Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Family pictures and the art of the sideways glance

And now for the latest installment in my adventures while sorting through the family pictures spanning a 100 years. At least. You may be able to tell that I am very proud of this ongoing project but for the life of me, I'm not sure what gives me away every single time!

This week, I noticed a curious trend from pictures belonging to my grandparents on both sides. Of course they're looking young, dashing, handsome and beautiful in all of them, but inevitably, they're also looking sideways. To the left. To the right. At an angle. The pictures definitely benefit from the air of grace alternating with graveness that their beautiful profiles lend to them but I don't think it's all about showing off their best side. They made me pause and think.

My grandparents grew up at a time when photographs were still an occasion. Cameras were not a given in every household. And the opportunity still demanded an effort at dignity. Which is probably why I always think of my grandparents with awe. I didn't really get the chance to know my father's parents very well because they died when I was very young... and whatever memories I've fabricated of them while looking at their pictures are tinged with the respectability of their somber faces looking somewhere into the future (which is inevitably on the side of frame!). They weren't completely devoid of humor, I assure you... I have a few real memories tucked away of happy times spent swinging on their legs or finagling candy out of their unsuspecting kind hearts... but the pictures leave them looking forever all-knowing. Wise. With quiet dignity and romance.

And old habits die hard. This past summer, when my husband and I were visiting my family in India, we took a few pictures with my maternal grandmother - the only branch on the grandparent tree left for me. And it's with a faint smile that I now realize that my grandmother is looking off to the side even in this one, dated June 28th, 2011... in the age of digital cameras and instant gratification. My husband and I are looking directly into the camera - eyes wide open, smiling like monkeys - and there's my grandmother, seated between us... looking thoughtfully into the (sideways) distance.

Just another sign of the good ol' days. And what a pity it is to bid them farewell.


Monday, July 18, 2011

"Everything must go!" - Except the memories

I walked in to the house today and the sight of all our things in boxes made me pause. No, it wasn't a surprise move engineered by the husband (that wouldn't have gone down too well, let me add)... it's just that we've been so occupied with the move that after being gone from the house for half-a-day, I'd forgotten that when we'd enter, the table where I put my keys wouldn't be there. That the dresser with the sunscreen was now in someone else's home. That the space occupied by the couch in the living room was now occupied by boxes. Lots of boxes. Three years worth of boxes.

It made me think back to the first time my family moved - it was a big one because it was from one country to another. The whole experience of 'moving' is quite different when you're 9. My parents made my sister and I go to every landmark in New Delhi and took our picture in front of it. There's one in front of the President's home, in front of a Lotus-shaped temple, sitting on the trunk of the car, outside the club where we learned to swim. I never understood what they were doing. It wasn't like we were going away forever. It wasn't like these places wouldn't be standing when we visited during summer break after a year.

That was in 1989. Today, packing the first home my husband and I set up together... putting away the mismatched plates we ooh-ed and aah-ed over when we bought them at an expensive store, the books we've scoured over on lazy evenings, selling the bookcase we painted together... I feel like I understand a little of what my parents were trying to do through the pictures. This house will continue to stand after we've moved out and new tenants move in. The yard will continue to flourish though one or two trees may take a hit in coming summers. The garage will still provide shelter to cars, bikes, strollers, and junk. But as of tomorrow, it will cease to be our own private paradise. It will have someone else's imprint on it... someone else's memories. That's what we were truly boxing away - the memories. And that's what my parents were trying to hold on to in the pictures - the memories of a city at a time it still belonged to them.

I mention the pictures because I encountered them again yesterday after years while in the process of sorting out my family's photo archives. I am fortunate that most of the photographs in my family's possession can fit into two large suitcases. I think the fact that we moved 10 times in 25 years necessitated some pruning of the collection... most of it intentional and some of it accidental. Along with the photographs that faced some downsizing, we also said goodbye to many books, journals, paintings, dolls, clothes and oh so much more with every new house. Of course, we were constantly adding to the collection as well... but not all the markers of my childhood made it.

