Sunday, August 30, 2009

More Chance Encounters

In earlier posts, I commented about how chance encounters have affected my life and the lives of others. I had two random encounters earlier in the week that I'd like to think may influence their actions in a positive way. On Friday, I was flying back from the east coast after conducting a couple of interviews. When I went through security at Newark airport, my camera bag was selected for additional screening. This did not surprise me because it often happens if I forget to remove the shotgun microphone and place it in the bin. For obvious reasons, its shape often is something the screener wants to check out a little more closely. But this time, I had removed both it and the video camera and had them already in a bin. The agent seemed intent on finding something in particular because she was rummaging through the bag rather intently. I asked her if there was a problem and she commented that the x-ray revealed several 9-volt batteries. I explained to her that I used them for both my lapel microphones as well as my wireless ones. She then started glancing over some papers that I also had in the bag including brochures about my company. I then explained that I created video biographies for families. She then remarked that she bet I had heard a lot of interesting stories and I agreed and shared a short one I had just heard in my last interview--with no names of course to protect my client's privacy. She then asked me if she could keep one of the brochures because she thought it would be a great idea to have her mother interviewed.

The next random encounter was with a woman who sat next to me on the plane. An hour into the flight, I had my laptop open and was editing an interview and when I took a break she remarked that she had been peeking at what I was doing and was curious. After I explained to her what I did, she became very animated because she was coordinating a party in honor of her father-in-law who was turning 100 in November and thought this would be the perfect gift to him from his family. After a few minutes of conversation, she revealed that her mother-in-law was also still living and was 98! The little bit of background she gave me made me aware that their interviews would be historic as well as very interesting. We shared contact information and her last remark to me as I departed from the plane was that she was so glad she had sat next to me because she had never heard of a service like this and considering the age of her in-laws, it was time to seize the day.

So two chance encounters will hopefully generate the saving of family stories that would otherwise have eventually faded away and I LOVE THAT!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Unlocking family memories... The golden prison in the shape of a teardrop.

Seeing how my last few posts have been centered around sad themes of loss and grief, I'm going to chug along and keep that ball rolling! But be not afraid, o brave reader, this one is not a tear-jerker. Though bad things do happen to good people - let that be my disclaimer!

This one is about my other grandmother... not Nani, whom we have read about so much by now... but Dadima, my father's mother. She passed away when I was at that age when all you remember about a person is her smile or the scent of the coconut oil in her hair or her white chiffon saris or her big spectacles. You know, the abstract things. Like the gold chain she wore around her neck, which looked like small, sturdy golden staple pins strung together from end to end. And in the center of this pretty chain, was a pendant. A pendant that took the form of a teardrop shaped prison - with bars made of pure gold. Its sole inmate was a perfect creamy pearl. It was exquisite. And I lost it.

When Dadima died, I was still so young that no one bothered to confide in me the workings of a will. All I knew was that for some strange reason, she left me the chain and the pendant. I was in such a quandry, though I can hardly confess to even knowing the word at the time. I had recently read 'Little Women' for the 20th time and it seemed to me like a sign from God that I must be 'Amy'. She had a turquoise ring which was gifted to her by a crotchety old aunt, and all she wanted to do was wear it the whole time, even though it was two sizes too big. I faced no such problem - what with chains being one-size-fits-all. But I couldn't decide if I should store it safely in a well-armored bank locker, or if I should wear it all the time... 'with the pendant close to my heart', justified my vain mind. Quite obviously, vanity won.

And so it came to be that I wore it all the time. I worried that frequent showers might wear down the sheen of the pearl but I am happy to report that it did not keep me away from them. I resolved to bequeath it to my first born daughter with a note explaining the journey of the chain thus far. I tucked it inside my school uniform shirt because we weren't allowed to wear accessories of any kind. And I fancied that I just had to have been Dadima's favorite grandchild if she left the chain to me.

Then, of course, I lost it.

