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How much time do you have… Mom?

9 Jan

 

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Jane Summers (1929-2016)

Mom was breathing really hard. But she was still alive. She had waited for us:)

Mom had not been conscious for four or more days. She had eaten little the week before and stopped taking fluids. But she was resilient, just like her Mom before her.

Today was Christmas Day.  We arrived in the afternoon. I went into see her. She thrashed her arm a bit. I tried to re-cover it. But, she didn’t want it covered. The Visiting Angel who was watching over her, gave me space and time to be with Mom.

Mom always wanted to have her family home for Christmas. My wife and my children and I were there with her. My brother’s family was there with her. My Dad, and two other extended family members and alternating Visiting Angels traded off spending time with Mom during Christmas, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups.

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Christmas 1994

The Angel shared, she can’t talk with you, but she can hear everything you say. So we started chatting with and about Mom so she could hear us and know that we were with her.  We could hold her hand and feel the warmth.

One of Mom’s favorite holiday songs was Silent Night, so my son and I sang a duet of Silent Night for Mom, this went well. Then we tried a second song, this one was off pitch a bit and we were stumbling over the words… Mom’s armed thrashed and she made a noise.  We stopped… leaving well enough alone.

In the other rooms of the house, we celebrated the traditions that Mom had established… catching up on family news while sharing cheese and crackers, admiring Mom and Dad’s Christmas tree, watching some sports, the dreaded Pittsburg Steelers came back from behind to defeat the Baltimore Ravens, knocking them out of the playoffs. This to the glee of a few and to the groans of many.

We opened gifts, retold the story of how Mom hand-knitted and then sent the huge Christmas stocking with presents to Dad while he served in the Army during the Korea War, this before they were married. We cooked Mom’s favorite dishes and shared Christmas dinner together while the Angel watched over Mom.

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We continued to stop back in Mom’s room, visiting, looking in, and saying prayers. For me, many of the prayers were thank yous for the extra three months we had with Mom.  We thought we would lose her in September. However, the support from the Angels, combined with Mom’s resilience and Dad’s love kept Mom alive.  We were all blessed with time for visits and talks by phone. Mom was even able to get up and come to the Thankgiving table by wheel chair for about fifteen minutes in November.

All of this extra time was a series of blessings. In Mid-August Mom stopped eating and started sleeping most of the time. Her biological clock started winding down. We all started wondering, how much time do you have… Mom? How much time do we have? We all focused on visiting more, on getting her to eat when she was awake, and on offering her fluids to drink.

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Dad, Mom, me and my three brothers

Just before Mom’s birthday, in early October, I was up for a visit. I found a box of old style – Brown-Sugar-Cinnamon (Non-Frosted) Pop Tarts at the store. Well, I had fixed one of these Pop Tarts and boiled  a cup of tea for Mom every morning before school in the later 1960’s and much of the first half of the 1970’s. Inwardly, I smiled and brought a box home.

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The next morning Mom woke at a reasonable time. I asked her, Mom, would you like a Pop Tart? “What kind,” she asked. Brown-Sugar-Cinnamon (without the frosting), I replied.  She said “I haven’t had one of those in years!'” Would you like one?” I responded. “Sure,” she said. So I toasted one and brought it in for her with a cup of hot tea, with two ice cubes in it. An Angel helped her to eat and drink.

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Later my Dad shared privately, that it did not really have a the right type of calories for Mom.  He was of course right, but we all sort of knew we did not know how much time we had with Mom. She was resilient, but her biological clock continued to tick towards the end. Later on, Dad or one of the Angels gradually offered her the rest of the Pop Tarts. It was with mixed feelings that I saw the box of Pop Tarts was finally gone when I visited in early December.

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How much time do you have Mom? Back at the end of August, I was able to talk Mom into going for a swim in her backyard pool.  This after much resistance. She was weak but still able to get her swim suit on and walk out to the pool. “I don’t think I want to get in,” she demurred. Sure you do, I had already gotten in. “I think I’ll just watch,” she added. The water is a perfect temperature I responded. “I don’t know if I can get down the steps,” she deferred. I can help you, and I did. Mom eased into the pool, eventually her natural buoyancy took over and she was relaxed, floating on her back, she was Mom.

