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The thing about death is that you can’t remember what a person sounded like. You forget all the little things that you once knew. The sound they made when they opened up the front door, the way they walked, the way they laughed.”

Anderson Cooper

 

The other day, I watched something online so hilarious my left eye closed as I laughed, and I thought of my mother. Her left eye would also close during deep laughter. She passed away over 30 years ago, and while I will obviously never forget her, sometimes these smaller aspects of her fade away. Fortunately, my family has old home movies, and every few years, we’ll get together for a home movie night and I can once again see my mother’s bright smile and gestures that belonged to her alone. Back then, sound wasn’t an option, but her personality shines through nevertheless.

If you were lucky enough to have someone in the family who filmed holidays and other events, those films can be converted onto DVD’s, so you can “revisit” those favorite (and not so favorite) relatives who have passed on or have aged a few decades. Consider sharing these DVD’s as holiday presents this year.

Don’t forget about the future! Videos taken of family events with your camera, smartphone, Pad, Notebook, etc., can be compiled and shared with the family globally.

You also have an opportunity to sit down with your favorite people, and film a one-on-one conversation about his or her life — how obstacles were tackled, funny anecdotes, lessons learned, his or her favorite people, etc.

If a family gathering approaches where a few “old timers” will be present, consider filming them as a group, asking them to share stories about when they were kids. The different personalities will be revealed, and their interaction will provide another layer of insight into your family dynamics.

As this popular vintage photograph montage demonstrates, personalities exist behind formal portraits, so even if you’re taking a formal or quasi-formal group photograph, be sure to take a couple of candid shots of the group being themselves.

Vintage

That’s a keeper.

My parents’ hometown was a four-hour drive, which my family would undertake each holiday, as both sets of grandparents still resided there.

Memorial Day was predominantly spent with my paternal grandparents, whose families had immigrated to the town in the late 1880’s, and so had a fair number of gravesites to visit.  I would follow my grandmother around their one-acre property as she gathered calla lilies.

At the cemetery, as the adults walked from grave to grave of loved ones, laying down the flowers and reminiscing about each lost relative, I would venture off, walking between the sites (mindful of stepping on someone) and reading the gravestones. Sometimes, there would be a quote which would offer a clue about who was buried there.  I especially liked walking to the back end of the cemetery, where it had become neglected and overgrown; only sporadic bits of markers remained.  I wondered who they had been and why they were forgotten.

My father confessed his curiosity, as well, not only about the forgotten, but all of those who were buried there.  Who were they?  What were their stories?  He thought it would be grand if each gravestone had a button you could push, which would play a recording of the deceased’s story.

Little did he know that years later, QR codes would come along, holding a brief biography of a decedent, tastefully embedded on a gravestone.  Imagine, after visiting a loved one’s burial site, strolling around meeting his or her “neighbors” with a simple scan. 

Another way to share a condensed bio is through Find A Grave (http://www.findagrave.com/), where you can search for graves at cemeteries around the world. It’s volunteer-based, so it’s up to individuals to post a photograph of the gravesite and type in information.  Photographs of the deceased can be uploaded as well.  It’s a free service. 

Obituaries provide one-time glimpses into lives of loved ones.  These two options provide ongoing introductions and storytelling. 

Who would you like to be remembered?

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My grandparents had been married 70 years when it came time for them to move into an assisted living facility.  Forced to leave their home and losing their independence was obviously difficult for them.

My mother – their daughter – had passed away a couple of decades previous, so it was up to my brothers and I to overlook the moving process. My grandparents sat next to each other watching, with sad, sad eyes as I emptied cupboards and drawers, and would respond quietly, sometimes with a catch in their voices, whenever they were asked if they wished a particular item to be donated, sold at a yard sale, or gifted. 