My grandmother's home on the other hand is the complete opposite! She has had the amazing luck of living in the same home for almost 70 years... and it shows. Her room sprouts memories. From pictures on the dresser table and on the walls, to those tucked away in trunks, under the mattress, in drawers and closets, in storage rooms, in the garage and in the office... she has them all. The books, the clothes, the dishes, the music, the pictures, the letters! It makes sense to me, most of it does at least, because they are from a time I can remember. But what will my nieces and nephews make of it? Will they know the people in the pictures? Whose wedding it is that we're posing for? Why Nani still holds on to a doll with cotton coming out of her belly? Why there are still clothes hanging from closets of unused rooms? Whose clothes they are? What is the story behind the unused and falling-apart jeep under the mango tree?

My grandmother's a smart woman. She may be old and confined to bed for the most part, but at heart, she's still 16 - that's how old she was when she got married. Over the past two years, she has been organizing her papers, pictures, diaries and memories. So it's quite likely that the stories of our family will translate and transcend to future generations.

I just have to make sure that I take care of mine... that there's place enough for all the memories in the boxes. That nothing slips through the folds. That one day my children will know of their parents as a giggly young couple who set up home for the first time. Without them, but in anticipation.


Monday, July 4, 2011

Stories from a black-and-white photo of a man I wish I knew

A suitcase full of photographs accompanied me back from New Delhi to Austin last Friday. Thankfully the airline was feeling generous and let me check it in free of charge - a sign perhaps that it was the right thing for me to do. It helped calm the nerves as I confess, I felt a little nervous assuming ownership over these one-print-left-only photographs that ranged from my grandparents' parents to my sister's daughter. So nervous was I that after checking in the bag, a flood of new worries took over - what if my baggage got lost in transit? What if someone else were to pick it up thinking it was theirs? What if the plane crashed - well, that would have been truly sad for more reasons than one, but I am glad to report, nothing amiss came to pass. And they are now being slowly digitized, one picture at a time, piecing together the story of four generations of my family.

Amongst these, a set of four black and white pictures caught my attention. I did not recognize any of the faces in them and may have summarily put them away for 'later', when by chance, I flipped them over, and lo and behold, the most marvelous story was unfolded. They were taken by my paternal grandmother (Dadima)'s brother... whom I had never met. In the 1960s, he moved to the United States (Stanford, perhaps) from a small village in India to do a Masters in Agricultural Sciences, I believe. Along with him were his wife and son. The four pictures provide vignettes from their lives... and on the reverse of each, in the most beautiful and concise Hindi language, he has written in great detail the wonders of life in the United States.

The first one (my favorite) is of a lady (his wife) in a sari at a grocery store, wheeling a cart in front of her - a cart which contains many, many things, in addition to her young son. Nothing remarkable about it until you read what he has to say about it. I paraphrase:

"Supermarket. That's what they call really big stores in which one can buy almost anything of any type. Different shelves stock fruit, vegetables, spices, ice cream, milk, and meat - with their prices neatly printed in front. You can pick whatever you want and place them in these carts with wheels, which you can then push around the whole store. You can see one in front of me in the picture!"

The second is a picture of them in the kitchen, narrating the wonders of an electric stove. And the final two are of them using a telephone - and mentioning the modern phenomenon of booking trunk calls (which I am familiar with but is anyone else?!).

I wish I knew him. I wish I knew more stories about him. But I sure am glad my children are going to see these pictures and get a glimpse of life at a time when it was still simple.


Saturday, June 18, 2011

My Father's Gift To Me

One of the questions I often ask my clients is what traits they think they've inherited from their parents. With the approach of Father's Day I got to thinking about my Dad who passed away over twenty years ago and his influence on my life. There are the obvious things such as being a positive role model and providing financial and emotional security for my family but a more subtle one has turned out to be very significant as well: My Dad loved to take home movies. And he took these starting back in the early 1940s when my 6 older siblings were young and continued this chronicle through the 50s and early 60s adding me and three other children along the way. The first films are in a grainy black and white shot on a 16 mm movie camera with no sound. These are short clips and as in most home videos, they more than likely record a new baby or a holiday. The films improve over the years with color and better quality images but he never changed cameras. Even though one DVD will hold all of the footage he took over the years, they vividly reflect a lot of my family's history as I was growing up. And that impression has always stayed with me. When our children were young, we bought a video camera even though our funds were limited because when capturing those moments, you don't get a second chance.