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Mom and her sister Joan

She loved her pool. She had taught most of her grandchildren how to swim during “Grammy Camp” during summers past. Her first job as a teenager was teaching children how to swim at a summer camp.  She taught her four boys how to swim, then later drove us to a pool for lessons and to the YMCA for swim meets. It was great being able to spend time with Mom in the pool. She was back in her element.

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The next time I came up to visit. Mom didn’t want to swim.  Thoughts of putting a bathing suit on were now beyond her. But Mom, I shared, I need someone to watch me. I can’t swim alone. Well, Mom, knew this well since she had instilled this precept in each of her children from an early age, never swim alone. So I went out to the pool. Mom followed up the stairs to the pool area and sat in a chair so that she could watch me.  I swam for a long time, often talking with Mom, and then even after my brother came out to visit, Mom stayed there watching over me. This, despite her propensity to sleep most of the day away and night away, she would not let me swim alone.

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During a visit in September, Mom lay propped up on the couch. I went through the 1996 photo album that she had curated. I showed her the pictures, she smiled a bit remembering when her oldest five grandchildren were little. My daughter was just a baby. There were lots of smiling faces as we visited with “Grammy” and “Pop Pop” (with Mom and Dad) at the pool, at the beach, at family gatherings, and during holidays, these often organized by Mom. I re-shot images of the photos in the album and reflected on the amazing memories my Mom had preserved, but also of the indelible memories and experiences that she had fostered.

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Though I continued to wonder how much time Mom would have, I was also very glad that she had so much time to share her love of her family. I realized that there were shelves full of memories, dozens of curated photo albums, and all those family pictures on the walls throughout her house. As a professional Personal Historian I had started recording Mom stories and Dad stories and Their stories back in 2012.  I have well over 100 hours of recorded memories and stories on audio tape. Mom had shared with me the queued response book that she had filled in – over 170 pages of handwritten responses to questions about her life. These, to complement the hours of recordings and the photo archives.

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This helped me to reflect, that though Mom was not able to respond to my questions now, she could now interview us – asking us what’s new, how are the kids doing in college, in jobs, in grad school, and in sports. She continued to be proud of us all. She had given us an amazing legacy of memories and a legacy of love and shared family experiences.

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Christmas to Mom was family time, we were playing a family game as Christmas came to a close. Other family members were back in Mom’s room as Christmas and the game came to a close. Just after Christmas ended, Mom was ready and she went home. She was at peace, we said our final goodbyes. Afterwards, I pictured her sitting in heaven with two of her lapdogs sitting on her lap watching over us.

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We do not know how much time we have… but thank you Mom for loving us and for investing in us your values and all of that quality time. The memories will last.

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Blog by Bruce Summers, Personal Historian, Summoose Tales, Summersbw@gmail.com

Bruce also is a Board Member of the Association of Personal Historians, also Regions and Chapters Director


See also

Mom Stories

also

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

and

Mother’s Day and Memories

 

How did you celebrate Christmas?

23 Dec

This has been one of my favorite questions for the past 50 years. I was chatting with a colleague at a holiday party after work recently. She said, I remember Bruce what you shared about your work as a Personal Historian? Yes, I explained, we record people’s life stories and help them to preserve and shared them with loved ones.

She then asked, you were telling me about how I could capture stories from my aunt. What questions should I ask her and how should I record it? I shared, “Well, first ask her about her earliest memories. To record, you can use the voice recording app on your smart phone, or buy a digital voice recorder.  These cost about $90 or so. You can download and save the recordings on your computer. So, when your aunt calls, you can receive the call on your iPad and then start recording. I shared several other sample questions, and then I shared one of my favorites – How did you celebrate Christmas?

As I shared earlier, I have used this one many, many times with personal history clients and with family members, some now long gone. The holidays or Christmas are a great time to share and record family memories.

