored me and wanted to give me the best of everything. Fast forward a few assignments later, when we were stationed in Abjigan, Ivory Coast. I was 4 years old when we moved to the West African country. Now that I am older, I realize how volatile this part of the world can be. As a 4 year old, I had no clue that there were people who could harm me and my family at any moment. I never lived in fear and thought it was normal to have a man sit out front of our house all hours of the day and night and guard our house. He was nice to me and my family, so in my naive mind, I didn’t mind him being there. I didn’t think it was weird that every night before we went to bed, we locked a metal door between the bottom and top floors. It was something I knew my Dad did every night and it was just something that occurred. Now I realize it was there to keep us safe should our house get broken into during the night. Again, I never lived in fear by the things that would be so obvious to any adult observing them. My lack of fear was because my parents, and most importantly my mom, never gave me a reason to be fearful. I can only imagine the prayers she would say daily and maybe even hourly as we went a long our day in these foreign lands where, at the time, Americans were not well liked.

In one of the letters she writes my grandmother in California, my mom tells her of the dilemma of what possession to pack in Air Freight vs. Sea Freight. The items packed in Air Freight would arrive sooner than the Sea Freight, which could take months. My mom would have to determine which toys of my sister Susie (who is 5 years younger than me) would tie us over until the others arrived. Which season of clothes needed to be in Air Freight and would be sufficient until the other season of clothes arrived? I have been a mother for 4 ½ years now and never once had to stress over such a decision.  She had to make this decision 4 times as we travelled the world and got older. My mom made it happen.

I didn’t realize until I had babies of my own, that my mom had both my sister and myself via natural child birth. It wasn’t a question that you really ask until you are pregnant yourself.  I knew full well, after hearing other women’s stories, that when it came time to birth my first child, I wanted an epidural. I’m a wuss with pain and I have to be honest, my mom isn’t the best with pain either. Somehow she allowed nature to do what it should do and successfully birthed two daughters without pain medicine – she’s a hero in my book for that alone!

Now that I am a mother of a 4 ½ year old daughter and 1 ½ year old twin boys, I need my mother more than ever. Yes, I needed her to teach me how to use the potty, to tie my shoe, to be there when a boyfriend broke up with me. But now I need her for the support she brings me on a daily basis just to deal with life as a wife and mom. I know she is praying for me and my husband daily, that our marriage would continue to be strengthened and not burned out by the stress of having small children. I am 31 years old and I call my mother once, twice and sometimes even three times a day to hear her voice of reasoning in times of confusion or simply to cry my heart out to her. I know she doesn’t have all the answers but I know she cares and will do whatever is in her power to help me in my time of need, whether that be to pray with me or leave her house at midnight, drive the 8 miles to my house in her pajamas and rock a baby to sleep, so I could finally get some sleep myself. She’ll randomly leave dinner on my front stoop so my husband and I don’t have to think about a meal that night.

I know there are times that my actions have disappointed her. But I also know she still loves me unconditionally. I pray that I can be the same wonderful mother to my three kids as she has been to me.

Happy Mother’s Day Mom!

Annie is the proud mom of three kids including fraternal twin boys and has happily been married to Kevin for 6 years. Annie works for a homeschool technology company full time along with managing a household and the contents in it (people and stuff). Due to her father’s job, she travelled the world as a young child living in Europe and the Middle East.  She vows never to live more than 10 miles from her parents. She is a member of the Loudoun Fairfax Mothers of Multiples and desires to assist other women suffering from Post Partum depression.

Annie’s mom Lin is Reel Tributes’ Head Interviewer, and lives a few miles down the road from Annie and her grandchildren in Herndon, Virginia. 

Deirdre Marie Capone: Naming Names And No Longer Holding My Breath (Guest post)

Thank you to Deidre Marie Capone, and Bob Brody’s blog “Letters to My Kids“, for this terrific letter in honor of Mother’s Day 

Dear Kim, Kevin, Bobby and Jeff,

I am a Capone. My grandfather was Ralph Capone, listed in 1930 as Public Enemy #3 by the Chicago Crime Commission. That makes me the great-niece of his partner and younger brother, Public Enemy #1: Al Capone.

