Archive | November, 2013

Thanksgiving checklist: cranberry salsa, bread, and the Voice Recorder App.

27 Nov

Tomorrow on Thanksgiving morning my family and I will drive to my hometown in New Freedom, PA. My son arrives there this afternoon, his grandparents are picking him up from the Greyhound bus station on his way back from college for a brief respite before he returns to prepare for final exams.

My brother and his wife will host 16 of us for Thanksgiving. We will bring our renowned cranberry salsa, fresh-baked bread from the Swiss Bakery, and of course my digital voice recorder and my smart phone with the Voice Recorder App.

I know, I know, it can be a bit noisy and raucous around the table with 16 people engaged in eight or more conversations, not the best situation for individual voice recording, but sometimes it is just good to capture the moment, the spontaneous story threads shared, the collective voices of an extended multi-generational family Thanksgiving meal.

I also know that there will be many quieter moments for sharing family lore, sharing family stories, advice and wisdom. (Time to switch on the voice recorder)

As a Personal Historian, I always have my digital voice recorder or my smart phone, with its voice recorder, its camera, and its video recording apps, with me when I know I will see my parents. I know that each visit is a unique opportunity to ask questions and record their stories. Two weeks ago it was 20 minutes on my Mom’s favorite recipes, then 2 1/2 hours from my dad on the Charles G. Summers vegetable canning business that lasted for 119 years. On my Personal History “Bucket List”: well I would love to get him to narrate his “Korean War” slides. A few months ago I heard a new story about his walking down the farm lane to help a farm family with getting in the Hay and other seasonal chores. It brought back memories of my two days helping the canning factory farm crew bale hay as a teenager.

Past Thanksgiving projects…
Each year for Thanksgiving, while my Mom was busy getting the turkey in the oven and various food items prepared, my dad would organize a Thanksgiving “Project” for me and my three brothers. These projects were usually 4 to 6 hours, usually involving physical labor such as cutting firewood, but my favorite was the Thanksgiving we took down the old barn on the back farm. (I am not sure we got the whole thing down on Thanksgiving but it was all down by the time Thanksgiving weekend was over. We salvaged much of the barn siding, cut off the rotted sections and repurposed it to serve as paneling to “finish” my parents’ basement.

This year’s Thanksgiving projects:

  • Record – Five or      more new family stories
  • Explore – What’s in the basement?
  • Enjoy – Time      with family.

I wish each of you a great Thanksgiving. I hope each of you enjoys quality time with your family.

Recommended Thanksgiving Checklist:

  • Check your Smart      phone for the Voice Recorder APP.
  • Take an hour to      record a few family stories.

It is never too soon to start recording original family stories with loved ones. If you wait too long to get around to it… well then it might be a bit too late. Let me know if took on this Thanksgiving Project?


There were two mice, different generations, two different houses, three hundred yards apart…

21 Nov

What’s in the basement? Inquiring Personal Historians want to know. Please share your best discovery, thanks.
See Association of Personal Historians Discussion

There were two mice, different generations, two different houses, three hundred yards apart… more on this later.

At the recent Association of Personal Historians (APH) Conference – Steve Roberts described asking his mother… do you have any else for me? Her response… (Something like) yes I do son, and then produced a box with hundreds of letters between her future husband and herself. This was great original source material for a personal/family history book.

Two other Personal Historians described finding a 1,000 letters mixed in with a few boxes of family photos. These have or will be converted into personal histories.

My best experience thus far was discovering my client had a file drawer with various “family materials” in the basement during my “pre-interview” first visit.

Good news: after we finishing talking I went down to look and discovered it was a treasure trove of background material for the next interview, included family genealogy, etc.

Bad news: my client who was then 102 and banned from ever walking down the basement steps again, followed me down the stairs as I was looking in the file. But maybe that’s why he lived to 104, hmmm…

Good news: I later discovered his high school journal, a family history project he did in college with first person descriptions of characteristics of his ancestors in great detail going back to the early 1800s, what they died of, how long they lived, a pedigree chart and so much more.

Sometimes though personal historians are surprised at what they find in their own extended family basements… (or attics…)

  • A colleague recently described discovering that not only had her mother kept a diary for many years, but also her grandmother had kept a diary, independently the colleague had started her own diary a few years ago so now she had three generations, a 100 years of diaries and diarists to write about in her own family.
  • So back to my story… There were two mice, different generations, two different houses, three hundred yards apart… (Did you guess this was about my Mom? You may not want to share this with her, thanks).

