Category Archives: Storytelling

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?

Finding History in Unexpected Places: The House at 167 Corona

My grandparents Raymond and Frances Mackin married in September 7, 1929, at the Star of the Sea Catholic Church in San Francisco, California. By the end of the very next month the Stock Market collapsed, signaling the beginning of the Great Depression.

Frances, in her memoir, recalled:

“On returning from our honeymoon in Los Angeles, we rented a pleasant apartment on Washington Street, near Fillmore.  In less than a year we moved to a larger apartment on Balboa near 21st Avenue.  We were living there when my daughter, Catherine was born.  The landlady wasn’t very happy with us for having a child so we soon moved to a third floor flat on 43rd Avenue between Cabrillo and Fulton.  The stair climbing there was too much for me so we rented a small house on 40th Avenue near Fulton.  Roger and David were born while we lived there.  Our landlord was a very nice man, whom we seldom saw, and we were greatly surprised when for some reason or other he gave us his equity in the house.  This amounted to about $3,500 – a nice sum for 1935.  We soon sold the house on 40th Avenue and bought a larger one at 167 Corona Street in Ingleside Terrace.  Frannie was born there in 1939.” 

The rest of the story

You may be wondering how this information came to my attention.  My grandmother had the heart of a personal historian.  She loved to reminisce and share her life experiences.  It was this love that fueled her curiosity.  In 1984 she found out that the house on Corona was for sale (again).  My grandmother had to know the details of this house that had been her home over forty years before.  A quick trip to Franciscan Properties yielded the listing (below) and told her everything she wanted to know.

Years later, I learned more about that house on Corona Street.  My grandmother told me that they didn’t have enough money to pay the down payment, though they knew they could easily afford the monthly payments.

The owner of the house made an offer to my grandfather –if he would take over the monthly payments, my grandparents could have the house.  This would never happen in 2012, but life was a bit different back in 1935.

It turned out that the owner of the house was going through serious financial problems and a nasty divorce, and really wanted to get rid of this house.

My grandmother further told me that by virtue of owning this house, they were now well established financially.  Remember this was in 1935 – the Great Depression was being felt worldwide.  Many people were struggling financially and losing their homes altogether. My grandparents felt very fortunate.

This is just one of the stories I have learned about the early lives of my grandparents.  And finding this listing among our trove of family documents makes this story come alive for me.

Moral of this story — You never know where your family’s history will come from.

And as a side note: I Googled this house last night and found that it sold for $817,000 two years ago. Too bad it didn’t stay in our family— that would have been some return.

What tidbits of information have you found out about your family in unexpected places? Write us and let us know!

Nine Ways to Celebrate Grandparents Day (9/9/12)

Did you know that National Grandparents Day is this Sunday? According to grandparents-day.com, one of the goals of founder Marian McQuade was “to persuade grandchildren to tap the wisdom and heritage their grandparents could provide.”

If you are lucky enough to have a living grandmother or grandfather, find a way to honor them this Sunday. Give them a call. Share a meal with them. Even better, ask them about their lives and their memories. Since this year’s Grandparents Day is on 9/9, here are nine questions to help you “tap the wisdom”:

1. What did you love most about being a child?

2. How did you meet Grandma (or Grandpa)?

3. What have you loved most about your life together?

4. What are your fondest memories of raising a family?

5. What is one of your favorite memories of my mom (or dad) when they were growing up?

6. What do you want your grandchildren to know about you?

7. What important lessons have you learned in life that you want to pass along to me?

8. What do you think is the key to happiness?

9. What do you treasure most in life?

If you are a grandparent, why not share some of these memories with your grandchildren? It’ll certainly spark a great conversation, and you’ll get to tell your favorite stories to your grandkids.

Don’t forget to record the answers—with pen and paper, on a tape or digital recorder, or with a video camera—so that other family members can gain from the grandparents’ wisdom.

We’d love to hear how you celebrated this Grandparents Day. Write and let us know!

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!