Summer Stories …

For many people, hot summer days often mean traveling with — and to — family. With the kids out of school, summer provides an opportunity for extended visits to grandparents, cousins, or other relatives, and even a chance to send the kids by themselves for an extended stay with family.

I remember many summer days sitting on the floor near my grandmother’s feet, my brother on the floor on her other side, as she crocheted pastel colored yarns into doilies, tablecloths or blankets. We patiently watched television game shows with her and waited for her to set down her needlework, stab out the end of her cigarette that sat smoldering in the ashtray on her side table, and pick up that light blue roll of Lifesaver peppermints and offer one to each of us. And then she would give in to our pleas to tell us stories. Often she told the tale about “The Little Girl and the Big Dipper,” a story that often made me imagine my grandmother as a little girl, making her way barefoot along the sharp stones of a riverbed, carrying her tin dipper to collect more water for her sick mother …

… How did that story go? I can’t recall exactly. How I wish I could.

I know my two older sisters heard the story too when they were young. But years later they couldn’t remember just how she told it. All four of us would often recall grandma’s expertise in keeping us riveted to a narrative we had heard countless times before. But none of us wrote down her stories and for years after she passed away – in 1987 – we lamented that we never took the time to do so.

If my grandmother was alive today, I would grab my audio recorder, encourage my brother to grab his video camera, and we’d record that story in every way we could to ensure it could be passed down to subsequent generations just as she told it. And we’d record – in writing, audio and/or video – all her other stories about childhood, family, the Pomona fair in California, and more. But we can’t. She took all those stories with her. She took her knowledge about the family’s history, which my cousins and I have spent countless hours, weeks, months trying to recreate in some form.

Several decades after she passed, I had the chance to capture stories of other relatives — this time on my father’s side. A cousin and I decided to visit a great aunt who had spent years doing genealogy research on the family, collecting photos and key documents along the way. We decided to combine a visit to her home in Utah with a first-time visit to a very distant cousin who lived in Arizona. They both were nearing 90, so my cousin and I knew we shouldn’t just talk about doing the trip but actually do it.

My 13-year-old son didn’t have plans during the week of the planned trip, and would otherwise be home alone during the day while my husband worked and his sister was off at camp. I considered taking him along, but worried the first thrill of taking a trip across the country could quickly dissolve into boredom from listening to adults talk. So I offered him the task of videotaping his own interviews with each of the two family members we were visiting. We hadn’t intended to bring video equipment, but why not? (And to ensure the interviews were completed, I did some research and found that the Boy Scouts – in which my son was heavily involved – offered a genealogy badge. Yeah, it didn’t quite compare to the cycling badge, but he went for it.)

He dutifully looked up the requirements for the badge, which included the option of the interview and provided a LONG list of suggested questions. With years of experience in interviewing, I knew that just reciting each of those questions wasn’t going to elicit the most informative interview. I sat down to talk to him about interviewing, but saw immediately that was only going to lead to squirming and annoyance. So I offered one suggestion: “Have a conversation and have fun. However you decide to do this, it will be great,” I told him.

And it was. My great aunt, very concerned with her appearance and the importance of highlighting the successes of certain individuals of the family or the potentially bestselling stories of family history, chose what she would and wouldn’t answer. When my son asked her repeatedly to tell him about her siblings, she claimed she didn’t remember anything, then finally said, “Well, they weren’t very interesting. Now my husband, he’s interesting. He was in West Point …” and off she went.

At one point, I crossed by the room where the interview was taking place and observed her telling Jack she would prefer that he move the camera to her other side, as “that’s my better side.” Then she looked up at me, “Is this going to be edited?”

“Oh, yes,” I assured her.

It wasn’t. She passed away a few years later. Visiting for the memorial service, I told her sons about the video interview and they said they wanted to see it. Luckily, I had it on my computer. I warned them she told us nothing of consequence regarding family history. And I worried how they might feel seeing her on the screen. But we started it, and as the interview rolled, the room filled with laughter. “That’s her! That is her exactly!” they exclaimed. And I realized that was her — vanity and all. My son had captured the essence of their mother (his great great aunt) on video.

A few days later, during the interview with our distant cousin Bob (the connection was that his grandfather and my great grandfather were brothers), Bob delighted in talking to my son about his experience in the Navy during World War II, and patiently and openly answered questions about how he felt about the U.S. dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. That cousin –- with whom we instantly bonded as soon as we met — passed away a couple years ago. I treasure that interview, as well as the stories I recorded on audio with him and the notes I took during our extended conversations with him and his sisters about our family.

The trip reminded me of the importance of recording stories and interviews, but it also taught me that it’s important to connect the youngest generations with the eldest through storytelling – and the recording of such stories. My son’s involvement in the trip added tremendously to the project.

So when the kids — or you — are off visiting family this summer, sharing and listening to stories, don’t forget to record them in some way — in writing or by audio or video. And encourage everyone to get involved and get their questions answered.

A few tips before you proceed:

  • Let the child (or each individual family member, whoever they are) take charge of the interview. Don’t overwhelm them with instructions. But do encourage them to get more than names, dates and places. Push for the “whys” and the “hows” — which may be more natural questions for a child to ask anyway.
  • Encourage the child to listen.
  • Consider sending along pictures or mementos — or details about mementos — to elicit memories and stories from a grandparent or other elder.
  • If interviewing two grandparents, or an aunt and uncle, say, consider having each of them interviewed together and then separately.
  • Consider joint interviews (or discussions, really) with multiple family members. Family interactions can make for great recordings.
  • Remember, it may not be the details of the information gathered, but the personality that is captured.

Suggested equipment to send or take along:

  • A reliable video camera or digital audio recorder (or both)
  • Lapel microphone (though it’s not necessary, it allows for higher audio quality);
  • An extra set of batteries, or battery charger, for both.

More items that would be useful on a big trip to collect information:

  • A notebook to write down notes of stories and conversations.
  • Portable scanner (for family photos, particularly).
  • A camera — even the phone camera can be good. Ideally have someone take candid photos during the discussion, as well as photos of different parts of a family home, for instance.

The most important advice I can offer: Tell family members to be ready to record an interview at any time. Often the best stories are told AFTER the video recorder is turned off, most likely because something someone said sparked a memory. An audio recorder close at hand can enable that story to be captured quickly. (During our visit with my great aunt, my great uncle — the West Pointer who really has had a fascinating life — suddenly, in the middle of a casual conversation, started recounting in detail his observance of the testing of the atomic bomb. One of my cousins dove for his video camera and scrambled to pull my audio recorder out of my purse.)

Chances are, just one interview is going to get the grandparents excited about the project, and ready to share much more.

Have a good story to share — or want to listen to some samples? Check out resoures like Story Corps (this site is also useful for interviewing and recording tips), The Legacy Project, or Instructables: Record Your Family’s Oral History Before It Dies.

And, of course, if you want more help to draw out those stories and weave them into a complete narrative, contact me at christina@bylyons.com.

-Christina L. Lyons

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