About 1959 my Mom and Dad were expecting their third child and moved into a newer (well at least it was newer to them) house on a hill in the geographic center of our town. My grandmother owned the farm that bordered the house on two sides. The third side bordered the stone house and in front our house was a paved road, though there was another farm field just on the other side.

Well, perhaps during the first, second, or third week after moving in, my Mom went down into the basement to do the laundry. It was exciting to have a newer home with a washing machine; I am not sure whether she had a clothes dryer. I know there was the requisite clothes line out back.
Anyway, my Mom soon discovered there was a mouse in the basement.

  • The good news is it gave her four sons something to talk about for well over fifty years since then.
  • The bad news is she was deathly afraid of mice.
  • The good news was that her oldest son was three years old – a big, strong husky boy who thought it was great fun helping Mom with the laundry. I was only one at the time, but I was also recruited at an early age to take on errands in the basement, “could you go down in the basement and bring up some cans of vegetables for dinner?”
  • More good news, she had a third and then a fourth son to share “could you go down in the basement” chores.
    That basement was a great place to play hide and seek, it had an exterior door to get to our backyard, and we had lots of toys and games, our friends and cousins enjoyed coming over and spending time in the basement. Not surprisingly, my Mom never felt she needed to supervise our play when we were in the basement.

So we learned how to be useful, doing chores for Mom. We learned how to be independent and self-entertaining and we (mostly) learned how to keep the family secret – Mom’s afraid of mice. Despite this small handicap, she was a pretty great Mom.

Now about the second mouse… that’s another story. Until then – What’s in (your) basement? Please collect and share your family stories.

Thanksgiving is a great time to explore and record family history, or to a bit of exploring in the basement, you never know…?

Have a great Thanksgiving.

Bruce Summers – SummooseTales

Member: Association of Personal Historians

Personal History Snippets

13 Nov

Personal History Snippets.

Personal History Snippets

13 Nov

A few snippets, comments, ideas, suggestions garnered from the recent Association of Personal Historians national conference held in Bethesda, MD.

Keynote – Steve Young – Producer – PBS “Our American Family“:
“If you don’t talk to your grandmother before she is gone (record her stories) it’s like a library burning down!”
“…capture the family stories for another generation.”
Record… “the voices of wisdom before the voices are gone.”
“Ask why!”
“Have the family bring (talk about) family heirlooms they care about.”
“Minor reflections can have a major impact.” (Makes the life story come alive).

Roles of the Personal Historian – life story interviewer:
“Be a good listener, respond to the story, but silently through body language, encourages story teller to continue…”
“Use your interview questions to guide and initiate a new topic or to ask for clarifying detail.”
“Relax them (the interviewee) before they start, find a comfortable place to sit and talk, explain the process ahead of time.”
“Make sure they know you heard and understood what they are sharing, but also that you are not judging, just listening.”
“Be a good audience, so they tell the story fully with more details, often you will get a fresher version of the story and details they may not share with a family member.”
“Ask why, then ask why again five different ways.”
“Ask follow-up questions or clarifying questions… ‘what’s a party line?'”
“The spoken word is more dynamic than the written word.”
“Do your research before hand, come with questions in hand and potential follow-ups but do not share them ahead of time so the interview is a fresh telling of stories.”
“Use the last interview as a time to reflect, in this case you can give them questions to reflect on ahead of time.”
“Invite them… Tell the stories you want to pass on to your family.”

Steve V. Roberts – Keynote, Author of several memoirs and family story books:
“Keep stories light, dialogue can lighten the tone of the book.”
“Through stories people learn lessons.”
“Story telling is an essential role for people, they have always done it, the essence of story telling does not change. Stories are the heart of human conditions.”
“Stories can get lost, especially immigrant stories,” (It is essential to capture family stories)
“Many family histories are in danger of being lost.” (Personal Historians can play a vital role in helping families record, document and share family histories).
Example: Steve asked his mother, do you have anything to share (written family artifacts, journals, photos…) to which his mother replied, “oh yes son I do.” leading to discovery of hundreds of letters between her and her husband from 60 years prior.
“Every single family is worth writing about!”
From a relative regarding one of Steve’s books… “Now I have something to give my children!”

He was 102; she was 94…

6 Nov

He was 102; she was 94 building a barn in 1919 brought them together in Australia at the end of World War II. Writing Personal Histories – bringing other’s stories to life, documenting stories and long forgotten conversations is a wonderful gift. Today I am working on page 380 of their book telling their story.

It’s just two days until the Association of Personal Historians Annual Conference in Bethesda, MD. This is my first APH conference, it will be intriguing to meet hundreds of colleagues dedicated to helping thousands of people each year write their life stories.

