Tag Archives: oral history

Monday Moments: Choices

The doors we open and close each day decide the lives we live. ~ Flora Whittemore

One thought for this Monday moment — I saw interviews with individuals who escaped and survived, with first-responders who assisted, and with friends and family members who lost loved ones.

But one group of people I would be interested in hearing interviews from, and I know there have to be some out there, are those who, for one reason or another, made a choice the morning of 9/11 to do something different. Maybe even just one thing, maybe even something that wasn’t a choice but something that just happened that day, that took them away from their usual routine. Just enough that they typically would have been in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, or traveling on one of those planes, but ended up not doing their normal routine. And in so doing, they ended up somewhere other than where they would normally have been in those moments. They ended up surviving because of that choice, whatever and why-ever it was made. How did that change the way they look at life?

I think those interviews would be fascinating to hear.

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Making Memories

road sign for memory lane

We do not remember days; we remember moments. ~Cesare Pavese, The Burning Brand

The other day while eating lunch, a conversation at a neighboring table caught my attention. Several women were discussing memories, specifically the earliest memory that each of them could remember.  For three of the four women at the table, the answer centered on some event that happened around the age of three or four — a birthday party, an accident, and a family vacation.  The fourth woman, however, looked at the rest dubiously.  “Really?” she asked.  When questioned about her earliest memory, the listeners –her companions and those of us eavesdropping– were left amazed.  “Why, I remember, clear as a bell.  I was sitting in my crib, and this big shaft of sunlight came through the window.  I remember looking at my hand in the sun, feeling it get warm.”  We were open-mouthed stunned.  “Are you serious?   Your crib? How old were you?”  She couldn’t remember her age, but she clearly remembered the sunlight — seeing it, feeling it, enjoying it.  All of those sensations were right there at the tip of her mind.

Many studies agree with one done back in the early 1980s published in the Journal of Personality that the most common age for one’s earliest memory is between three and four. Studies since then have sharpened the focus — are there differences because of gender? Or culture? Following the events of September 11, 2001, new studies focused on what were termed “Flashbulb memories.” Although the idea was originally developed in the late 1970s, the number of studies increased in the aftermath of those moments of collective memory.

But there are also studies which tell a different story, which question the concept of memory itself. A study at NYU in 2000, for example, suggested that the very act of remembering changes the memory itself. The issue of memory and its relation to fact and fiction is a topic much covered in the literature concerning oral history. One of the leading scholars in the field of oral history and memory, Alessandro Portelli, wrote a book about how a village in Italy remembered a specific event – and how the village incorrectly remembered the event was more meaningful overall than the actual event itself. As he said in a 2005 address to the American Italian Historical Association, “In oral history, in fact, we do not simply reconstruct the history of an event but also the history of its memory, the ways in which it grows, changes, and operates in the time between then and now.” (Portelli, 24)

So do I really remember falling into the hard wooden corner of a window sill when I was three? Or do I remember my parents and siblings telling and retelling the story as I grew up, especially to explain the half-inch scar along the edge of my eyebrow? I know I remember taking my oldest brother to college, because that meant we also went to Disneyland. That, I remember well, but then again I was five at the time, too.

What do you think? How far back does your earliest memory go?

What about our characters? We often talk of their backstory, but do we give them memories?

[Note: This post is #13 of 26 of the April A-to-Z Challenge. Please see the button at the lower left of the page for more information.]

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Helpful Tips for Capturing Family Stories

Sulley asleep on the desk

My writing helper

When I sit down to write in the early mornings and late evenings, I have help. My fur-faced child (and yes, he is our one and only child) is my almost constant companion. You may remember him from the video I posted back in October, where you can hear his delicate snores (cough cough) as he slept on my arm between me and my keyboard.  This is how he looks most mornings.  Taking a sun bath via the lamp on my desk in the office where I write.  He’s not a real fan of early mornings.

He loves to help.  He helps me in the kitchen when I cook, willing to take care of spills or to make sure I walk in crooked lines around him while navigating between counter, stove and refrigerator.  He helps me sleep, making sure my feet are covered and warm all night long.  And he helps me read, always willing to lend a paw to hold a page in my current book open as he sits on my lap.

So in honor of lending a helping paw, I thought I’d offer some help for those who might be interested in working on family history during the upcoming spring and summer months.  This information was originally part of an article I wrote for our “Help for the Home” series, which focused on tips to gather and keep family and personal records.

Capturing Family Stories ~ Interviewing Your Relatives

Oral histories are a wonderful way to capture information about your family and to preserve stories for future generations.  However, many people are hesitant to interview a family member, or they draw a blank about the best way to accomplish the task.  Here are some tips to make the experience a pleasant one:

  • Have a plan The best interviews provide information not found in traditional sources or records.  Focus on a specific event or place; one person’s life history, occupation, or skills; ethnic cultures and customs; or other topics that are unique or at risk of disappearing.
  • Do your research Develop questions ahead of time, but be flexible, too.  Use your questions as a guide, but be aware that answers may lead you into other areas that you never thought to ask questions about.
  • Ask the right questions While the interview should include basic facts on who, where, and when, the best answers come from questions designed around why, how, and what.  For example, in addition to asking “When did you get married?” be sure to ask questions like “What was your wedding day like?”  These kinds of open-ended questions lead to thoughtful and personal answers that include feelings and motivations in addition to basic facts.
  • Etiquette counts Open the interview by stating the date, place, and the full names of the people involved.  Start with basic facts -name, birth date, parents- then ask something you know the person is comfortable talking about, such as a favorite story you’ve heard them tell in the past.  Save the harder, more reflective questions for later in the interview.  Also, be a good listener, but try not to interrupt the answer.  Instead, jot a note and ask follow-up questions.
  • Record the interview Voices and expressions tell more than words, so capturing your interviews on audio and/or video is important.  Choose the best method to produce good, clear recordings.  Be prepared with extra batteries, tapes or other storage devices, electrical/extension cords, microphones, and anything else your recording equipment might need.  Also, be sure to take a minute and test the equipment before you start.
  • Get comfortable Find a quiet area where there will be no interruptions.  Make sure everyone is comfortably settled and has water or something to drink available.  The interview should run no more than on or two hours at a time, as it is quite tiring for you and especially for the person you are interviewing.  Put them at ease – assure them there are no wrong answers, and that it’s okay not to answer questions they don’t want to answer.
  • Relax and have fun Bring out a photo album and have them talk about the pictures.  Listen to a favorite song or bring out a treasured object.  Have the kids contribute questions or help conduct part of the interview.  For that matter, interview the kids, too!
  • Get it in writing There are two important things to get in writing.  The first is an interview agreement form, even for family history projects.  Have the person sign the form, giving permission to interview.  This document is necessary if you plan to publish or distribute any part of the interview in any form.  If you plan to donate the items to a local historical society of archive, they will need those forms for their records.  Also, getting the information recorded is critical, but a good secondary step is to transcribe the interview in written form as well.  Again, this will be helpful if you plan to use or to donate the materials at a later time.  It also provides an additional copy of the materials should something happen to the audio or video recording.
  • Get creative So what can you do with all this new and wonderful information?  You can use the material to write family histories, caption photograph albums, create a family documentary, celebrate a birthday or anniversary, or whatever great and creative ideas you may have.

Hopefully these tips will help you capture a piece or two of your family history!

[Note: This post is #8 of 26 of the April A-to-Z Challenge. Please see the button at the lower left of the page for more information.]


Filed under April A-to-Z Challenge, Archives, History