My family was moving from one house to another - and we were doing all our packing on our own. And somewhere between 'organizing' my 9-year-old life and deconstructing my soon-to-be former room, the chain and pearl pendant were lost forever. I can only imagine the new occupants of my room one day finding them hidden underneath the carpet or behind the bookshelf or stuck in between the shelves in the closet... and to them it would only be a chain and a pendant.

Whereas for me, it has become how I remember my grandmother.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Third person objectivity... and yet one should 'Never talk to strangers?'

I met somebody on a recent visit to New York, who when she heard that I create Video Biographies of 'ordinary' people had a very innocent question to ask.

"Why would I ask you to interview my father when you've never met him and don't know a thing about him?"

Point taken. And that's a good question, you have got to admit!

But that apparent 'handicap' is what especially works in my favor. Because I had never met her father, I would not assume certain things about him. I would not pre-determine what the important stages in his life were and my questions would not be crafted with the baggage of that assumption. I would not decide on my own what I wanted him to talk most about - or seek answers to questions about him that had dogged me an entire lifetime. My interview of him would not sub-consciously become about me. Instead, I would begin at the beginning, with a blank slate... with the objectivity that only a third-person can carry.

Of course, the interview would not be conducted in ignorance - without any background information to him! Nope, the way it would work is that by the time it was the day of the actual interview, we would have spoken a few times... giving him the opportunity to become comfortable with a). me and b). the idea of talking about his life in a question-answer style conversation on video. And most often than not, when we finally did sit down for the interview, it would feel like the most natural thing in the world... to talk about one's life with an 'absolute stranger'! There would be a need to fill in the blanks, supply the details, and make an effort to remember... so that the conversation is easily accessible to anyone who watches it (read future generations), instead of being an inside secret between two people in the know in the present.


Monday, August 24, 2009

'After I'm gone...' The keeper of our family's stories unearths a new one.

It's odd how routine things have the ability to become meaningful.

If you've been following this blog, you might recollect that a couple of months ago I wrote about the sadness that accompanies loss. In this case, the loss of my grandfather - Nanaji. This loss was shared by many people. His children. Grandchildren. Great-grandchildren. Sisters. Cousins. Random people he crossed paths with along the journey of his life. And of course, his wife. My Nani.

In the wake of being forced to say goodbye to someone, there are a lot of routine things that need to be done. The closet has to be rearranged. Clothes have to be put away. The dressing table has to be cleared of half the things... no one to use the shaving cream anymore. You know, the things we all ponder about, hoping that we will never be called on to do so. Unfortunately this time, when the bottle stopped spinning, it pointed straight at Nani. Thankfully, she had a lot of help.

When it was all over, it was time to live again. Or at least, to learn to live without one half of you... the half that made the last 57 years so rich and fruitful.

It was on one of the routine days that followed that it happened. Nani found a routine-looking (albeit old and dusty) diary amongst some of the other routine things that all the 'rearranging' had conjured up from under the mattress, behind the art frame, in ancient trunks with heavy bolts... from amongst the gatherings of a lifetime, my Nani found a secret. She found my grandfather's romantic side, hidden away in the pages of a diary.

Dated 1944, a year after their marriage, the pages of this diary are well-populated. What's in them, I do not know. I haven't read them. I just picture my Nani slowly reading to herself the mind and thoughts of the young, 30-something man she had married... such an anomaly to the 89-year-old husband she had just said goodbye to. What did she find in those pages? Youth? Early romance? Ambition of a self-made man? Hopes of a new husband? Worries of a man about to start a family?

I have a feeling I may never get to read that diary. And what is more, I might not want to. Some things are meant to be sacred. All I know is that when she was done reading it, this is what Nani had to say -

"I never knew he loved me so much.'