Some Personal Historians specialize in video memoirs; one colleague used his film and documentary skills, his experience with interviewing, videotaping and editing to craft compelling 30 minute or 60 minute stories that captures and shares the essence of his clients, often bringing them almost to life, for family and friend long after they are gone.

Some colleagues specialize in photo memory books, the focus is on bringing to life those compelling photos and the stories and background connected to the photos. Their books are beautifully crafted bringing individual and family stories to life. Too often the unique stories behind photos are otherwise lost.

Some colleagues specialize in memoir writing – providing coaching and classes to encourage people to just start outlining and writing down their stories. This often gives the rest of us great material to build upon, if/when needed. These colleagues are very skilled in writing and editing and often provide ongoing coaching or ghost writing support to help their clients complete or expand their stories or shape their writing into a book.

Personal Historians often collaborate, sharing tips, tricks, tools, expertise, reference resources and referrals. Some specialize in transcription, line editing, converting manuscripts into books; or specialize in community or corporate histories.

Some us are fascinated with genealogy, tying in many little known threads of family history, vital statistics, where their ancestors came from or moved to and why location or specific events, like building a barn after World War I, could shape the story arc of people’s lives on opposite sides of the globe.

My focus is on the research, the interviews, weaving in sometimes hundreds of family photographs, letters, journals, genealogy into the story arc. Sometimes this comes together as a 400 page book; well there was that jam packed file drawer down in the basement filled with “material” that no one had looked at for up to 50 or more years.

Sixteen hours of interviews provide a lot of source material. 500 plus photographs needed to be reviewed, scanned or reshot and PhotoShopped; it is amazing how World War II photos of Japanese Torpedo bombers attacking Australian and US warships can deteriorate after 70 years, but they were part of the unique story of this couple that met while serving in the American and Australian Navy in Brisbane Australia in 1945.

Then there was his High School journal describing daily highlights, studies, sports, singing practice, “choring” on the family farm, sharing with pride how his family was able to harvest, by themselves, the entire potato crop on their large family farm, what the weather was like every day during the winter in Minnesota, walking to school, catching a ride or going by horse drawn sleigh in sub-zero temperatures.

No one else in the family even knew his high school journal existed. They had not read her vivid descriptions of her six months, grand tour of Europe in 1949, staying mostly in Youth Hostels. Witnessing the still very evident effects of six years of World War of bombings, of fighting, of ongoing shortages of people, communities, and countries still recovering move than four years after the fighting stopped.

Everyone has a unique story to tell. Sometime they write some of it down. Often they have documented unique moments through photographs, or they have collected bits and pieces of genealogy of family history. Sometimes they write their own book or craft their own video or photo book.

I help many friends and colleagues get started either with suggestions of how they can start capturing their stories or especially the stories of older family members using a digital voice recorder or a video camera or the voice recorder in their smart phone.

Personal Historians often can help the individual or the families ensure that the unique life stories and family history are captured and compiled. Too often people put it off and then it is too late and the caption to those old family photograph and the answers to those questions for your mother, father, aunt or uncle just never gets written down or never get asked or answered.

For the couple I am writing the book about, I was asked to help the family capture their stories at just the right time. At age 102 and 94 they were still active, living in their own home; they were able to share rich stories about their life and experiences, about the events and people who shaped their lives. They talked about their parents and grandparents who were born in the 1850s who were still alive during their childhood and could tell stories about their ancestors going further back who immigrated from Norway and the Channel Islands to the US and to Australia.

Within about nine months after I did my interviews with this couple, older age, various falls, and time started catching up with them. They became more frail, less vocal, and would not have been able to share these rich personal and family stories. Meanwhile, I could transcribe their interviews, organize their genealogy, review and caption the hundreds of photos, read through that file drawer full of material, develop the story arc and organize their material into Personal History products… audio tapes, transcripts, in their first person voice, a PowerPoint with over 375 photos, and my, still growing, 380 page book draft/manuscript.

Finally time caught up with my clients, he died in September at age 104 and she a month later at age 95 after long, interesting lives and lots of adventures. Yes, I still have to finish their book, but I have been able to document and share large sections of the manuscript with the family. The audio tapes and the hundreds of photos, many of which have been restored or enhanced, to be included in the book, are much valued by their family. Their personal history and family stories will live on and hopefully be passed on for generations.

It is never too soon to start collecting, to start writing your personal history or to start recording the stories of family, friends and colleagues. If/when you need help getting started, or help moving the story along, or with writing, editing, research, etc., look for a Personal Historian, the Association of Personal Historians is a great resource.

Get started today.

Bruce Summers
Personal Historian – SummooseTales

Member – Association of Personal Historians

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