My grandfather had served in the Navy the first couple of years in their marriage, so moving was not new for them.  However, they had accumulated a lot of memories in the subsequent decades, and many of them were associated with treasured items – drawings and paintings created by my grandmother before arthritis kicked in, her grandmother’s lace bed coverlet and her mother’s plates, a high school textbook, dance cards, my grandfather’s tools from his basement workshop, his sailor’s uniform last worn in 1930, a sword he obtained in Panama, souvenirs from road trips after their children had grown, silhouettes of the grandchildren when they were in grade school, and so forth.

My brothers claim their part was the most difficult – loading up the few heavy pieces of furniture and boxed items that would fit in their small, new apartment.  I disagree.  I drove them away from their home.  As we pulled away from the curb, my grandfather said, “Good-bye, house.  Good-bye, old house” and started singing, “The Last Roundup,” while my grandmother rifled through her purse looking for her heart medication.

When you’re writing your life story, or helping someone else to write his or hers, ask what treasures are sprinkled throughout the home that have a history; a memory.  It will not only serve as a memory trigger, but the story can accompany the item to its new home.

What items in your home are special to you, and what’s the story behind them?

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Cultural heritage may be a large component in telling a life story, but the core of an individual is the human aspect – sorrow and joy, fear and courage, adversity and triumph, grief and healing, etc.  It is that aspect that is relatable, regardless of passage of time and cross-cultural differences.

Stories, music and art offer common human spirit denominators.  These two videos became viral, because they created a global resonance:

Where the Hell is Matt? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlfKdbWwruY&feature=related

Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir – “Lux Aurumque”  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7o7BrlbaDs

A good biographer understands that telling a life story should be holistic, non-judgmental and balanced – culture, friendship, loss, adventures, growth, faith, wisdom, lessons, etc. 

Every person’s life story, without exception, will affect every person who reads it. 

Tell your story.  Affect the world.

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The year 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil war.  While many of the obvious states will memorialize the event, many would be surprised that California played a part in the war as well.

Gold from California helped keep the Union solvent.  California had more volunteers per capita in the Union Army than any other state. Nearly 17,000 Californians enlisted to fight.  By war’s end, California volunteers in the West occupied more territory than did the Union Army in the east.  The efforts of California men were not only critical in keeping California part of the Union and in keeping the flow of gold to Washington uninterrupted, but also in keeping the Far West federal territory.

Sacramento organized a voluntary military defense force due to the possibility of invasion by forces stationed in Confederate Texas.  In Sacramento’s July 4, 1861 parade, Major J.P. Gillis proudly waved his version of the Confederate flag, which was promptly “captured” by J.W. Biderman.  (The flat is on display at the California State Capitol Museum and is referred to as the “Biderman flag.”  I’m curious as to why it isn’t named after the man who actually created it.)

After war’s end, many Civil War veterans remained in California, including the Sacramento area.  In 1897, a Civil War memorial Grove was planed in Capitol Park (10th and L Streets) with saplings from 40 famous Civil War battlefields, including Manassas, Harpers Ferry, Savannah, Five Forks, Yellow Tavern and Vicksburg.  At the center stood a “tree of peace,” transplanted from Appomattox, where the Confederate Army surrendered.  In the Sacramento City Cemetery, you’ll find the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial, allegedly the first Civil War memorial in California.  To this day, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUV) continue the efforts of the Grand Army of the Republic.

Deceased Civil War veterans often only received a wooden plaque with their name written or carved into or a headstone without information indicating their military service.  SUV, therefore, locates and identifies Civil War soldiers, the units and companies in which they served, infantry, artillery, etc., and what state they were from. SUV then ensured they receive a proper military headstone, and present rededication ceremonies, replicating how it would have looked during that time period, with attendees in full Union blue uniforms and sometimes a 21-gun salute, with muzzle loaders similar to those use din the Civil War. 

Grave sites can be found throughout Sacramento County, including the suburbs of Citrus Heights and Fair Oaks.

If you believe you have an ancestor who served in the Civil War, SUV is a national organization who can be contacted at their web site site, www.suvcw.org.  (Perhaps you’re an “S.O.B.” – son of both sides.)

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“Before the war, it was always the United States are.  After the war, it was the United States is.  It made us an is.” 

