By Bruce Summers, Summoose Tales
Everyone has a story. In my experience people have many stories. Some they have shared with friends and families, while others lie dormant for twenty, fifty, and yes even ninety or more years. By nature I am curious, I am a perceiver, I want to hear these stories, I want to put them in familial or historical context and share them with others.
Sometimes it is easy working with a personal history client. I have done my research and my homework and all I have to do is get them started. I ask the client or narrator the first question, I use actively listening, a bit of nodding, a quiet smile, and the stories start pouring out.
After a while I add a timely framing question for context, tell me more… tell me why… what did the kitchen smell like… what were you doing when… was she on your father’s side or your mother’s side… what was the barn used for…?
Sometimes we start down a new and unknown path that has not been explored… “he threw a penny out of the train window with a note wrapped around on his way to Europe during World War I…”; “your Mom was the baton twirler,” to which each of her nine children respond… ‘No way!!!’)…”; (what does no one know) “I won the beauty pageant…”; or “I haven’t thought about that for years…”.
Sometimes there are surprises in the basement filing cabinets and boxes… a letter… “Lewis went up and helped him get the farm…” (no one know where the money for the farm came from).
I often feel compelled to start mapping out the client’s family in Family Tree Maker… (you had four generations on your mother’s side that lived in Tennessee before they moved here)… “oh that’s why I kept getting invited to those family reunions in Tennessee…” or (your grandmother definitely came from… Ireland)… “we always heard she did, thank you…”.
I do digital voice recordings for most of my clients. Sometimes this is the most important product they want, especially after their parent or loved one passes away. I have over 100 hours of tape from interviews with my parents. I may not write all of those stories now, but I have them for the future, for my brothers and our children.
I love the opening clip… if Abraham Lincoln had lived eight years more we could have heard a recording of his voice…
I am doing a series of personal history interviews of early members and founders of my church as we start to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the founding of the church. The voice recordings are palpable today, but they will be invaluable 15 or 40 years from now as we celebrate the 75th and the 100th Anniversary.
Some clients also want a transcription so they have a written record of the stories. They can use these to write their own family stories in the future. We will use these transcripts to write a version of our church story during its 60th year.
Some clients want a book. I admit to seriously enjoying looking through all those old photos and albums with my clients or their parents or grandparents. I think it is truly a gift to combine the photos with original context and with the stories that make them come alive.
Sometimes there are just two or three people alive who know where a picture was from, what was going on at the time, why was it important, and who were these people… the client/narrator and the personal historian, until they are shared with friends and family. This is one of the powerful motivators for personal historians… helping individuals and their families capture, share, and preserve their life stories, their photos, and their memories.
I am still learning every day, from personal historian colleagues, from clients and their loved ones, from research related to the milestones in their lives… what was it like to plow 300 acres with a team of horses… to milk 12 cows every morning and every night by hand… to work with German prisoner’s of war during World War II… to create a new church during times when segregationists were powerful opponents.
Each story is fresh, each story is interesting, each narrator has a unique context to share. Not everyone will write and record their own stories. It is a privilege to facilitate capturing and sharing life stories.
Please let me know if you have stories that need to be captured and shared. If I cannot help you, perhaps I can refer you one of my Association of Personal Historian colleagues. I also post blogs about my experiences and share family stories. I hope these are helpful examples. Everyone can record a family story, but sometimes it helps to have a personal historian to make sure you “get around to it.”
Bruce Summers is a Personal Historian for Summoose Tales. He is a board member of the Association of Personal Historians (APH) and serves as APH Regions and Chapter Director. Contact: Summersbw@gmail.com