Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Collecting life histories: Asking simple questions can get Olympic-sized results

"Collecting family stories not only benefits the senior-storyteller, but can add to the richness of their relationship with their family members and caregivers," said Emily Newman of the Orlando Senior Help Desk.

I am living proof of the previous statement, as it took me almost 50 years to uncover an Olympic-sized story that brought my late maternal grandfather to life.

As my Grandfather Irving passed before I was born, I never developed concrete images of who he was during his lifetime. I knew that he and my mother were close, and that despite being a lawyer, he "sold shirts for a living." With everyone growing older, I realized there was no time like the present to learn about the past.

Collecting life stories can be as easy as asking a few simple questions. Recording these stories so they can be passed on can be done in a variety of ways. As a former writing teacher, I often recommend the use of a voice recorder. When spending time with a senior relative or friend, ask a simple question like, "Tell me about an experience during the Great Depression." Then, just let the senior talk as the voice recorder collects the history.

Afterwards, play back the recording and transcribe their story. Now, you have a first chapter of living history in the senior's own words! Ask a child or grand-child to help with the typing process to deepen the family connection.

Nancy Bland of TenderCare, a Winter Park home care service, notes that collecting life stories can strengthen bonds beyond family members. She encourages caregivers to ask their senior clients questions about their life histories. Bland comments, "Seniors have so much to share, and learning about what they have experienced can help caregivers anticipate and understand their current needs. In most cases the client opens right up, and has a lot to say."

In my own case, I was having lunch with my mother and sister, when my sister asked, "Tell us something we don't know about your childhood."

My mother went on to share a few new stories about her father. I learned that earlier in his life, my grandfather owned a community newspaper (which was an "aha moment" for me as a writer). More interesting to you is what she next shared.

My mom commented, "When I was about eight years old, Jesse Owens (yes, the Olympic gold medalist and American hero), came over for dinner. Though the meal took place almost 70 years ago, my mom still remembered Mr. Owens' kindness. She explained my grandfather had worked for a Chicago department store, and that Jesse Owens was one of their spokesmen.

When I got home, I "Googled" the now-defunct store name, and there was Jesse Owens featured in an ad. Additionally, I discovered the storeowner had a history of philanthropy, and was a donor to many local causes. I searched my grandfather's job history and found a photo of him as store manager, accepting an award from the Urban League on behalf of the company. The picture was for sale for $9 from an historic image site. On a whim, I bought it.

I had been expecting a copy, but when the envelope arrived, a somewhat bent but original photo from 1955, (with the original clipping from the Chicago Sun-Times attached to the back) was enclosed.

At least 30 years had passed since I had seen a picture of my grandfather, but suddenly there he was, looking very real to me... As I took in the photo of my bespectacled grandfather, memories of earlier photos and stories shared by my mother came back to mind.

So, get started collecting family stories by asking the first question, you never know what kind of images you'll get in return.

Tidbits from the Sandwich Generation is a series of blogs by Pamela Ruben, Jewish Pavilion Marketing Director, about managing the multi-generations. Check out additional posts at http://www.jewishpavilion.org/blog.  For no cost help for issues pertaining to older adults contact the Orlando Senior Help Desk, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, at 407-678-9363 or visit http://www.orlandoseniorhelpdesk.org.


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