Shelby Foote

 

The year 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.  While many of the obvious states will memorialize the event, many would be surprised that California played a part in the war as well. 

  • Gold from California helped keep the Union solvent during the Civil War
  • California had more volunteers per capita in the Union Army than any other state
  • Nearly 17,000 Californians enlisted to fight
  • By war’s end, California volunteers in the West occupied more territory than did the Union Army in the east
  • The efforts of California men were not only critical in keeping California part of the Union and in keeping the flow of gold to Washington uninterrupted, but also in keeping the Far West federal territory 

Sacramento organized a voluntary military defense force due to the possibility of invasion by forces stationed in Confederate Texas.  In Sacramento’s July 4, 1861 parade, Major J.P. Gillis proudly waved his version of the Confederate flag, which was promptly “captured” by J.W. Biderman.  (The flag is on display at the California State Capitol Museum and is referred to as the “Biderman flag.”  I’m curious as to why it isn’t named after the man who actually created it.)

After war’s end, many Civil War veterans remained in California, including the Sacramento area.  In 1897, a Civil War Memorial Grove was planted in Capitol Park (10th and L Streets) with saplings from 40 famous Civil War battlefields, including Manassas, Harpers Ferry, Savannah, Five Forks, Yellow Tavern and Vicksburg.  At the center stood a “tree of peace,” transplanted from Appomattox, where the Confederate Army surrendered.  In the Sacramento City Cemetery, you’ll find the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial, allegedly the first Civil War memorial in California.  To this day, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUV) continue the efforts of the Grand Army of the Republic. 

Deceased Civil War veterans often only received a wooden plaque with their name written or carved into it or a headstone without information indicating their military service. SUV, therefore, locates and identifies Civil War soldiers, the units and companies in which they served, infantry, artillery, etc., and what state they were from.  SUV then ensures they receive a proper military headstone, and present rededication ceremonies, replicating how it would have would have looked during that time period, with attendees in full Union blue uniforms and sometimes a 21-gun salute, with muzzle loaders similar to those used in the Civil War.   

Army vet Jim Montéton, age 67, is an active member of SUV.  “One of the graves they just located was in a cemetery in Ione.  It was a flat marker on the ground and it had been covered over with weeds.  When they cleared it away, it was discovered that the deceased was not only a Civil War vet, but he was a medal of honor recipient.”

“In Lockeford, we had a rededication ceremony for a Confederate solider.  About 50 people from Lockeford showed up.  Didn’t even know him, but they just thought it was an interesting thing to do to see this re-dedication.  All of the women in the historical society came out in full dress, with big hoop skirts, like they just stepped out of the 1860’s, and us in our uniforms.  It’s living history, and it’s a good feeling. “ 

Sometimes, inaccuracies will be discovered and corrected, such as the recent case in Vallejo.  A Civil War cannon had been stolen from the cemetery, and when a member of SUV visited the scene, a gravestone was pointed out to him by the groundskeeper, who believed there was an error.  “This guy here, they got him marked as a Confederate soldier, but I don’t think he was,” said the groundskeeper.  “I think he was a Union soldier.”  The veteran had enlisted at a certain point in the war when the Union troops had moved all the way down into Georgia.  So, he enlisted in Georgia.  That’s why they thought he was Confederate and placed it on his gravestone, but he wasn’t, so SUV corrected the records, and discovered he had over 300 descendants living in the Bay Area.  One hundred and fifty of them attended the rededication ceremony. 

“The oldest person there was his 77-year-old granddaughter “says Montéton.  “It was very emotional.  We had Union soldiers from all over the Bay Area, including here from Sacramento.  We had a pretty good detachment, almost enough to start a war.  We were all turned out in our blue uniforms, the weather cooperated; not one of those scorcher days when those uniforms are really hot.  We had about 7 or 10 guns when we fired them all in the air and it was impressive and the full color guard came in.” 

