Each year many families lose a loved one to the incidences of age. No one is immune and that is out of anyone's control. But there is something that does not need to be lost; the person's life story.
Over the last decade the Sun Advocate has endeavored to tell life stories of seniors in the community on this very page. Yet we have barely touched the number of people who live here that are over 65 years of age. Unfortunately we cannot record everyone's story, but that makes their lifes tale no less important.
Ask many people about their parents and they will relate what they know from the time they were growing up, with a few snippets they have gathered from their parents' tales about what life was like before they were born. Some may know stories about their fathers' military endeavors or their mothers' college years. But most don't have a complete picture of what it was like for their parents before they came into the world.
The very fact that most people know so very little about their parents lives, usually doesn't strike them until they are gone. Then it is too late. No one, not a sister or brother, best friend or co-worker can tell the story of their lives like they could. Any history recorded after the fact will be a group of facts, with someone surmising their lives from a point of view that they cannot share.
So it is important that children, and other relatives gather stories about their older family members while it is still possible. These stories can be recorded either on audio or video equipment or can be written down.
The biggest obstacle one may face in doing this is getting the person to tell their story. Many people think they are so unimportant that they stories are of no interest to anyone. Yet, seldom there is a story that is not interesting. For family members they may be very important and interesting too. Sometimes they take some convincing or even a little trickery to get started. Here are some ideas.
Why it's important
Many people know nothing about their families' past. It is often amazing that people can't even tell you what country their ancestors immigrated from. For some, this kind of endeavor is unimportant. History to them should remain in the past. But, there are other reasons, beyond interest, to look into a senior's past. The foremost one is that seniors who get to tell their story feel some real worth in telling about their lives and what they did. Another is that it is good to have a personal history for others to see. In later years many people need personal care givers who are not part of the family. It never hurts for them to read a little about the person they are caring for, their interests and their past.
We are the only beings on this planet that have a recorded history. As smart as some animals are, their past is relegated to their recent memory and generations down the line have no recollection of anything past their mother or father. It is one of the things that makes us unique.
Family, work, vacation and military photos
Reluctance to talk with someone about their lives often comes from not knowing what to talk about. Photos are a good way to get started, and can be an informal way to get information without really pushing for a story line.
Try to start with the earliest photos you can find. Ask the person about who is in the photo, what they are doing, where it was taken, and what the events were leading up to the photo and what happened afterward. Always ask who took the photo too. What can't be seen is every bit as important as what can be seen in the picture.
You may be amazed where this line of questioning takes you. The people in the photo may not even include the person you are interviewing, but story lines will arise if they know about those people. You may find out that one of them was the persons best friend (or for that matter worst enemy). They may be coworkers at a job you had no idea the person had ever held. You may find it was on a trip to some exotic location which you had no idea ever took place. The list of possibilities goes on and on.
The best thing about using photos is it allows the person being interviewed to open up about other people even though initially they may not be as open about themselves. Usually their tale about the photo leads to them talking about themselves, their relationships to the people involved the times they were living in, etc.
Letters, documents, newspaper articles
Unlike photos, documents stand on their own in terms of a description. But the background of them is another story. A person can glean a great deal from a business letter about a situation or a personal letter from or to someone else. These can be used in two ways.
First one can use them like photos. The interviewer can say "Tell me about this letter" or "Why did you write this letter?" Usually a story will follow.
The second way is to ask about details that appear in the document. Things like "Who was Aunt Alda" or "You mentioned that you were in a town somewhere in Belgium during World War II. What was that like and what were you doing there?" Sometimes veterans are reluctant to talk about their time in the military, especially about the battles they were in. These kinds of questions can often lead to insights into the persons life.
Business letters or personal documents can be important too. A question might arise in a letter as to what the person actually did for the company they were working for. Or a receipt for the purchase of a car might lead to great stories about that vehicle and the people associated with it. A birth or baptism certificate can also lead to some good stories as well.
Places and things
Look for things or objects the person treasures. There is obviously a story behind what they feel for an object. It may be about a time or a person that is affiliated with the object. This can lead to great stories about their past.
If possible go to the place a person grew up at, a place where they spent a lot of their life or even just a place they talk about a lot. Of course if they go with you, the stories will flow. Otherwise if you go alone you may be able to get the flavor of it and ask some very good questions about it when you return.
Talk to others about the person
You can learn a great deal about a person by getting different points of view from others who have known them. Utilize other family members, friends, prior work associates and even their barber/hairdresser. You may want to include some comments from them, but more importantly, you can learn things about the person you never knew and later ask questions of them about events in their life and other things about their life.
Assembling it all
It may seem the interviewing and prying stories out of what may be a sometimes hesitant person is the hard part, but you have only just begun. Once you have everything you think you need to begin, the storys assembly takes place.
It would seem logical that the easiest to write someones personal history from is from their birth to the present. That keeps it in order, and makes things neat and tidy. However, seldom will anyone tell you their story in that way, nor will it be revealed by other sources in that way. Good stories come in spurts and drips.
The interesting stories of lives come in blocks, often disjointed and sometimes with various versions told within the same sitting with a person. Sometimes people get mixed up and include things in one story that should be with another.
There is also something you must do, that is often hard to do: filling in the gaps. Major events are usually remembered well, sometimes in an almost legendary way. On the other hand more minor ones have legends attached to them as well. That is because the exact truth has become a little lost, and thoughts and ideas have filled in the spaces that don't fit.
Often one can go back and reinterview the person to fill in the gaps and incongruities in a story. Remember when you do this, you are not questioning the persons reliability or truthfulness, but tell them you need clarification because you didn't understand what went on in the story. This almost always leads to more clarity. But on the other end, in some few cases, it can also lead to more murky waters.
To assemble a life story you need a plan. The typical story begins at birth, but a good writer of a persons story might start with a key event in the persons life and explain their lives from that point of view relating everything to that important time.
It is best to outline the chapters (segments if audio or video) if it is going to be of any length at all. Then go through manuscripts or recordings and put them into the various categories that fit the different chapters.
If you are writing a story transitions are important. A lot of that depends upon how you are putting it together. If it is chronological, then transitions are more important than if the highlights are the story.
A final draft or compilation
Once the story is done its time for the person who it is about to look at it. This is a good idea for global family peace. They may want to make changes or to change their stories about something once they see it on screen, hear it or read it. Even though you may have thought they meant something when you put it together, the clarity you have will be much less than theirs. After all they lived it.
Recording a loved ones life story is not without peril. Sometimes things will come out that you had no idea about. Or they may say something that will make another family member upset. Sometimes others in a family will dispute the story and what happened. Remember that you are writing the person you interviewees story, not someone elses.
Regardless, all the work is completely worth it. There is nothing more valuable than the record of a life lived. And despite the fact there will be those in the family that will have no interest in it, you will find just as many who treasure what you have done and will pass it on to other generations.