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As I look across my living room I see my mother-in-law’s Christmas tree decorated with perhaps 100 ornaments that we have collected. Most have a special story – the pink one from Bermuda, the trolley from San Francisco, the round ornament with the great image of a bird we bought with my father-in-law at that birders’ shop on Cape Cod.

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The Christmas season is a great time admire an ornament and ask, “Is there a story behind that ornament?” Perhaps it is old, a child’s photo from an early Christmas or an ornament that has been passed down through the family for two or three generations.

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Some of the ornaments were presents from a lifelong friend. “Tell me about your friend, where did you meet?”

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While you are visiting friends during the holidays you may be offered cookies or other treats. “This tastes great, what is this cookie called? Do you have any special memories of making cookies with your mom? What did you make? What did it smell like?”

For me, music has always been part of my life. This is especially true during the Advent Season. As a teenager, I would go caroling with a group from my church. We would walk around New Freedom and stop and carol at the homes of shut-ins, people who could not easily get out to church. It was often cold, but it was joyous. Sometimes we just sang, received thanks, smiles and then we moved on.  Quite often though, we were invited in for cookies or a cup of cider or hot chocolate. We visited and warmed up a bit but had to move on, we still had quite a few stops and more carols to sing. “Do you have any special traditions that you and your friends did every year? Do you have a favorite Christmas carol?

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When I was growing up my grandmother lived nearby. My grandmother owned a farm going down the hill from her house. She lived in a regular house at the top of the hill, but there was a farm-house and a big barn down the farm lane. To the right of the barn, she, my dad and my uncles had planted a grove of pine trees to prevent a steep section of the hill from eroding.

One of my special memories was going down the hill with my dad and one or more of my brothers and picking out our Christmas tree from the pine grove. This was a big thrill.  My father still has the same saw, hanging in his shed, that we used to cut down those trees decades ago. I remember the fresh scent of the pine needles and the pine sap that would always get on our hands and our coats. We would help dad carry or drag the tree out of the wood to the car. We would also cut sprigs of pine boughs and holly that my mom would use to decorate our home. “How did you decorate your home for the holidays?”

We would go over to my grandmother’s house a week or two before Christmas and set up her Christmas tree, we got out her ornaments, the lights, perhaps some garlands and tinsel.

On Christmas Day, we would wake up early at our house. We would run down the stairs to get our stockings, they were hand-knitted by one of my aunts. We were allowed to open these early, before my parents were up and ready for breakfast. There always was a comic book or a classic comics book stuffed in the top of the stocking. Since I was one of four brothers, we would always read ours first and then trade them around.  This was a brilliant “delaying” tactic by my parents, to keep us quiet and engaged for a while so they could grab five more minutes of sleep, get a cup of coffee or tea, brush their teeth, and get a few special treats ready for Christmas breakfast. It also helped to distract us from those “other” presents piled around the tree. “What was it like when you woke up Christmas morning?”

We had a great time opening presents as a family, then later around eleven o’clock my parents would drop my three brothers and me off at my grandmother’s house. I suspect this was to allow mom time to prepare food for Christmas dinner and dad some time to clear away the debris from the unwrapping, hmmm… what did they do with those two hours while we were at grandmother’s? Perhaps this is a new question I need to ask my parents?

My grandmother would always have a few presents for us around her tree. Sometimes my aunt Mary would be up visiting with grandmother for the holidays, so she would be part of the celebrations. She liked to travel, so there might be a small gift, a toy from another country that we would enjoy throughout the day. After opening gifts, my grandmother served the best sandwiches, some type of tender melt-in-your-mouth beef on buttered bread with the crusts cut off.  I can still taste them. “Did you have other relatives and family living nearby? Did you celebrate together during the holidays?”

Later in day we would have a gathering of three families, our family, my dad’s brother’s family, my dad’s first cousin’s family and of course my grandmother and aunt Mary. We would rotate each year which family would host Christmas dinner. Each family would bring special dishes, the host family would provide turkey and dressing. The ten children would spend time together and the eight adults would gather, perhaps to share memories of Christmas’s past. This is when I wish I had my digital recorder back in the 1960s and 70s and perhaps a camera and a camcorder.