Oh she knew alright. We all did. But I understand what she was trying to articulate. My grandfather was a man of few words. Quiet, dignified, proud and successful. He was old-school. And he was kind and gentle. But not the sort who would say, 'I love you' often. The fact that he kept a diary in itself was an eye-opener to us all. And to find a mention of herself in almost every page within that diary was another for my Nani. To know a man an entire lifetime and then to find that you're still learning things about him after he's gone... nice things. Romantic things. True things.

What must that feel like?


My Own Chance Encounter

Thinking about the last post I made, I realize a chance encounter was important in my own life as well. Meeting my husband was in large part due to a conversation I had when I was a freshman in college waiting in my dorm's lunch line. I started having a conversation with a girl I hardly knew and she was telling me about a place she was going to live for her sophomore year that was an off-campus student co-op (a place where the students all pitched in to maintain the property as well as cook the meals). I had always thought that for my sophomore year, I would continue to live at a dorm on campus but her description intrigued me and right after lunch I did some investigating. To make a VERY long story short, I did end up living at the co-op and two weeks after I moved in, I met one of my neighbors who lived down the hall. We became good friends and later started dating. Just this past week, we celebrated our 36th wedding anniversary. I can't help but think that if I hadn't had that conversation with someone I hardly knew that day long ago, my life would have been very different.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Magic of Chance Encounters

When I look back at the interviews I have conducted the last couple of years, I am often struck by the impact a chance encounter can have on a person's life. Often it can start someone on the road to a serious relationship which is what I witnessed with several of my clients. With their permission, I'd like to relate the experiences of two of them.

One of them told me that he met his wife by asking her for a match for his cigarette while walking on a beach in a town he was visiting. I guess it was a rare case in which smoking ended up affecting someone's life in an advantageous way. The other man had just returned home from serving as a pilot in World War II and was walking down the street in his town when he noticed a girl he had gone to high school with years before who was waiting at a bus stop and he stopped to say hello. Both men ended up having long happy marriages as a result of being in a certain place at a certain time. It's fun to think how a minor action they took brought forth such blessed results. --Bridget Poizner

Friday, August 7, 2009

Sci-Fi, I would like you to meet real life.

I was reminded of something close to home while watching the series finale of 'Battlestar Galactica'... even if the finale failed to make sense or failed to explain anything about the lives of its characters or failed to furnish a decent conclusion. Wait, do I sound a wee bit disgruntled? You must be imagining it.

Anyway, for those who are reading this blog post and not familiar with the show, all you need to know is this... humanity is faced with a very real threat of extinction. The only survivors of a nuclear blast are some 50,000 odd people scattered across space in battleships, and the real war is against the machines, who want revenge on their maker: the humans.

As with any war, lives are lost in trying to preserve the most of what is left. And within the main battleship, there is a corridor of walls. These walls start to overflow with pictures. Pictures of friends and families lost. Pictures alongside offerings of flowers and prayer beads. The walls transform into something powerful. They become a place for memories. For reflection. Prayer. They become a space for solace. And when it seems like the end is near, everyone's last thoughts are to rush to this space and salvage all that is remaining of the past. All the pictures, faces, smiles... those moments in time are claimed once more by the people left behind, now faced with the threat of death themselves. Because the pictures are all that is left of the past. And to lose them would be to truly be alone.

It reminded me of something I experienced when I first moved to the country. My husband and I arrived at LAX, and drove down to San Diego... on the same night that the fires started. This was a few years ago... and I have since realized that the fires seem to be a yearly occurrence... not that that predictability makes it alright. We reached home safe and sound... and the next day, started the cycle of phone calls to everyone that he knew in the city, just to make sure they were alright. One of his friends, 9 months pregnant and ready to pop, could see the fires approaching the hill she lived on from her backyard. She did not know where her doctor was because he had been evacuated from his home. And then she got the call saying it was their turn to evacuate their house... the fires just seemed too close for comfort. Later, I asked her what she grabbed when she left the house.

'Picture albums,' she answered. 'They were the one irreplaceable thing we had. All our childhood pictures, our wedding pictures, family pictures, the whole lot. And the parrot, of course."