When I conduct interviews or create a tribute for a client, I will ask if they have any home movies they would like me to take snips of to include in the DVD. Often, the reply is that their family never used a video camera and have only still pictures. This is not necessarily related to the family's economic situation; it's often something that just never occurred to the family to do. I'm grateful to my Dad for showing me how priceless video can truly be and for providing a treasured family keepsake along the way.

You can see snippets of his home movies starting in the 8th minute of a tribute I did for my mother's 90th birthday; in fact, it ends with some footage he took around 1940 of my mother on a scooter.

Bridget Poizner

Friday, May 27, 2011

If only our brains came with a memory chip...

A question I get asked again and again is - 'What is the ultimate format to store digital photographs and files on?' Unfortunately there is no pat answer to that. The technology hasn't been invented yet that won't go obsolete in a few years and while that doesn't bode well with our plans for organizing and preserving our personal archives for posterity in one swift, effortless swoop, the good news is that there's always a bridge.

The photographs of my parents that began with their honeymoon were Polaroid. There were many that were black and white. Then came color. Then matte and glossy. Then they turned digital. Today, one can even store 30-40 digital photographs on a keychain the size of a folded dollar bill. When the trend began to move toward digital, my father invested in a scanner the size of a coffee table - maybe even a little bigger. First we stored them on floppy disks. Then came CDs and DVDs. Today the scanners themselves are compact, with a processing time of less than half that it took six years ago.

The question was posed to me again at a recent presentation in Round Rock, TX - what is the next big thing and how can we stay a step ahead. I gave the most honest answer I could - there's no knowing what the next thing is going to be. Or the one after it. Maybe it will be 3-D holograms. Maybe our memories will be digitized and stored in our brain's archive the moment they take place. Maybe human beings will have chips implanted in our minds. Who is to say? What is reassuring is that there is always a technological bridge that enables the continuation of our archives. From paper to digital and then who knows what.

The real question is - will we take the time to do the transfer? Till recently, my own family was guilty of hoarding home movies on VCR cassettes. And I bet you anything there are young adults today who have never seen one! It took the dedication and single-minded focus of my husband to transfer those home videos onto DVDS, and then also store a copy online... just in case!

It seemed like an intimidating and impossible task before we sat down to tackle it, but after a few evenings over a few days, we now had digital legacies of his childhood, and with that, all the crazy things little boys do when they're growing up. Climbing on to the roof of the house, imaginary sword fights, terrorizing innocent cats on the prowl... the most endearing part was watching my husband's mother watch these videos for the first time in 25 years. "You did that?"

It's a wonder how little boys survive their childhoods to become men.


Saturday, May 7, 2011

What's Love Got To Do With It? Everything!

With Mother’s Day upon us, I find myself thinking about how lucky I was to have a mother who indeed was worth celebrating. Though she passed away a few months ago, the example of her behavior and love has had and will continue to have a great influence on me. And that legacy directly affected how I raised my own children. I am so grateful that the path she followed has helped make my own journey such a joyful one.

It wasn’t that she was a perfect mother. She did a few things that a psychologist might have raised an eyebrow at but considering she and my father had ten children, a few mistakes were bound to be made when raising us. What she did seem to be perfect at was how she made all of us feel equally loved.

One thing that is very comforting to me is that I have several hours of audio and video interviews of her sharing stories of her life. I conducted most of these interviews before I began creating video biographies professionally. These are now such a wonderful link to memories of her. For instance some of my sibling would sometimes tease her about how she couldn’t carry a tune but that never stopped her from singing in church or singing to us. Now I have video proof that though her pitch might not have been perfect, her intent was.

Mom, we were truly blessed to have you in our lives.

Bridget Poizner

Saturday, March 19, 2011

You want me to talk about myself for an hour?