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The good news is that I have been actively recording the Christmas and holiday memories of my parents and my extended family in more recent years. Perhaps this season is a good time for you to ask your friends and loved ones, “How did you celebrate Christmas?”

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For us it is great to have our kids home from college and grad school. We did some shopping together, we saw a movie together, we catch up on each other’s news, retell stories from the past year, and chat about future plans – what’s next? My son played a few songs on the bassoon while I hummed a few Christmas carols. We will have a few upcoming holiday gatherings with friends and family… hmmm… I wonder when I need to put the ham in the oven tomorrow?
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I hope each of you similarly takes time to celebrate the holidays, to visit with friends and family, and to capture and share memories.

Happy Holidays and best wishes for a great new year.

Bruce Summers is a Personal Historian with Summoose Tales, summersbw@gmail.com. He is a board member and serves as the Regions and Chapters Director of the Association of Personal Historians

He rode off on his great aunt’s prize horse to pursue the Johnny Rebels

18 Nov

The following are excerpts from a family letter dated January 12, 1928 recounting a story shared by my great-grandmother Mary Rogers Thomas Summers.

Charles G. Summers, president 1865-1923

My (great-great grandfather), Charles Green Summers, spent his summers at a farm on “My Lady’s Manor” owned by his great-aunt in Harford County, Maryland. It was situated about seven miles from Monkton on the Northern Central Railroad and about thirty miles from Baltimore.  His love for the country was inborn as all of his ancestors were country-bred. He grew from boyhood to early manhood gaining vitality for his arduous work at his studies though the winter months.

When war clouds began to gather in the early (1860’s) he longed to join the men who were drilling and talking of “going south to aid in the impending struggle (the Civil War). (Charles) has often told of the boyish part he tried to take in this terrible struggle, though young and unfitted as were all of the boys of the South, who left Colleges and Universities, Farms and paid truly the greatest sacrifice.

Harry Gilmor, a name still revered in the South, was a Baltimore man who espoused the Southern Cause and his deeds of valor are told in song and story today. When the northern troops burned Governor Letcher’s home in Virginia, his ire flamed into the deeds of destruction and the air rang with the cry “Gilmore is on his way to Baltimore to burn the home of Governor Bradford” which is situated on Charles Street Avenue, a short way out of Baltimore. Mary Rogers Thomas related how, as a girl of sixteen, (I) sat up awaiting his coming, arrayed as if for a ball in (my) Southern RED and WHITE. Many other were ready to welcome the valiant hero’s coming, but older and wiser heads were alarmed at his nearness and his acts of retribution.  He burned bridges and the (railroad) cars on his approach to our city, leavening destruction in his wake along the Northern Central Railroad.  Soon Governor Bradford’s home was a mass of flames and their hearts began to quake as he neared the city.  But he did not molest us further, once his appointed task was completed, as he loved Baltimore, the city of his adoption.

(Charles, about age 17) on his great aunt’s prize horse, stole from the farm and pursued them, hoping to join the “Johnny Rebels” as they were called. But all pursuit was cut off by the wise raider Harry Gilmore, and (Charles) returned, a disappointed boy to the farm, where his father (Joseph Griffin Summers) ordered him “locked up in the meat house” until he could come out from the city and get him home again.

(Charles) came of fighting stock, though, and was forgiven, as his grandfather, Charles Bosley Green, when a boy of eighteen, joined the hurriedly assembled troops who rallied to the defense of Baltimore after (the British) General Ross had ordered the burning of the Capitol at Washington and was marching on Baltimore (War of 1812).

(Charles) great grandfather (Nathan Griffin) was a soldier in the “Smallwood Brigade” and followed Washington in the Battle of Long Island and afterwards in South Carolina until the close of the Revolutionary War.

