Saturday, May 15, 2010

Video Biographies: The value of personal archives and family documents

For almost a month now, I have been volunteering a few hours of my day on a weekly basis at an archives and research library here at Austin, TX. Personal archives (and not just my own!) have held my attention for a while now, and I'm fortunate that in creating video biographies for others, I inadvertently get to share in their narrative. I get to know their stories and often come in direct contact with the records of their past. Photographs, newspaper clippings, journals, letters etc.

This got me curious.

Would the documents of complete strangers hold an appeal if they were not 'clients'? Is there anything substantial to be gained by the stories of others if they lived a hundred years ago - with nothing common between us except that we have walked the same ground at different points in history? Hence the visits to the archives library.

The answer is yes.

Of course I learned things each time I visited. I had never encountered a fluting iron before. It's what they used back in the day to add frills and pleats to clothes. Or bullet moulds. Rusted and creaky but innovative and efficient nonetheless. One cent coins from the turn of the 20th century... and hidden between them, an official looking brass coin with the words 'Good for one drink' barely legible. Interesting, it would appear people had a sense of humor even then. Medals from wars. Commemorative plates celebrating presidents. Lace hair bands worn by anonymous women. Meat grinding machines and cannon balls.

These archives and documents may belong to people I was never acquainted with but they told countless stories and pieced together a glimpse of my world as it used to be. Of society and community. Of history and world events. Of local news and gossip. Things were different back then. Then again, not as much as I would have thought.

And that's what stands to be gained from documenting each of our personal histories. It is a way of acknowledging a life well lived, yes, but it is also a way of communicating how we live to the people who will come after us. So that they can make sense of our journey. And through that, their own.


Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Lifelong Example

In honor of Mother’s Day, get out that video camera, audio recorder or pen and paper and if your mom is living and nearby, see if you can grab a story or two from her. Maybe ask her about how she used to celebrate Mother's Day when she was a girl or a story about her own mom--or what being a mom has taught her. If your mom has passed away, honor her by recording a story about her which showed something you learned directly by watching her "in action."

I'll share one about my mom who at age 91 is still going strong. One thing I used to observe when I was little is how she would handle returning something to a store. In those days, the customer wasn't always considered right and return policies were often more rigid. If she was not a satisfied customer, she was always polite but always firm in expecting a refund or fair exchange. I remember being no higher than her elbow watching the process and always seeing her succeed in getting what she wanted. She was never rude but always insistent. One time, it involved successfully returning a pair of my shoes that she thought should have lasted longer than they did. As I got older, I found myself recalling her technique before heading out to “do battle.” One funny example happened when I was an adult. She was visiting me and we had gone to the grocery store. When we got home and were putting the groceries away, she noticed that the carton of eggs we had just bought contained a broken one. Her immediate response was that we should go back to the store and exchange the carton. I smiled and told her that I knew I was letting her down but I was not going to drive 15 minutes for the sake of one broken egg. We then both had a good laugh.

Yes, example is one of the best teachers and I am so fortunate to have a mother who serves as such a positive one for me as well as the rest of my family.

--Bridget Poizner