By Marcia Passos Duffy
So many people keep meaning to interview their
parents or grandparents -- and capture all those entertaining and
enlightening family stories. But most people never get around to it, and
put it off until it is too late and the storyteller has died or is too
sick to tell stories anymore.
This was the case with me. My grandmother died 2
years ago at the age of 94. She was born in Portugal and immigrated
twice - to Brazil then to the United States where she lived with my
parents for 30 years -- and many stories to tell of her adventures. I
was very close with my grandmother, who came to live with us when I was
12. She was a skilled, animated storyteller - as are many people of her
Her stories were so vivid I believed that I would
always remember them. To this day, I don't understand why I did not take
a tape recorder and just let her talk into it while she spun her yarns.
I'm a professional writer, and yet, I never thought to do that. And when
she died I realized that while I remember some of her stories to tell to
my own children, as time goes on I am forgetting the delightful details,
twists and turns she gave her stories.
Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence --
everyday a family elder dies, and along with them, their stories. In the
weeks that followed after my grandmother's death I realized something
important: If, I, as a writer, had never thought to take down my
grandmother's personal history, how many more families are losing their
precious stories - so valuable in keeping families - particularly our
children -- rooted and grounded? That is why I became a personal
historian. I know that by recording these family stories, we allow
future generations to discover their ancestors' personalities,
experiences and wisdom. It is a record that ensures a life -- and
experiences -- will never be forgotten.
While writing down life stories is not a new
concept, the tragedies of September 11 have led many Americans to
re-evaluate what is important in their lives, and there has been a surge
in interest in recording life stories - the lessons learned, moral
values and experiences for future generations in a family.
A life story is more than genealogy, more than the
names, dates and places listed on a family tree. A life story -- or
personal history -- tells the fascinating stories behind those facts and
brings a family tree to life.
It can include:
* A spectrum of an individual's life, or a memoir
focusing on a particular event or period of time.
* A family history bringing ancestors to life
through the stories behind the statistics on a family tree.
* A history of a community, organization or group
as told through the stories of the people involved.
A personal historian is usually also a journalist
or skilled interviewer who knows how to ask open-ended questions and
listen carefully. While many elders can be a bit self-conscious - and
maybe even wary at first - about telling their life story (many elders
were brought up in an era when it was considered vain to talk about
themselves), personal historians are very good at making people feel at
ease. Most people warm up very quickly to a listener who cares about
recording these stories.
The process involves getting "facts" of
a person's birth and family history - sometimes from other family
members. The fun part begins when the personal historian sits down and
interviews the person - usually in his or her home - with a digital
recorder. This is done over a period of 2 or 3 days, in two-hour
sessions. The interviews are then transcribed, edited for clarity,
placed in "chapters" according to themes in a person's life,
such as "Childhood," "The War Years," and
"Married Life." The book - which usually takes about 30-40
additional hours to transcribe, edit, revise and prepare -- can range
between 100 to 200 pages. There are many creative ways the books can be
presented, and a personal historian usually has many options including
as simple as an attractive cloth-covered three-ring binder to a
fully-bound leather book with color photographs.
Often a personal history is ordered as a gift -
for a holiday or special birthday or anniversary. Frequently, family
members pitch in to share the cost. Additional books are usually ordered
for an extra cost. In many cases several copies of the book are ordered
and some donated as well to local or university libraries, which value
them as unique community historical resources.
People are certainly becoming more aware of the
value of recording a family's personal history. After all, what greater
legacy can a person leave their family than the stories of their lives?
We have found that even the most "ordinary" life has
We believe every one of us has an important story
to tell. As one 92 year old woman we once interviewed said after we
handed her the completed 120 page book of her life: "I always knew
I had a book in me. now when is the movie coming out?"