Notes: By Bruce Summers, Personal Historian, Summoose Tales. I recently shared parts of this story with my father. He had never heard this story about how his great-grandfather had tried ride off and join Harry Gilmor and Southern Calvary during the Civil War. It was fascinating to learn first-hand from a family story about the split Southern and Northern sympathies of family members and their friends in and around Baltimore, MD during the Civil War.  I grew up just over the Pennsylvania line not too far from the sites of these Southern raids in Baltimore County.  The Northern Central Railroad that was attacked by the raiders ran through my home town of New Freedom, Pennsylvania.

See also:

What’s in your basement? Personal Historians want to know, but you might also be curious…

Summers One Hundred Years.

Thanks Dad – Happy Veteran’s Day

11 Nov

My dad, Tom Summers, served in the U.S. Army in Korea as an Infantry Officer on Heart Break Ridge during the Korean War.

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He shared with me and my brothers that he never had to fire his rifle at the enemy during his time on the front lines.

However, one night he could hear the enemy attacking one of the positions, an outpost ridge on the US/South Korean line a few hundred yards away. US/South Korean forces counter-attacked with artillery and more.

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He and others waited to see if their point in the line, if their part of the ridge would also be attacked.

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The enemy was turned back and never approached his section of the line.

The next day revealed that it had been a significant enemy attack in force. It also, revealed that one of my dad’s close friends, they had gone to YMCA Summer Camp together as youth, had been killed during the attack along with a squad filled with men that my dad had previously led on patrols.

It was their outpost at a point of the ridge that had been attacked.

I offer my thanks to my dad, to my brother, to my brother-in-law and to all of our Veterans on Veterans Day for your service to our country.

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Why I go to the Association for Personal Historians (APH) Conference

29 Aug

I love my work as a Personal Historian.  Every Friday I drive out to Carl’s house.  We work all day on a current or emerging chapter of his autobiography.  I read through and organize his reference files of letters, trip reports, and work checklists.  We talk through the outline for the next section of the chapter, I record his thoughts and listen to related stories. We discuss and relive particular incidents and anecdotes.  We chat about minor characters and major characters in his life story.

For online chapters I add links to places he has lived, visited or trekked to.  We review photo slides that may be included to bring his personal history to life.  I work at home on scanning and archiving his materials so they can be referenced in the autobiography as threaded links, also so that his descendants can explore his rich trove of family history.

I go to the Annual Association for Personal Historians Conference as part of my ongoing professional development. This year’s conference will be held in Fort Worth, TX from Oct. 23-27, 2016, (Program Highlights). Members from around the globe attend each year, like me they come…

To Learn – There are amazing workshops, plenary sessions, and fascinating keynote speakers each year.

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To Ask Questions – Some of these are specific to my current personal history projects. Some are a follow-up to a workshop that I just attended. Some are spontaneous topics that emerge as we talk.  APH members are extremely generous with their time and with sharing their expertise.

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To Network – Sometimes over coffee or during a group meal with new friends.

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To Be Inspired – We often go on a tour of the city we are visiting. We also have an interesting Public Facing Event and several thought provoking keynote speakers.

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To Kibitz – I have met and had meaningful conversations with well over 200 of my peers.  Sometimes I meet them in the hall, or talk with them before or after a workshop. I had great conversations during bus tours and during morning runs or walks.  APH members are very collaborative. We love sharing and discussing what works, what doesn’t and helping each other problem solve. I like meeting new members and talking with experienced members.

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I am looking forward to this year annual conference. It is my best opportunity to learn a new target set of tips and tricks of the trade that I can incorporate into my personal history work with clients like Carl.  The early bird deadline for Conference Registration is August 31, 2016.

Related:

Skills to “Actively Listen” and Record Family Stories during the Holidays?

How many reasons do you need – to write your life story?

This WordPress Blog is by Bruce Summers, Personal Historian Summoose Tales, summersbw@gmail.com. Bruce is a board member and Regions/Chapters Director of the Association of Personal Historians

Merry ChristMoose

30 Dec

Some clients and colleagues have asked me why I call my Personal History business “Summoose Tales”.

Well way back… one of my brothers decided that Bruce was a good rhyme with Moose. Then one by one, my family and friends decided that a really appropriate gift for me for my birthday and especially at Christmas would be a Moose especially a ChristMoose. And so, the family stories and tales about the various Moose gifts began…

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I woke up this Christmas morning and what did I see. A wide scattering of ChristMooses looking down the stairs at me.

