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What’s in the basement? A train, a box of old letters, a mouse, family stories…?

25 Nov 1930's Lionel Train

By Bruce Summers, Personal Historian, Summoose Tales

HOC water glasses passed down through the family.
HOC Water Glasses

Thanksgiving is a few days away. On my checklist… Go down to the basement Wednesday night and bring up the large roasting pan for cooking the turkey. I may also need to take a few chairs downstairs or bring up a side-table. Our dining chairs, our dining table, our special occasion china, silver, serving bowls, and even our HOC water glasses have family stories attached. That roasting pan is too big for our kitchen. We only use it 2 or 3 times a year for special meals. Hmm… there may also be a special bottle of wine or two that need to come up from the basement.

Roasting pan lives in the basement
Turkey Roasting Pan

My Parent’s Basement

Around the holidays, I often pause to reflect – what’s in the basement. A few years ago, during the Thanksgiving weekend, my dad got out he old “O” Gauge Lionel train set, from the 1930’s, from its normal resting place on wooden shelves in his basement.

My dad's Lionel Train from late 1930s. Lives in his basement
O Gauge train with 40 years of dust

He spread out the cars on the covered pool table (wow that has memories too). There were several types of rail cars, passenger cars, a couple of engines, the power supply and the original boxes, (the Antique Road Show people would be impressed), and the instruction books. (Wow! I thought).

Trains and cars on a shelf waiting for their next adventure.
Model trains waiting for their next adventure

I took pictures of the trains, pictures of my dad with the trains and I turned on the voice recorder app. on my cell phone. (This is the important part of a journey of discovery to find what’s in the basement). Go with your dad, go with your mom, or… and capture the family stories… about the train… about the old belt sander… about your grandmother’s sewing basket… or that box of letters from the 1880’s from your great grandfather.

A box of 1880's land deeds and correspondence from my great grandfather.
Box of letters and land deeds from the 1880s.

There are so many stories in the basement, in the attic, in that old desk, in that old safe or in that file drawer. From my mom, before she died, I learned stories about the mice in the basement. She was deathly afraid of mice, but I eventually, when I was 55 years old, had to ask her why? See… There were two mice, different generations, two different houses, three hundred yards apart… and What’s in your basement? Personal Historians want to know, but you might also be curious…

Lloyd’s Basement

During my get-to-know-you interview with Lloyd, my first personal history client, he mentioned that there was a file drawer, full of family history “stuff”, in basement. I was immediately curious, (what’s in the basement). At the end of our interview, I asked whether I could go down into the basement to see what was there. (What’s in the basement, what’s in the drawer, I wondered). Lloyd said sure. I had already learned that at age 102 he was not allowed to go down the basement stairs, ever.

I went down the stairs and quickly found the specified drawer next to his desk. (This material looks great for research for our next interview, I thought). I was scanning through the material, but suddenly, I heard slow steps coming down the stairs. It was Lloyd, (I quickly reflected, I hope I don’t lose my client before we really get started with recording his life stories). He was just coming down to be helpful and kind, this was who he was his entire life. This despite the fact that he was not allowed to walk down those stairs.

High school journal recorded 1926-1929 in Clay County Minnesota
Lloyd’s High School Journal

In the file drawer I found Lloyd’s high school journal. I also found a family history report that Lloyd wrote during college. It included first person descriptions, that he got from his parents and grandparents, of characteristics, height, build, eye color and general dispositions of his ancestors, written in great detail, going back to the early 1800s. He noted what each ancestor died of, how long and where they lived. He also included a pedigree chart showing how they were related and where they lived in Norway, in Iowa, or in Minnesota. I also discovered a letter, that Lloyd did not remember, with his aunt’s account of Lloyd’s grandfather travelling up to Minnesota to help Lloyd’s father pick out land and to help him pay for his first farm. Lloyd had previously stated he did not know how his parent’s bought their farm.

100 years of family history and characteristics going back into the early 1800s.
Lloyd’s College Family History Report

As we walked back together to the stairs, I glanced around to see what else was in the basement. I saw bunk beds, boxes of books, Lloyd’s desk, more boxes, trunks (lots of potential stories were in these objects just waiting to be discovered.

Carl’s Basement

Family correspondence and family history files.
File drawers full of correspondence and family history

Then there was Carl. His office was his basement. There were five tables with five generations of Apple Computers each loaded with stories, essays, photos, music and memories. There were over 20 file drawers to explore. There was a paperweight. A flint ax head that I later learned was over 50,000-years-old. There were trunks with photo albums and materials from his father’s and his grandfather’s anthropology expeditions from the 1900’s, 1910’s, 1920’s, etc.