Grave sites of Civil War veterans can be found throughout Sacramento County, including the suburbs of Citrus Heights and Fair Oaks.    

“The cemetery in Fair Oaks, I think there’s four Union Civil War vets, and one Confederate,” says Montéton.  “When we had the ceremony there for Memorial Day, you could follow your eye along the edge of the cemetery and see all of the American flags, one after another, and all of a sudden, there’s one flag that sticks out.  It’s got a red top, a white center and a red bottom and blue field with 13 stars.  That is the flag of the Confederacy.”  (Interesting side note:  Civil War General Charles Henry Howard, one of the original Fair Oaks landowners, named Howard Street after himself.) 

If you believe you have an ancestor who served in the Civil War, SUV is a national organization who can be contacted at their web site www.suvcw.org.  (Perhaps you’re an “S.O.B.” – son of both sides). 

What state(s) did your ancestor(s) enlist?

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Children should be seen and not heard.”

Children definitely did not have a voice. The April 1874 case of Mary Ellen Wilson illustrates this point:

A charity worker was alerted to the severe abuse eight year old Mary Ellen was suffering in the home of her “stepmother.” The charity worker could not have Mary Ellen removed from the home, as there was no existing legal means to do so. The only alternative left to the charity worker was to have Mary Ellen’s stepmother prosecuted for abuse under existing laws prohibiting cruelty to animals. In effect, Mary Ellen had to be classified as an animal before any existing legislation could be used to protect her from the abuse she was suffering at the hands of her stepmother. As a result, the first child abuse case in New York City was prosecuted under cruelty to animal laws. It would appear that animals were deemed worthy of protection in nineteenth century society, yet children were not. This situation was remedied in December 1874 with the establishment of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.”

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, homeless and orphaned children on the east coast were “placed out” to families across the country and into Canada. Many were immigrant families and could neither speak or write English. Some were treated like slaves, being forced to work in factories and on farms. Historically, the practice was commonplace, going back to ancient Jewish and early Christian cultures. English practiced it routinely. Following World War II, approximately 2,000 British war orphans were shipped to the United States and Canada.

Several organizations were actually involved in the “placing out” of children. In addition to New York, Boston was a source of the “orphan train” as well. The majority of the children were sent to the west, many were also sent to New England, the south, and the eastern seaboard.

Considering recent legal immigration events, it is interesting to note that no children were placed in Arizona.

In 1853, Charles Loring Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society, which placed out over 150,000 children and young adults over a 75 year span , transporting them via train from the east coast to predominately Midwest destinations. The overriding focus of the CAS was to remove large numbers of children from the city. Many of the children who participated in the program were not orphans, but had living family members.

While many applaud the efforts of placing these children in loving and supportive homes, critics claim that although the program was promoted as a humanitarian effort, it was, in reality, an employment service for cheap labor. Farmers did, in fact, use the CAS as a labor source and, in many instances, children were placed in abusive situations.

The last “orphan train” ran in 1929, when focus had, finally, segued into the care and protection of children.

Is there a member of your family who was a rider of the orphan train?

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Lake Julie

“Hello?” I answered my work phone.

“This is the last time I’m going to read this to you,” was the responsive greeting  I immediately recognized my father’s voice. “’I will not eat it in a box, I will not eat it with a fox. I will not
eat green eggs and ham. I will not eat it, Sam I Am.’”

“Oka-a-y,” I responded, glancing around the busy law office, wondering where this was going.

“Dr. Seuss recently died,” he said, “and I’m reading a column in today’s San Francisco Chronicle paying tribute to him.  I was thinking about how many times I had to read his books to you over and over again.  So, I’m just letting you know, that this is the last time I’m reading this to you.”

Laughing, I said, “Well, thanks for lobbing me one more read.”

His jobs over the years ran the gamut from disc jockey to TV announcer to trial attorney to ultimately retiring as Deputy Chief Counsel for the State of California. Throughout his careers he always had an audience of some sort. Don’t forget that trial lawyers play to a jury.

