Sunday, September 27, 2009

Remembering my Grandmother's stories... and her life.

On the topmost rung of the bookshelf in my room are two silver cranes. On my last visit home, my mother wrapped them in two shoe bags and put them in my suitcase, insisting in that sweet way of hers that I carry back to Austin a memento of my paternal Grandmother - Dadima. Now it has been close to 20 years since Dadima passed away so I was a little puzzled as to why they were finding their way to my luggage now but I've learned not to question the wisdom behind anything my mother says.

Since January of this year, I have looked at those two cranes every morning when I get up and every night when I'm lying in bed, reading a book. And myriad other times during the day too. And it doesn't happen every time I look at them but there have been several occasions when a glance their way makes me travel back in time to my childhood... when these cranes sat on the carved wooden table in my grandparents home in a small suburb near New Delhi, India. It was small enough that the plot of land next to them... where there should have been neighbors... was home to a herd of buffaloes and the family of four that tended to them from their makeshift hut. And it was the milk of these buffaloes that was sold to every house in the lane and that was the bane of my growing up years. You see, I decided very young that buffalo milk was not exactly one of my favorite things. And oh the tricks I came up with just to get out of drinking that mandatory glass of warm milk at my grandparents home.

Sometimes a turn of my head towards the silver cranes makes me picture the monthly 'Kitty Parties' my grandmother hosted in the drawing room, where all the ladies in the neighborhood, aged 50 and above, would gather together and play Bingo... dressed to the nines as if it were a wedding they were attending instead.

There used to be a silver elephant too, on an adjoining table back then... its trumpet raised as if it were sounding an alarm. It sat next to the gramophone that I had never heard being used.

The cranes make me think of countless festivals I had spent in Dadima's home... oiling the cotton wicks so that they would shine bright when we lined the boundary wall to the house with sparkling diyas for Diwali. Or the makeshift temple in Dadima's room where we all gathered to sing holy songs with Dadima leading the brigade, and where I sat crouched towards the back, laughing silently at how none of the grown ups in my family could ever quite carry a tune.

The silver cranes make me remember so much that I thought I had forgotten. That I never realized I knew about my Grandmother. You see, I had been 8 when she died and the only recollections I thought I had of her were based on the pictures that I had seen framed on the wall of my parents home, or that sat on my father's bedside table. I had forgotten that I knew her once... and that I had memories of her that were my own. That just needed a little prodding to make themselves apparent to me again.

The silver cranes are my grandmother's Video Biography... or the best things I have close to it of her.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Life stories yes... but even neighborhoods have a history.

Last week, I got to know a neighbor better. She happens to be the editor of my neighborhood newsletter, and when she heard about what I do, she suggested writing an article about it. I was pleased as punch, needless to say. So we talked some more. Then she asked if I would be interested in creating a short film about our neighborhood.

This took me by surprise. I love our neighborhood and it's charming and quaint but beyond that? I was about to explain to her that it was the stories people had to share that interested me most... when she went on to say that there was one man in particular who put in a lot of time and effort to make it what it is today.

"Ah, so it's a film about the gentleman and not so much the neighborhood?" I asked.

"He is the neighborhood."

This was intriguing. I was very interested to meet with this man and get him talking. But it was not meant to be as he had passed away a few years ago.

My neighbor continued, "There are a lot of people who live in this neighborhood who either knew him personally or knew of him - and I know they would welcome an opportunity to talk about how he touched their lives. Plus, we could speak with his family who still live in the same house."

This was starting to sound interesting... a lot like the Tribute Videos that I create when families wish to honor a loved one on special occasions like their Anniversary, Birthday, Christmas, Mother's Day or Father's Day and so on.

So I returned home and googled him. To my surprise, there was a lot about him. I also found out that the pretty patch of green by the creek near our house was started by him... this made it personal!

"Alright, I'll do it." I announced to the neighborhood committee at their next meeting.

Right then and there, a committee member turned to me with a gleam in his eye and started narrating anecdotes with the gentleman we would be honoring with the video. When he finished, another member started... and then a third person started without even waiting for the second to finish.

But hold on, I wanted to exclaim! I don't even have my camera yet... this meeting was just to crystalize the details.

But there was no stopping them.

"Oh you could call him at any hour of the day or night and he'd listen."
"He always did what he said he would."
"He kept an open-door policy..."
"He came to my grand-daughter's christening."
"We used to share drinks every weekend."

The stories that were pouring out were personal and the people sharing them were visibly happy to have an opportunity to finally share them... and acknowledge the man who hitherto had been valued only in their minds.

What a wonderful thing it will be for his family to see this video! And realize what a lasting influence he was and continues to be for people even today.

And what a fun way for people who had never heard of him before (like me!) to find out about him and his contribution to our neighborhood and lives.

The video is still a work in progress but the gentleman in question is already weaving his magic... getting the whole neighborhood to come together for this labor of love!


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Get the family talking! 60 minutes of a magical transformation...

I recently had the opportunity of listening to Dr Jerald Winakur, Geriatric Physician and Author, share his experience being a caregiver to his elderly parents. I'm not really an avid fan of attending talks and presentations in general, but there were a few things that Dr Winakur spoke about that touched a chord. Because they were personal. And because of the stories he shared about his family... which reminded me of my own. As they probably did for the other 150 people in the room.

His mother was nearly blind in her old age, he said, and his father's mind had been claimed by Dementia and Alzheimer's. (If I get any of the facts wrong, I apologize... but the gist is that in their old age, his parents became very different people from who they were when he was growing up.) This is a tough transition for anyone to cope with... and there wasn't a dry eye in the room full of 'regular' people who at some stage in their life, have found themselves stepping into the role of caregiver to a spouse, parent, relative or friend.