50,000-year-old knapped stone ax head.
50,000-year-old stone ax head

There were hundreds of yellow boxes of slides from Carl’s trips and treks around the globe for work and for pleasure. I worked with Carl for five years to capture his stories, helping him to write, edit, and illustrate his two-volume autobiography. We drew heavily from what was in the basement. We integrated the stories behind the objects, the photos, the correspondence, the trips, the treks, the music he had composed, and the essays he had written. His basement was a treasure trove.

Volume 2 of Carl's Autobiography
Carl’s Autobiography

Your Basement

The holidays are starting. What’s on your checklist? Is there an attic, an old desk, perhaps a shelf with your mother-in-law’s diaries, or maybe a stack of letters tied up with ribbon? Are you intrigued? What’s in the basement? Is there a list of names in that old family bible? Have you checked the bottom drawer of your grandmother’s desk to see if there are yellowed pages with family tree records.

My grandmother pulled a yellowed list with 10 generations of relatives out of the bottom drawer.
My grandmother’s desk

Have you asked your dad or your mom or your aunt… where do you keep grandfather’s old stamp collection… what was your favorite toy in your childhood… how did you celebrate Thanksgiving?

Remember to take your smart phone on that trip to visit family and friends. Turn on the voice recorder app and ask about or check out what’s in the basement. There likely are family stories to discover.

What did you find?

So, what’s in the basement, post a comment with what you find. I hope you have a great holiday season with lots of time to visit with family and friends. Hopefully you will also take a few hours to explore what’s in the basement and to share and record family stories.

Bruce Summers, Personal Historian and Basement Explorer – Summoose Tales, Summoose Tales Facebook Group,

Member: Life Story Professionals – of the Greater Washington Area. Former Regions and Chapters Director for the Association of Personal Historians

Counting more blessings and saying Thank You.

30 Nov

Let’s go hiking for a week in February… My wife, as usual, had a great idea. Normally we would try a couple of day hikes in February, on the weekends, and if the weather was mild.

Blessing #1: We would be hiking in Southern Arizona, I had never been there, and it is quite a bit farther south than Northern Virginia.

Blessing #2: This was our first hiking Trip hosted by REI, so we would be hiking with a group, with trained guides.

Blessing #3: They would help us with transport of our luggage and would provide lodging and food… on the trail or otherwise.

Blessing #4: Another couple, two of our good friends, would also be taking the same hike with us:)

Blessing #5: One of my wife’s cousins lived just north of Phoenix and we could stay overnight with them on two separate nights; first between adventures, and then just before we flew home.

Blessing #6: We were going to be able to get in a couple of days of bonus hiking in Sedona, AZ.  We had driven there once, the landscape is spectacular, and we were looking forward to exploring the region around Sedona for a few days.

Mixed Blessing #1: we had to get up really, really early for our flight to Phoenix. But, we had gotten up early before, and it meant we would have more time to visit the old town in Scottsdale, AZ. We were overnighting there and meeting up with our REI Group the next day.



Mixed Blessing #2: Though the weather was temperate, we noticed large gobs of people all heading to some type of stadium. We asked a stranger on the street, where’s everyone going? It’s Opening Day of Spring Training for the Cactus League he said. We took a quick walk around Old Town to spot a potential restaurant for dinner, but then we were each bitten, or at least I was bitten, by the spontaneous bug. We saw a man standing along the street trying to sell a pair of “great” tickets to the Opening Day game. “It’s sold out,” he said, he may have mentioned that his wife was ill also.  It may have been a story, but we felt we could afford a pair of tickets and decided to head to the Park to watch a bit of Professional Baseball Spring Training.

Blessing #7: Even though it was not sold out, the crowd was large, for that size stadium, and in a great mood. We sat, down the first base line, a bit into right field. We had a great view.

Blessing #8: Yes they did have hot dogs, no it wasn’t Southwestern food, but it went down easy with a bit of mustard and sauerkraut along with a nice cold bottle of water.

Blessing #9: We saw a couple of home runs, some decent pitching, some decent hitting and fielding, and a few errors of course. It was a hoot.

Blessing #10: We had a yummy Southwestern dinner with our friends. We live in the same area, but we had not seen each other very recently to catch up on the news. It was a great shared evening.


Blessing #11: We hit the lottery with our tour guides.  One was rated the #1 or 2 guide in the whole system. The other would have been a #1 guide on any other trip.

Blessing #12: It had rained recently in Southern AZ and the Saguaro Cactus were magnificently tall, plump, and everywhere.


Blessing #13: You never know how a week-long hike in higher altitude, in a desert, and during winter will go. Will we be fit enough, we wondered.  How will we shake down with the rest of group. Despite a small miss-adventure crossing the 3rd of 12 streams; we both did great with the hiking as did our friends.  About half of our group stayed back at the 2/3rds point of the hike and then the rest of us, “the rabbits”, I reflected charged off at an enhanced pace to reach the destination waterfall.