One of my earliest memories of my father is sitting on a riverbank with him, looking up at the night sky. I asked him, “What are stars?”

He replied, “Well, when it’s night time, God pulls down a shade. The shade has a lot of holes in it, so the sun shines through those holes.”

It made perfect sense to my three-year-old self.

A few more “highlights” of life with my father:

  • When my brothers and I were kids, he enjoyed playing Director in home movies. We couldn’t just walk up a sand dune. We had to crawl on our bellies, tongues hanging out, dying of thirst in the Sahara Desert. Too bad movie cameras didn’t have sound back then. It would be fun to hear our comments.
  • And, he would just make stuff up. For instance, my great-grandfather’s name was William Harrison. So, my dad told me that I was related to President William Henry Harrison, which I proceeded to share with all my friends, until I found out it wasn’t true. It so happens that that president served about 40 years before my great-grandfather even immigrated to this country.
  • My brothers like to tell the story of when our family camped near Mt. Lassen. Dad announced we would be hiking up the mountain, so our mother suggests we bring jackets. My father responds, “No, we don’t need them. The higher we are, the closer we’ll be to the sun, so it will be warmer.”
  • He kept the manuscript of “Pirates of Penzance” from his college acting days, and decided that he, my brothers and I were going to act out the different parts, and he would record us on the tape recorder. I can still see him coaching my brothers on the “correct” way to say “Arrgh,” as my mother rolled her eyes.

My father taught me how to use my imagination – to look at people and situations at different angles. I am grateful to him for this, because it allows me to see and understand different points of view, and to appreciate an individual’s uniqueness.

I am a biographer-personal historian. I am very good at it. I have a strong organizational skillset, but, more importantly, I was blessed with an upbringing of storytelling and a curiosity about life. Because of my father’s influence, I am able to preserve life stories for families around the world in a fun, educational and insightful manner; the benefits of which will be enjoyed generation after generation.

Thanks, Dad.

deer_trails1

“Let’s the follow the deer trail,” my father suggested, always ready to introduce his family to new adventures.  We walked along single file, one brother in the lead, followed by my other brother, myself, my mother and my father at the end.

Screams suddenly pierced the quiet, grassy woods, emanating from my young brother in the lead.  My second brother began screaming as well, batting his head and running around in circles.  I stopped to see what was going on, and my eyes grew large at the sight of several rather large, thick bees furiously flying around my poor brothers’ heads. 

My father, annoyed, asked, “What’s wrong with everyone?” 

My mother angrily replied, “Eric stepped onto a bee’s nest.  They’re all getting stung!” 

My father didn’t get stung and, thankfully, neither did I.  It scared the hell out of me, though.

To this day, my brothers and I will exchange serio-comic looks when we go hiking.  “Beware of deer trails …”

But, we had learned a valuable lesson that day – watch where you’re walking.

I went on a hike this past weekend up to Zim Zim Falls in Napa County.  I was looking up at the falls, and not where I was walking – down a steep hill, with slippery, flattened grasses.  Visually, I must’ve looked like I had slipped on a banana peel the way my foot easily slid out from under me and my leg flew up in the air.  I now have a large gash (with a somewhat flair to it) on my leg outlined with a greenish-grayish-purplish tint.

If it had been a deer trail, I would’ve paid more attention.
 
Do you have any family hiking memories? 

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drive-in1

When I was a child, my family was on a strict budget, which meant watching movies at the local drive-in theater.  Mom made popcorn, which we weren’t allowed to eat until a quarter of the way into the picture.  Sometimes, as a treat, we would get a soda from the snack bar.

speakerEach parking space had its own speaker which hung on a pole and was attached with a cable.  The speaker would hang over the partially opened car window.  Sometimes, the speakers actually worked.  When they didn’t, we’d have to drive forward or backward to another parking spot.  It got to the point where my dad would just have my brothers get out of the car to run from speaker to speaker finding one that worked, so he wouldn’t have to continually move the car.  In the winter, because of the required partially opened window, we would freeze. Read the rest of this entry »

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