Category Archives: Storytelling

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!

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

Happy Father’s Day!

Your friends at Reel Tributes wish you and your loved ones a Happy Father’s Day.

Over the past two years, we’ve had the pleasure of producing films for fathers around the country. We have seen first-hand just how powerful of an impact a father can have on his children. Our clients have laughed and cried on camera telling stories of the family road trips, the dirty jokes, and the sage advice that dad can’t help but give.

This year, remember to show your father and grandfather just how much you love them. Give them a hug, a kiss, a smile. Thank them for everything they’ve done to make you who you are today. And ask them questions about their childhood, so you can get a fuller picture of who they are and what makes them tick.

How are you celebrating Father’s Day? How are you recording the stories of your father and grandfather, so future generations get to know the men who have meant so much to you? Write us a comment and let us know!

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.