For much of my life, this was not information that I readily volunteered. In fact, I made every effort to hide the fact that I was a Capone, a name that had brought endless heartache to so many members of my family. In 1972, when I was in my early thirties, we left Chicago and my family history far behind me. I reinvented myself in Minnesota and made sure that no one in my life other than your dad knew my ancestry. I succeeded, even with you four children.

I was terrified that if you learned you had “gangster blood” running through your veins, youd be exposed to the same pain I had experienced.

So, when Bobby came home from school one day in 1974 to announce that his class was learning about Al Capone, it knocked the wind out of me.

Ever since you children started school, I had developed the habit of asking,“What did you learn today?” when you came home. Of course, I always listened to your answers with great interest, but on that particular day, I felt like the whole world had just slid out of focus, leaving only Bobby and me. There he was, smiling and cheerful as usual, telling me that he was learning about my uncle in his fourth grade class.

My heart seized, but somehow, I managed to get out a half-casual, “What did you learn about Al Capone?”

“We learned that he was a gangster,” Bobby told me. He went on to tell me about Prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s, Al’s bootlegging operation, and how he had been such an expert outlaw that when the police finally nabbed him, the only charge they could pin on him was tax evasion. I was so astonished that it was all I could do to nod along as he spoke.

Later that evening, when Dad and I were alone, I told him about what Bobby had said. I felt like I had been holding my breath ever since Bobby so innocently chirped the name “Capone.” Dad and I decided together that we couldn’t keep the truth from you four any longer. We had no idea how you would react, but one thing was certain—we didn’t want you to hear about it from someone else. And now that Kim and Kevin were teenagers, they had started to ask about their grandparents. We couldn’t keep this from you forever.

That evening, as Dad and I gathered you kids in the kitchen, I was petrified. This was a moment that I had created in my head time and again, since Dad and I decided to start a family. And each time I imagined it, it ended badly. I thought you kids would be furious with me for keeping the secret, or for being a Capone in the first place. Maybe you would be ashamed of me. But worse yet—maybe you would be ashamed of yourselves. Maybe hearing the truth about your family would send you into the same kind of downward spiral that had swallowed so much of my childhood.

When I was growing up, I had often been mad at God for making me a Capone. I couldn’t understand why other children weren’t allowed to play with me, and my heart broke every time I heard someone murmur a slur or saw the newspapers print awful accusations about the family I loved—and the family that loved me in return when everyone else shunned me. Given my difficulties growing up as a Capone, I just couldn’t imagine that things would be any different for you children. As I sat you down at the kitchen table and prepared to break the news, I felt like I was on the verge of crushing the happy life that Dad and I had worked so hard to give to you.

I could tell that you sensed my nervousness, and you were unusually quiet as I told you I had something important to say. I squeezed Dad’s hand tightly, and the words came slowly.

“There’s something I want to tell you about my family,” I began. “Al Capone was my uncle. My grandfather was his brother. I was born Deirdre Marie Capone.”

For a split second, there was silence in the kitchen. I could feel my heart in my throat. Then you four children looked at each other then back at me. Then, at the exact same instant, you four children exclaimed, “Cool, Mom!”

As soon as the word “Cool!” broke the tension in the room, all four of you were peppering me with questions. “What was he like? Was he nice to you? Did he love you? Do you look like him? Do you have pictures?”

Relief washed over me. I had been building this moment up in my mind for so many years, and now here I was, discovering that something that had once been shameful to me could be source of pride for my children. I tried to answer your questions as best I could. I pulled out my family photo albums and began to introduce my own children to the people who had loved me most when I was their age.

Deirdre Marie Capone is the great-niece of Al Capone and the last living member of that family born with the last name “Capone.” She is the mother of four children and the grandmother of 14. After she retired to Southwest Florida, her family urged her to write her story of growing up in this infamous family. In her book, Uncle Al Capone – The Untold Story from Inside His Family, she shares for the first time the intimate details of life within the Capone family. The book can be purchased in any bookstore. A personalized signed copy can be purchased from her website, www.unclealcapone.com

This letter was first published on Bob Brody’s blog, Letters to My Kids

 

 

 

 

 

What the Holocaust Tried to Take from Me (Guest Post)

Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) – April 19, 2012

Which parts of the story are true and which parts of the story are false?

