Seniors record stories to preserve personal history

With notebooks, tape recorders, and video cameras, families are coaxing a lifetime of memories from beloved relatives.

Mary Knox Merrill – Staff
Looking back: Hedrick Ellis has encouraged his mother, Elizabeth Blanchard, who has seven children, 14 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren, to record her memories.
Mary Knox Merrill – Staff
Family photos have helped Elizabeth Blanchard recall events.

Like most people, Hedrick Ellis grew up listening to his parents and grandparents tell family stories. As a teenager, he often tuned them out. But this year, eager to keep those memories alive, he hired a personal historian to interview his father and mother.

"You hear these stories over the years, but nobody ever really gets around to writing them down," says Mr. Ellis of Arling­ton, Mass. "This seemed like an easy and practical way of capturing them."

In this age of the memoir, not all fascinating lives belong to notable individuals. Across the country, people like Ellis form a growing cottage industry of amateurs and professionals eager to preserve the experiences of older generations. Armed with notebooks, tape recorders, and video cameras, they are coaxing a lifetime of memories from beloved relatives.

"We're seeing an increase both in the number of people who want to do personal historian work and an increase in the number of elders who want to be sure their stories are handed down," says Paula Stahel, president of the Association of Personal Historians.

She attributes much of the interest to changing family structures. In the past, she says, "We'd see our aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins regularly.... Today's retirees pick up and move someplace else, or their children take jobs in distant cities, so we don't have the experience of living the stories together."

Some families hire a professional who is skilled in asking questions and shaping responses into a cohesive narrative. Others take a do-it-yourself approach.

"It's always a baby boomer who has children and aging parents," says David O'Neil, a personal historian in Newton, Mass. "They look at their parents and their children and wonder, 'What are my children going to remember about my own parents, and how do I capture and preserve their life stories?' As the World War II generation is passing away, there are a lot of efforts to record their stories."

Many people don't think they have stories to tell. One reluctant husband told O'Neil, "We'll be done in 10 minutes." An hour and a half later, he was still talking. Some women say, "All I've done is raise children." Mr. O'Neil challenges that modesty, calling these storytellers "ordinary people with extraordinary lives."

In addition to audio and video formats, people preserve memories in books, ranging from simple bindings to customized leather editions. Others use the Internet, answering questions online to create an "instant autobiographical book."

Prices for professional services vary widely. Four hours of audio interviews can start at $500, O'Neil says. Transcription into a book with photos can cost more than $5,000.

Some families use a team approach. Last year Scott Tims of Dallas and his family interviewed his 94-year-old maternal grandmother on video. Before they began, he created an outline of topics and questions to ask. He was careful to avoid sensitive subjects. "The challenge was keeping the interview on track, not allowing my family members to get us off on a tangent or tell her stories for her," he says. "Everyone learned interesting things about Nanny."

Dennis Stack, founder of Project StoryKeeper (, makes a case for one-on-one interviews. He hopes to train 100,000 volunteers to capture the stories of older generations. Using outsiders as interviewers offers a new audience, whereas family members are likely to say, "I don't need to hear that story; I already know it."

Donna Gold of Stock­ton Springs, Maine, discovered family stories she had never heard when she traveled to California to record her great-aunt's memories of pogroms in Ukraine and the family's journey to the United States.

"It has meant everything to me – I had no history before," Ms. Gold says. "My grandparents, all immigrants, seldom talked about their lives in Eastern Europe or their families." She has also recorded the stories of her father, her mother-in-law, and clients who hire her.

"As the people I've interviewed age, these [interviews] become essential records of the vibrancy of their lives," Gold says. She prefers written formats: "A book can be held, browsed, cherished. A camera can get intrusive, whereas a tape recorder easily gets forgotten in the throes of the story."

Amy Yelin of Arlington, Mass., spent months recording her father's experiences, which included fleeing from Poland to escape Nazis. "When I finally asked him to share his story, I thought he would get angry or sad, but he seemed to really want to talk about it," she says. "It opened up something for him, as he continues to tell the stories. It was a wonderful experience. It brought us closer, and now I have all this history documented for my own two sons to read one day."

Natalie Caine of Los Angeles is taping interviews with her mother on everything from dating and marriage to spirituality. She keeps a small notebook in her purse to write down questions.

Some families take unconventional approaches. Robin Blakely of Kansas City, Mo., made a music-video DVD, showing her 87-year-old mother doing two things she loves: sewing and gardening. "It's keepsake cool," Ms. Blakely says. She plans to record her mother's "Grapes of Wrath" days, when the family moved from Oklahoma to California during the Dust Bowl. Despite widespread "grim and gritty" portrayals of those times, Blakely says her mother "recalls the experience as a joyful adventure, with lots of camp songs she can still sing." 

To encourage people to document their lives for future generations, Joan Day of Concord, N.H., speaks at senior centers and assisted-living facilities. She suggests starting by jotting down memories as they occur, perhaps breaking them into categories: life as a child, your childhood home, your first mode of transportation, entertainment, holiday celebrations, and religious observances.

Mr. Stack of Project StoryKeeper calls procrastination "the biggest stumbler." Making a case for not waiting, he explains that collecting stories helps people understand the path their life has taken and the lives they have touched.

"Once people get over their initial anxiety about being interviewed, it becomes very comfortable," Stack says. "The more they tell their stories, the easier the stories become to tell, and they tell them better – more eloquently."

Gold offers this advice: "I urge people to simply turn on a tape recorder and ask questions. They will never regret it."

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Dennis Stack, founder of the StoryKeeper Project, offers these tips for interviewing:

• Keep the process simple. The best stories come out when people are comfortable.
• Know your equipment. Regardless of the type of device you use, know how it works. If you aren’t fumbling with the equipment, storytellers will forget they are being recorded and just be themselves.
• Not everyone wants to be on camera. Many storytellers feel uncomfortable in front of a camera.
• Really good stories cannot be told to a wall. Storytellers need to see, hear, and feel the reaction to their stories.
• When recording stories, keep it one on one. Too many people in the room can cramp the storyteller’s style and can make recording difficult because of “cross-talk” and “overtalk,” which end up as garble on the recording.
• Keep interview segments to 30 to 45 minutes. It’s much better to have several short sessions than a couple marathons. The time between the interviews (one or two days at most) is important to the process, allowing the storyteller to reminisce more deeply. Each successive session becomes more engaging.
• Don’t ask the deep-meaning questions too soon. If you let the stories develop and unfold, the storyteller’s ability to explain nuanced values and wisdom will come naturally.
• Keep the stories short. It’s easier to manage smaller audio files, so be ready to stop and start the recorder to mark each segment. Stories can even have chapters, which reduces the time of each recording. Try to keep stories under five minutes each.
– Marilyn Gardner

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