Blessing #14: The hiking was a bit more challenging, but the view of the waterfall and the catchment pools, and the ducks swimming in the lower pool was magnificent.

Blessing #15: We stayed overnight in a downtown Tucson Hotel. We had a superb southwestern dinner, slept well, geared up, and had breakfast in an old western bar. We then headed out for another great day of hiking, then lunch and visited a great park filled with southwestern Flora Fauna.


Blessing #16: We learned a lot about Saguaro and other Cacti during the trip, we saw animals, scat, climbed mountain ridges, and saw spectacular views across wide vistas.


Blessing #17: We had another restful night. Then an early morning departure, a tour of a large, now defunct pit mine, a talk with a local Native American Guide, a nice long hike, and then lunch in the park at picnic tables.


Mixed Blessing #3: A highlight was our visit to the border fence between Arizona and Mexico. We were surprised to learn that the high fence disappears after going east for a mile or so.  The conditions are arid and dry, not forgiving. Twice during the next day and a half I spotted black painted jugs. These are usually filled with water for the hundreds of people who  attempt to cross this desert border each year.


Blessing # 18 and 19: We drove up a high ridge to take in an amazing view of setting sun looking across multiple mountain ridges and ranges. Then we ate a scrumptious picnic supper outside. A special opportunity was an open discussion with a Border Patrol Agent who answered our questions and discussed the challenges, for Border Patrol Agents, to both help people survive who crossed the border to escape bad conditions and sometime threats to their lives, while at the same time trying to discover, and thwart, bad actors who tried to smuggle drugs and even children to become slaves or worse across the border.  I had the pleasure of riding down the high ridge with him back to our lodging for the night. It was a blessing to talk with him and to learn more about the nuances of protecting our border that are experienced by individual agents.


Blessing #20: After one more great hike, and a picnic in the rough, we head back to Phoenix. We rented a car, fought through an hour of congested traffic, and then arrived at my cousin-in-law’s home. We had not met her husband. He was a gem. Even better, he was a rock hound, and around his home he had grapefruit and other citrus trees and…

Interim count: Needless to say we got to 20 Blessings and 3 Mixed Blessings and we had not even started our excursion to Sedona yet. We highly recommend a week of walking in the Winter and we are very thankful for our health and opportunities to walk, hike and explore.  We hope everyone has a great Holiday Season and that you take a few moments to count your blessings.


Bruce Summers is a Personal Historian at Summoose Tales,

He served as a global board member and director, regions and chapters for the Association of Personal Historians Bruce is a founding member of the Life Story Professionals of Greater Washington Area

See Also

Counting blessings and saying Thank you.

Counting blessings and saying Thank you.

18 Nov

It snowed Thursday. I needed to be at work downtown in Washington, D.C. early, but not too early.  I was co-facilitating a training class at 9:30 am.

Blessing # 1: As promised it had snowed overnight and it was still snowing. But it wasn’t too bad, the World Bank Group was open and cars were moving on the roads.

Blessing # 2: My driveway is built on a hill, so it was pretty easy to push 3/4 inch of snow down and away off the driveway. Though, it was a bit disconcerting that the snow was replacing itself almost as fast as I was scraping it off.

Blessing # 3: When I started sliding in my work-shoes, I could quickly transition into the snow boots I had already placed in the car for just such an eventuality.  “Be Prepared” I had learned as a Boy Scout.

Blessing # 4: I could quickly clear the snow off of my car with a broom. I think I learned this trick from a story about Chinese workers in Beijing being able to clear the sidewalks and roads with brooms, vs. snow plows.

Blessing # 5: I got on the roads and they were not too bad, people were driving a bit slower and cautiously, just right for travel in light snow. I turned right, then right again, and then left onto Prosperity.

Mixed Blessing 1: Traffic was starting to stack up at the first big hill down on Prosperity.  I saw a half-dozen cars turn around, some took an alternate route but it also had steep downs and steep ups. I decided to try my chances on Prosperity’s hills.

Blessing # 6: We slowly approached the congested section of the big down hill. After pauses and appropriate waiting, and timing when each up hill bound car would start its ascent,  we each slowly worked our way cautiously downhill. So far so good.

Mixed Blessing 2: The somewhat level part worked fine, then we started to stack up by the park. A couple of cars pulled into the park to wait it out. Ahead of us, up the hill, we could see two or three cars turned a bit askew.  They had tried unsuccessful tactics in climbing the big hill and were stuck slightly sideways blocking both the cars going down, and the cars like mine, that needed to go up. I duly queued up to wait my chance about 5 cars back.

Blessing # 7: I saw a woman from the second car, she was wearing a red coat, she got out and started walking up the hill to help.