This much I know: My grandfather, Zaidie, was a spry happy man with a wondrous smile that lit up the room. His brilliant blue eyes dazzled with every smile.

My mother told me that my grandfather never smiled until we, his grandchildren, were born. Grandchildren transformed Zadie from the stern, serious man my mother knew, into the fun loving, energetic grandfather I knew and loved. Zaidie played catch with me and watched me dance and sing – all with encouraging smiles and joyous laughter. He took me, and his four grandsons (I was the only granddaughter) to parks, beaches, on car trips and for ice cream. He couldn’t get enough of us and, likewise, we couldn’t get enough of him.

I thought I knew Zaide, but I realize I know very little about Zaidie. I know nothing about his childhood, nothing about where he lived, nor how he grew up. I know nothing about his parents, his siblings, aunts, uncles, or cousins. I don’t even know how he met my grandmother.

I know that Zaidie was born in Poland, in a small town (shtetl) called Boger. From there, the story gets fuzzy.

Was it that…

In 1920 (give or take a year) my grandfather confiscated his dead brother’s visa and escaped to America, the land of freedom and opportunity. Since his brother was killed in the coalmines of Poland, either due to a job-related accident or at the hands of malicious mine workers, my grandfather grabbed that visa and turned his brother’s death into the opportunity of a lifetime.

Or was it the following…

Zaidie went to Canada, using his (older or younger) brother Myer’s visa. Myer,  somehow, was already living in America. From Canada, my grandfather smuggled across the border and entered the U.S.

Or maybe it happened this way…

In or about 1920, my grandfather joined the Polish (or Russian) Army, but instead of serving, he ran away (AWOL). Zaidie said he could not fight for a country that was killing Jews in the Pogroms, and escaped to the United States.

Which is true? I don’t know. I’m sure some variation is true. I have bits and pieces of stories handed down to me, but none of them are documented.

I do know that Zaidie eventually stowed away on a ship sailing to Canada. From there, he walked across the border into the U.S. telling the border guards: “Of course I’ll return to Canada, I’m just going to visit my brother, Myer.  My grandfather never returned to Canada. Instead, he sent money back to Poland, to my grandmother (Bubby), so she could join him and start a new life together in Chicago. But that’s all I have; it’s all I know about how my grandfather came to the United States. There is no one left to ask. My grandparents and the few relatives who survived the Holocaust are no longer alive.

I have tried to do the research and to put the pieces of the puzzle together. However, because of the Holocaust, all documentation, even the name of the town (Boger) in which my grandfather was born and grew-up, have all been expunged, purged from history. My family is left only to speculate about what actually happened.

I would dearly love to see a video of my grandfather and to hear him talk about his life and to hear his stories. But sadly, I cannot.

I have made it my job to tell my children what I do know about our ancestors.   I can tell them that their great-grandfather grew up in Poland, made his way to America around 1920, when he was about 18 years old, and because of Zaidie’s efforts; I was born in Chicago sixty-three years ago. My children will know that their grandfather had a large family, but sadly, they were all killed during Pogroms and in the Holocaust. My children and grandchildren will know of all the wonderful memories I have of my grandfather. They will hear about all the holidays we spent together, of the joy, love and a sense of family I received from Zaidie and Bubby. My children and my grandchildren will know because I am telling them and will continue to tell them.

Will your children and grandchildren know about your family? What are you doing to ensure that future generations don’t have to puzzle over mysteries they may never be able to solve?

As we commemorate Yom HaShoah today, let’s remember our ancestors and their struggles. But let’s not forget what we can do for the future. We owe it to Zaidie and Bubby to make sure our family’s stories are never forgotten.


Susan Harrison is an author who resides in San Diego, CA, where she works as an educator and a facilitator for GAB (Guided Autobiographer) and The Braille Institute. She has been published in various e-zines.  Susan is a modern grandmother and her favorite ‘job’ is reading books to her granddaughter via Skype.