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I entered our family room to see if Santa had come. Again more ChristMooses were guarding the stockings with care, and yes St. Nicholas had been there.

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I headed into the living room to look at our tree and found more ChristMooses had been on watch through the night, there were at least three.

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I looked over at our Manger on the near table and yes even there a ChristMoose had been on vigil through Christmas Eve night.

I smiled to myself and took a few photos to share with friends and family around the globe – I hope you had very happy holidays and I wish you all the very best in 2016.

PS. My daughter gave me a copy of, “If you Give a Moose a Muffin” for Christmas:)

Bruce Summers, Personal Historian, Summoose Tales, summersbw@gmail.com

See also Best Wishes for an intriguing 2015

Skills to “Actively Listen” and Record Family Stories during the Holidays?

5 Dec

I am currently reading and enjoying “Skills for Personal Historians 102 Savvy Ideas to Boost Your Expertise” by my all-time favorite, though now retired blogger Dan Curtis.

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Full disclosure, part of the reason I bought the book was to see how he referenced my story about “Joe and Helen“, page 186. I emailed this story to Dan in response to one of his blogs.

I have been browsing through the book, and yes there are “102 Savvy Ideas”. I recently re-read Dan’s first chapter on “Interviewing Basics”. Well, I am a pretty good interviewer.  I have been recording family stories, life stories, human interest, news stories, good practices and even lessons learned stories for over 30 years. But, Dan Curtis had a lot to share. Some of his savvy ideas I already knew.  Others, especially mistakes we learn along the way, brought out an inward smile… yep, been there, done that. Hopefully I have learned from these.  But, there were also some great new ideas that he had codified through experience and extensive study of his craft – both from interviewing and what I would term as “active listening”. These great new ideas, provoked reflection. In my mind’s eye, I kept visualizing on how I could better hone my craft.

The following are a few of Dan’s ideas from his book. These are followed by my reflections. For Dan’s specific content you should buy the book.

  1. The Secret to a Successful Life Story Interview
  2. Good Reasons to Ditch the Laptop and Handwritten Notes
  3. Are you Creating a Supportive Milieu for your Personal History Interviews?
  4. Action Steps to a Good Life Story Interview
  5. Have You Ever Found Yourself in This Embarrassing Situation?
  6. How to Get the Stories in a Life Story Interview
  7. Secrets to a Great Interview
  8. How to Boost Your Interviewing Skills
  9. What I’ve Learned about Getting “Truthful” Interviews
  10. Do You Make these Interviewing Mistakes?

This chapter has a ton of great content for those of us who serve as Professional Personal Historians. I think it also has great value for friends and family members who hopefully will make and a resolution to actively listen and record loved one’s stories during the holidays.

A few thoughts…

  1. Find where the voice recording app is on your Smart Phone, remember that you usually have this in your pocket when you see a friend, or loved one.  Schedule an hour to – actively listen, to this friend or loved one. Think about 2 or 3 key questions or stories you always wanted to ask, or a great story you have heard but no-one has recorded it. If practical, you may want to invest in a digital voice recorder that you can carry in your pocket or your pocket-book.  Test the voice recorder or the voice recording app ahead of time so you know how it starts, pauses, stops, save, etc. Find a quiet, comfortable place, sit down, start chatting, and then gradually shift to some of the questions you really want to ask and turn on the recorder.

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2. The nicest thing about a voice recorder or app is that you can put all your focus on actively listening to the story, making eye contact, nodding quietly, and smiling.  My eyebrows go up and my eyes smile when I am hearing a personal story.  By actively listening, smiling, and nodding I get to hear fascinating stories from my clients, friend and family members. You can do this too.