What was remarkable about the presentation was that Dr Winakur had everyone's undivided attention and emotional involvement. And by the end of his talk, people were lauding him and members of his family as if they had known them their entire life. Whereas the truth is that just an hour earlier, nobody in the room even knew what his parents' names were or what they wore on their wedding day or what they had done on their 60th anniversary. But at the end of the 60 minutes, everyone knew all that and more. They knew they had shared a loving life together. That underneath the ravages of old age, they were still young at heart. And that they were like their own parents or relatives... they were like any other family.

How did he achieve this?

He achieved it with stories. And he achieved it with photographs. His entire presentation - and indeed his book - is about his experience of being the son of his father. A father who had Dementia. And a son who is a doctor.

In the telling of his story, it is hard to say what he achieved on a personal level. Was it the relief of 'understanding'? Was it redemption? Was it to assuage the guilt that accompanies all children looking after their parents? Was it relief that in hindsight he had been a good son to a wonderful set of parents? Was it to leave behind a realistic picture of his father to his children and their children... who had never known him before Dementia? Was it a tribute to a man he truly loved? Maybe it was all this. Maybe it was none of this.

In the act of 'listening', what was it that the members of the audience achieved? Reassurance that they were not alone in what they were feeling and experiencing? Hope that there will be good days along with the bad? A sense of community? Solidarity? Support?

Whatever it was, the stories drew everyone together. Suddenly the room was abuzz with portraits of relatives and loved ones.

'I remember...'
'She used to love to...'
'One day, he turned to me...'
'I'll miss the way she...'

Everyone was talking. And sharing. And crying. And laughing. It was a relief to realize that they remembered so much. There was a desperate need to share it. To pass on the memories. To heal and to exorcise.

That is the power of stories. And if someone hadn't opened the floodgates, those stories would have withered away unspoken. The people in the stories would have faded away unacknowledged. And nobody in the room would have turned to their neighbor to smile, or squeeze their hand or just nod in understanding. It would have continued to be a room full of strangers.

What a waste of an hour that would have been.

And what a waste of a lifetime of stories it is when no one else gets to hear them.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Documenting family stories...The unassuming archivist in us all.

Human curiosity is such a wonderful thing. What do you think? (Sorry, I couldn't resist throwing that in there!)

In the last few weeks, I've met with several remarkable people, who without quite realizing it, have been doing a great job in preserving family history.

Take, for example, the lady I met with yesterday. I knew I was going to walk across the room and make her my friend the minute I saw her. There were about 20 of us at the meeting for the upcoming Austin Groups for the Elderly (AGE) conference in Austin. (In case you're interested, it's on Saturday, September 12, at the Norris Conference Center in Austin - and it's Free!). Anyway, when the lady walked in, it was impossible to miss the air of grace that entered the room along with her. When we finally did get chatting, we sparked instantly - despite the 30-years age difference!

She went on to tell me a story about the over-filled closets in her mother's room. They were bursting at the seams with photographs collected over a lifetime... and not just hers! They were in color. Black and White. Polaroid. Negatives. Big. Small. Frayed edges. Yellowing paper. All sorts of photographs, telling the stories of people she had known, lost, and still remembered. It was a shrine. A treasure trove. A mess.

No one was allowed near them for fear of losing / tearing / losing any of the contents of the closets. Till one day, my new friend realized that her mother was not growing any younger - and as for herself, she still had no idea who the people in those photographs were. Thus followed one of the best decisions of her life - she insisted... and I mean insisted!... that her mother write the names of the people behind each picture. The suggestion wasn't met with much enthusiasm initially but once she got started, her mother seemed transformed as she relived the memories while labeling and documenting the people in the pictures and their stories.

It wasn't until a few years later when her mother's memory started to fail that my new friend truly realized the value of the project she had assigned to her mother. There were too many pictures in those closets and her mother wasn't quite able to label them all... but because of the ones that she had, the family now has something with which they can piece the dots together.

Another gentleman whom I interviewed a while back, gave me a guided tour of his house and we made a rather long stop at the study, which was again filled with pictures, but this time, they were all on CD. The gentleman confided in me that he had scanned up to 15,000 pictures from his family and ancestors' lives... and transferred them on to CDs so that technology won't leave behind his memories and history. There were still several thousand more pictures to go... but I could tell they were in safe hands.

Yet another new acquaintance (we're email pals!) - Jerrie Hurd has made stories her life's passion - and if you read her blog, you'll see what I mean ( Her blog is a tribute to the power that stories hold over each of our lives. And it's interesting to see how individual stories come together to provide a cohesive reflection of community history over the years.

If you find that you're the keeper of your family's stories, then my question to you is this - What are you doing to preserve those stories?

What are you doing in order to add yours to the collection?

And have you thought about how you are going to pass these on to future generations?

Because a Video Biography might just be what you need to create.


Monday, September 7, 2009

Keep Those Home Movies Safe!

Last month, I met with a client who wanted me to incorporate some of her home videos into an interview I did of her grandmother. They are still on VHS video cassettes and she was dismayed to see that the quality of one of the tapes had deteriorated. The video was very dark and some parts were completely black. If you haven't converted your home videos to DVD yet, I strongly urge you to do so. To be on the safe side, I would try and find a place that's a small operation where you don't have to worry about shipping the tapes and where they convert them on site rather than mailing them to a company. Ask them specifically their procedure.

You can also get a fairly inexpensive DVD/VHS recorder that will let you convert them yourself. That's what I did except for some super 8 movies that were even older which I had done professionally and for those I requested same day service to put my mind at ease about them possibly getting lost.

While you're having them done, it's a good idea to have two made so you'll have a backup you can store in a different location.

--Bridget Poizner