Blessing # 8: I saw a second woman from the first car get out. She started walking up the hill to help the first.

Blessing # 9 and 10: Another man and I came to our senses and got out of our cars to walk up the hill to help the two woman push the stuck car.

Blessing # 11: A third man join us. The hill was steep, but with five of us pushing we gradually eased the upper most stuck car up about 75 to 100 feet and it had enough traction to keep going over the summit.

Blessing # 12 and 13: We walked down to stuck car # 2 and repeated the random act of kindness (RaOK), pushing the car up the hill until it could get traction. We walked down and repeated the RaOK with stuck car # 3. Then we all hurried back down to our cars since the hill was now clear.

Blessing # 14: the first car in the queue, with one of the pushers. Calmly and successfully scaled the hill no problem. The second car in the queue was also successful.

Mixed Blessing # 3: The third car got about half way up and got stuck. the fourth car in the queue, the one just in front of mine had to stop 1/4th of the way up. Then the man got out to push the third car.

Blessing # 15: Knowing one pusher likely would not work. I got out and ran up the hill, acknowledging blessing # 3 again and the two of us got the third car moving again.

Blessing # 16 and 17: The man in the fourth queued got a good start in his SUV and cleared the hill. So now it was my turn. I remembered to drive a snowy hill in lower gear.  I think I learned this from my Dad about 45 years prior. I started moving and kept moving at a slow but steady pace and easily cleared the hill, hopefully opening the path for 30 or more other cars that were queued up to go up or down the Prosperity hill.

Blessing # 18: I had no problems the rest of the way. The Metro (Subway) worked fine.  I realized that even with the hour lost pushing the cars up the hill, I would only arrive five minutes late for the start of the class.

Blessing # 19: I emailed my co-facilitator. She had negotiated her way into the World Bank Group by bicycle; a minor miracle I thought, this so she would not have to depend on the Metro buses, which are notoriously slow in snowy weather. I estimated I would be 5 minutes late for the start of the class.

Blessing # 20: The session started on time, with a recap quiz from last week’s session. My colleague was well prepared to carry on.  I was only four minutes late and we had a great session.

Final score: 20 Blessings, 3 Mixed Blessings, 4 cars pushed up the hill, a few RaOKs, I showed that I was prepared for life’s eventualities and I had done my good turn for the day. I was not the first to get out of my car to help, but I was one of only five that did get out to help our neighbors.

For all these blessings and for the lessons I learned in Scouting and from my father and my mother, I am truly thankful. I also remembered afterwards, that I had watched my son and three Boy Scout friends push 3 or 4 cars up a snowy hill in West Virginia about ten years ago, that was also a blessed memory.

I hope each of you has an opportunity to count your blessing, to do a good turn, and perhaps and RaOK this week.  Have a great Thanksgiving Holiday. To my four fellow pushers,  thank you for being good neighbors and for inspiring me to do my part.


Bruce Summers is a Personal Historian with Summoose Tales. He is a member of the Life Story Professionals of the Greater Washington Area, and a former global board member and director of regions and chapters of the Association of Personal Historians. Everyone has Life Stories to share. Learn how – 

See also:

What does Thanksgiving mean?

Thanksgiving – Show and Tell

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

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

What does Thanksgiving mean?

24 Nov


  • Over the river and through the woods
  • Or staying home
  • A time to record a new chapter of family stories



Recording a new chapter for Thanksgiving? Hmm…








Being there…

  • Wake up early
  • Help in the kitchen
  • Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
  • Record a new chapter of stories – interview a loved one or a friend
  • The annual family chore
  • Polishing… the wood, the silver, and the plates
  • Favorite dishes
  • Setting the table
  • Share what you are thankful for… more stories

20141117_134936 End Dust










Active Listening…

  • Share a story… what’s new, what do you remember…
  • Listen to a story…
  • Ask a question… what was Thanksgiving like…; did you ever attend the Macy’s parade in New York…?
  • Be prepared to…Turn on the voice recorder
  • Record a new chapter…
  • Follow-up during quiet time after the meal or the next day… Ask another question… take a photo…
  • Explore what’s in the basement… Where did you get that…?

IMG_4027 Aunt Anna's Painting


  • Family
  • Something new
  • Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade… did you watch it when you were little…?
  • Hospitality… say thank you… take a picture or a video…
  • Record a new chapter?

20140712_110659 Tom and Dwight Summers - NF Mural

Whether you are celebrating old traditions, doing something new and different, far from home, or with friends and family, I hope you will take the time to record a new chapter, a few new stories, or a few old stories. You will be glad you did.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Bruce Summers, Personal History, Summoose Tales,

Board Member Association of Personal Historians, Director of Regions and Chapters

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