The Blog

Letters to a Little Girl from the White House

My mother married my stepfather in April 1963.

I was eleven years old at the time.

But let me back track a bit.

In 1962, my stepfather-to-be came to San Francisco to attend a professional conference.  A girlfriend of my mother’s introduced my mother to my stepfather and cupid’s arrow stuck hard and fast.

Within two year’s time, my mother and I moved from San Francisco, California to Bethesda, Maryland, and life changed dramatically for both of us.

Throughout the long months before flying to Maryland, my stepfather wrote me many letters.  Each letter was a personal introduction of sorts.  In the eyes of an eleven-year-old girl I surely didn’t know what to expect from the man who would soon marry my mother and become the only father I had ever known.

Through the letters, he slowly revealed the kind of person he was and the kind of father he would be to me through his frequent and loving letters, which were either typed or handwritten and mailed directly to me.

He told me that he had a fifteen-foot sailboat and was fond of sailing on the Chesapeake Bay.  He said that he wanted to teach me how to sail.  He told me that he was from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, his family still lived there and I would eventually meet them all. I knew he had an artistic side because he often included funny pictures and poems in his letters, all for my enjoyment.  He told me that he wanted to teach me how to ice skate in the winter months on the frozen canals in Washington, DC.  He was a devoted Roman Catholic and asked about my religious upbringing. He valued a strong and traditional education and his work caused him to travel widely.

But there was one thing that really stuck out about these letters. They were written on White House stationery.

 

At that time, my stepfather was acting as legal counsel for the Kennedy Administration. Several of the letters even mention my stepfather’s personal interactions with JFK.

December 16, 1962

By the way, during this past week, the President held his Christmas Party for his staff.  I shook hands with him and wished him a Merry Christmas.  During the evening, Caroline and one of her small friends came down the stairs to say hello to everybody. I sure wish you had been here to enjoy all the fun. 

Many of the specific memories have faded for me. My stepfather, now 84 years old, has Alzheimer’s disease.  As I hold my stepfather’s letters in my hands, I feel somehow connected to him again, and to my childhood, and to the love and affection that was so well expressed on sheets of paper.

Do you have family letters stored in shoeboxes up in your attic or on a shelf in your bedroom closet? When was the last time you read those letters and simply remembered days gone by?  What do those letters mean to you?  Please write and tell us. We’d love to hear from you.

What if I’m Nervous About Being Interviewed?

So you’re feeling a little anxious, shy or self-conscious about being interviewed for your personal history film? You really want to save your memories for your family but when you think about actually doing it, all you can think about is that public speaking class that you took in high school.  Your palms still get sweaty when you recall standing up in front of everyone. It wasn’t a pretty picture.

The concerns

You might be thinking about such things as:  What if I don’t know the answer to a question? What if I trip over my tongue or forget what the question was?  Maybe you’re worried about sneezing or burping during the interview. Or you’re concerned about being surrounded by cameras and lights.

You’re not alone

Well, the good news is you are not the only person who has these sorts of concerns. In fact, most people have never been interviewed on film before.

I’m here to help you get over those nerves.  I have been interviewing folks for fifteen years.  I understand where this nervousness comes from – it comes from a fear of the unknown.

Three reasons why you shouldn’t dread a personal history interview

Reason 1:  You can prepare. Before the actual interview you will have an opportunity to speak with the personal historian who will be interviewing you. You will have a critical part in creating the interview questions.  You will know the answer to each and every question because you will play a role in designing the interview guide yourself.  Know that the personal historian who is interviewing you is not trying to trip you up or turn the interview into an interrogation.   Her goal is for you to look and sound great throughout the interview.

Reason 2:  Editing is magic. Are you worried about tripping over your tongue, sneezing or even burping while on camera?  The beautiful thing about video is that the camera can easily be turned off for a moment and then turned back on when you are ready to resume.  A huge part of making a personal history film is the editing process.  This is when any of the blurps, bleeps or tongue contortions are edited out, proverbially landing on the cutting room floor.

The finished film will only contain the best of the best of your interview.  You will truly rival George Clooney or Audrey Hepburn!

Reason 3: You will feel relaxed. The personal historian takes great care to make sure you are comfortable and relaxed during the interview.  Before the interview begins, she will answer any questions that you might have. She will encourage and affirm you throughout the conversation. Whether it is a need for a bio-break, or the desire to re-phrase the answer to a question, it is the personal historian’s job to reassure you that everything is still okay and on track.

The camera equipment may initially seem imposing to you, but it is the personal historian’s place to create a connection with you. Soon the camera equipment fades into the background and it is the engaging conversation that becomes the focus.

Where do we go from here?

There is a little quote that I like a lot.  It goes like this:

Blessed are they, who know the way,

To bring back memories of yesterday.

Author Unknown

As a personal historian, I take my job and all that goes with it very seriously, and I know that other personal historians feel the same way.  I feel honored to play a small role in preserving your life story.

So, are you feeling a little better about the interview now?  Take a deep breath, and start the process of saving your stories while you’re on a roll.

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!

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

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?