Two days ago, I got to know a very interesting and accomplished couple in the course of making their video biography. Even though their children had gifted them the biography sessions 4 months ago, it took them so long to get their busy schedules in order - and to prepare themselves mentally for the task of sitting in front of a camera and talking about themselves for two hours. Their words, not mine. And yes, they did use the word 'task'! Of course they were very gracious and delightful, but I sensed a challenge as I set up my equipment. Not all interview subjects are forthcoming and it's harder still when they happen to be unconvinced of the worth of their stories.

To their credit, once the camera started rolling and the questions were posed, they did a great job. I sensed some reticence when talking about unpleasant memories associated with childhood and the people they remember from it, but that's understandable. After all, baring your heart to a complete stranger takes some trust, and I would probably be wary too in a similar situation. But together, we persevered and prevailed!

Before launching into their joint interview, it was time for a quick lunch break. And I was warned that it was my turn to be interviewed during the interlude! In the next 30 minutes, the roles were reversed and I was led down events in my own past so that my two brave and endearing subjects could get a better sense of the person grilling them. After waxing eloquent about my grandmother (yes, she came up!), growing up in a developing country, juggling family dynamics across three continents, and plans for my future, there was a lull of companionable silence. The line had been crossed. Perhaps I passed muster because I sensed that from clients, they had now become friends.

When we resumed recording for the part of their lives that they had spent together, raising a family, growing up, and growing old together, there was energy in the air. They were relaxed and animated at the same time. The conversation flowed easy, and they volunteered stories that I did not need to ask for. What was supposed to be a 20-minute conversation on video went a little beyond one hour. And when we parted ways, it was with a hug.

The most interesting observation that whole day was made by the elderly gentleman over lunch. He said (and I'm paraphrasing here!), it's a good thing our children sent you to do this because there sure wasn't any way I was going to sit down and talk about myself for an hour. But I'm glad we did this. I'm glad we did this.

Well, so am I.


Saturday, February 5, 2011

Difficult memories and the art of conversation

Giving voice to one's life story can be a challenging exercise. Many of us have stories tucked away that we do not want to revisit because of the feelings of shame, guilt, pain or grief that they may resurrect. Yet for all the powerful attempts at 'tucking away', are these memories ever totally banished?

I enrolled in a memoir writing class last month. When I tried to answer why, I explained to myself that this would help me in my client interactions; help me better understand the process of remembering that I attempt to lead the people in front of the camera on. That was part of the answer but as another part of me frowned at this need to rationalize why I would want to write about my memories from childhood, I acknowledged that it was an attempt to get to know myself better. Many people whom I have been privileged to create video biographies of have commented on how the process of telling stories, retrieving memories and reflecting on the important people in their lives leads them to connect the dots between their perception of themselves and how they came to be this way. It's as if the answers were always there in their minds, only the words to articulate them had proven elusive. So talking about their memories during the video biography interview felt like someone had just added sub-titles to the reel running in their head, and had added all the background information and character motivations for it all to seem crystal clear!

That's the experience I had two days ago when writing a seemingly innocent account of the foods I remember from my childhood, and why I still hadn't purged them from my system. What was supposed to be 500 words flooded shamelessly onto 7 pages. I always knew I enjoyed food (!) but what really surprised me were the things I associated them with. And the memories I had forgotten I knew suddenly introduced themselves again. I waxed eloquent about potatoes and funerals, sweets and fasting, rice pudding and religion, and in this mish mash of ingredients, I got to know myself a little bit better. Someone else in my class commented on how this writing prompt brought some difficult memories to mind... memories about a hard childhood where food was difficult to come by. And the things that needed to be done for survival. At first it seemed impossible to produce words that would express the conflicting feelings of shame and maturity. Words that other people would read or hear about. Words that brought up memories locked away with the key swallowed for safety. But once they did start to trickle out letter by letter, it brought a sense of understanding. Forgiveness. And the opportunity for the entire family to open up about something they had all experienced but never discussed.

It was not easy. But sometimes, easy is not necessarily the order of the day.