She had a parrot.

She also grabbed her video camera and started filming the house. The spaces that she had filled up with her husband... the world they had created together. The baby's room they had painted themselves and decorated with matching colors.

And then she closed the door behind her.

The good news is that the fires didn't burn her house down. They kept their distance.
She eventually found her doctor, and they had to induce labor... but a wonderful baby boy entered the world in the midst of all this chaos... and both mother and father moved him to the room they had made for him. The pictures were restored to their rightful place at home. Life moved on as life does.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The journey of the Photo Album.

This one is about the most well-documented childhood of all time.

No, not mine. Though there is a picture album or two just dedicated to birthday parties, vacations, class pictures, school plays... one set each for my sister and me. You can trace the evolution of our lives through diaper days, poofy dresses with bows in our hair, awkward adolescence and the unfortunate fashion of the 80's, which spilled over to the 90's. And then somewhere down the line, the stock of pictures dwindle. Who is to say what happened to the bratty looking girls post-18? We must have stopped being cute, for one thing. And well, we grew up, for another. And there will always be time in the future to catch up on the lost years... and fill in the gaps between now and then. Right?


Well, coming back to the most well-documented childhood of all time. That would be my niece's. Oh wait, did I not mention that after growing up, my sister got married, moved to a different country, started a new life and then subsequently had a baby. My bad. See, all that information would have followed naturally had anyone kept the picture albums going... but now it's only a spurt of random pictures after another. Like a hiccup.

Anyway, Baby A is cute. And the center of everyone's eye. Everyone in the family that is. My sister took a picture on her cellphone of her 'taking a walk' in her stroller and sent it to me within seconds. I oohed and aahed, and showed off my niece to anyone around me. There are Flickr photo albums galore of that little girl. There are home videos being made as we speak. And she Skypes every weekend with grandma and grandpa across the world. All this before she can crawl.

Now, there were cameras when I was growing up. Sure. First there were black and white pictures that popped out of them. Then color. Then nothing - cos it all went digital. Then well, they came up with digital photo frames. And just the other day, at the mall, I saw a digital photo wallet thingy... replacing the old photo in the wallet trick with a whole album of the extended family. Up to a few hundred pictures, if I am not mistaken.

The pictures from my parents honeymoon days are mostly black and white. They had color back then but a lot of black and white too. They were small in size too... like a polaroid. And the edges were frilly-like.

My favorite picture is of my mother in Kashmir. It's black and white... though everything looks rather white because of the snow. She's wearing an oversized, black trenchcoat sort of thing... and smiling, well, half-smiling into the camera. Or rather at my father, who was taking the picture. It had been so cold that day that the guide who was taking my parents on a tour of the city offered his jacket to my mother to keep her warm. This demonstrated two things to me.
A). Locals don't feel cold. And
B). Chivalry wasn't dead 25 years ago.

But it's my favorite picture. Whether it's because of the story behind it, or because it was taken in a place I haven't been to, or because it was a snapshot of my parents, young and in love... I don't know.

My parents tell me that when they were growing up, taking pictures was an event. One you made appointments for, dressed up, and posed for, with your eyes deliberately looking elsewhere... for the effect of seriousness perhaps? Or gravity?

There are trunks of pictures in my grandparents home. Trunks. Some of people I have never met... who lived and died before me. Those are very few. Others are of people who have always been old, ever since I can remember. Looking at their pictures - when their hair is still dark and they have movie-star-like hairstyles is fascinating.

Taking pictures is not an event in Baby A's life. All she needs to do is smile and the flash goes off. I wouldn't be surprised if there are DVDs sold of her first few steps... she is THAT cute. And well, that's okay. This is how she will remember her childhood when she grows up. Just as I remember mine. Everyone needs props to facilitate 'remembering'. Pictures... and videos... will be ours.

Or videos with pictures. This is about Video Biographies, right? :)