3. I love Dan’s word – Milieu. Make your narrator comfortable, put them at ease. I often interview my parents after breakfast, lunch or dinner.  I bring some treat from the Swiss Bakery to others.  A personal historian colleague told me the story of how she unplugs the noisy refrigerator or freezer and then puts her car keys in the freezer before the interview. Ok, I bit, why? So that she will always remember to turn the fridge back on before she leaves.  She turned it off so it wouldn’t rattle or gurgle during the interview.  It is harder to drive away, and leave the fridge turned off, if your car keys are still in the freezer. The down side is your keys are really cold when you get ready to leave.

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4. Prepare ahead of time, perhaps chat about potential questions for mom, with dad or Uncle Julio ahead of time. Text your daughter or your siblings to ask them what stories they really want to have recorded. Send an email to Great Aunt Sue to gather a bit of insider research before your interview. I usually write out a few outline notes ahead of time. I take a quick glance at these before I go out the door.  I think about the stories, or the chapter that we will work on today as I drive over the river and through the woods to my mom’s house, to Joe’s condo. and especially during that long drive early in the morning out to that remote county where my client lives.

5. It is a good idea also to have a checklist of what equipment needs to be charged ahead of time and what you need to carry with you in the car. Yes, I have left the house without my voice recorder and once found that my voice recorder was full when I was ready to start recording.

6. This is a great section in Dan’s narrative… “Is the story intriguing? Am I drawn in? Am I delighted…? If the answer is no, then gently redirect the interview”. Everybody has stories to share, actively listening, with periodic nods and an occasional redirection can make it an even better story.

10470171_790404754323810_1159196822803293323_o Jane Summers talks about her grandmother Lizzie, she made quilts for all nine grandchildren

7. Two lessons I have learned. If you are interviewing a couple, then chat with them for a while to determine whether you should interview them together or whether you should first interview them separately.  With my parents, it depends on the topic. Sometimes one will listen and nod while the other is talking, and then sometimes they can’t help themselves they have to jump in. This interrupts the flow of the story. I often find it helpful to interview one by themselves and then the other. However, if it is the right topic… “did he really propose?” Then it is  fascinating to hear and record each side of the story together.  I have also learned through doing family “Show and Tell” sessions that you can coordinate a great series of recorded interviews by designating one family member at a time to show a treasured object or photo while sharing their story with the group. These group sharing experiences can be powerful.

8. I love Dan’s examples here about staying on topic and not dwelling on trivial details. Encourage your narrator to build upon the flow of the story.  Sometimes surprisingly rich details will just flow out.  Also, you build up trust the more times you have interviewed someone.  You understand more of the context of the stories.  The narrator know you are eager to listen and to understand and out will come the story of an incident that they have not thought of for 70 years.

20141003_153503 - Tom Summers with three other Lieutenants in Korea about 1952

9. Their story is their story. I have been pleasantly surprised when a fact I thought I knew to be true about one family member, actually belonged to a different family member’s story.  I remembered clearly that my grandmother told me about the lights dimming in the gym when she was playing basketball. This meant they were electrocuting a prisoner on death row at Sing Sing Prison.  My mom corrected me, no… no, that was me when I was in college near Sing Sing. Another time, my client was sure that it was Susie… who got last at the World’s Fair, but a group of three over her children shared, oh, no… it was…!

10. Have I made the interview mistakes that Dan references… yes, these really caused me to reflect.  At one time or another I have made each of these mistakes.  The good news is that we learn from these. The other good news is that we get better and better at interviewing over time.  We learn when to let the interview flow, how to use nonverbal queues to encourage the narrator to continue, and how to actively listen so the story-teller can see we are engaged. They can see that we really want to hear the whole story.  We learn how and when to gently nudge or steer the conversation into a slightly different direction.  They see we are fighting not to laugh out loud, and sometime we just have to laugh with them. Sometimes I just have to saw Wow!

So wish me luck as I prepare to actively listen through the holiday season. I hope each of you will take time to share and record stories with family and friends during the holidays and during many other days throughout the year.

I wish each of you very Happy holidays filled with fun, fellowship and lots of good stories.

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Bruce Summers is a  Personal Historian with Summoose Tales, summersbw@gmail.com. He also serves as a Board Member and as Director – Chapters and Regions for the Association of Personal Historians

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