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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.

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I love strolling through antique malls. Some may only see a building filled with old junk, but for me, it’s a fabulous opportunity for imaginative spelunking through objects’ unshared stories:

A painting purchased by a lonely housewife temporarily eased her aching heart. A book offered adventures to a young boy who yearned to leave home. A clock traveled thousands of miles from the “old country” accompanied by hopes of a prosperous land. A porcelain Victorian doll was shipped by a WWII sailor to his young niece two weeks before losing his life to a direct torpedo hit. Vinyl albums were played over and over by girlfriends at a slumber party. A mahogany table played host to dinners, holidays, discussions and challenging homework. The art of whittling was learned with a pocketknife gifted from a beloved grandfather. A ring had been carried in a pocket during picnics, movies and walks before the proposal was finally blurted out during a rainstorm. Building blocks hand-me-downs from four older siblings continued to bring joy. Martini glasses filled every Thursday night for ladies’ bridge night.

Photographs of discarded relatives periodically appear in and out of frames: Two brothers – one seated and one standing – agree to the portrait after their mother’s anguish that they are leaving home to fight the Yanks. A teenage girl standing behind a chair with a wide, white collar and hair tied back in a pony tail just learned the boy she has crush on also has a crush on her. A young daughter holds her mother’s brooch, causing the younger brother to cry until his father lets him hold his pocket watch for the family portrait. A group of second grade students in a class picture just learned of two classmates’ deaths due to diphtheria. A middle-aged woman glares, irritated, at the camera, thinking about numerous unfinished chores.

I also love driving or walking through older communities where more stories await: That beautifully landscaped home’s secret cellar witnessed brewing of illegal hooch during Prohibition, which was also sold to neighbors. A victory garden in the backyard in the next block preceded the swimming pool and spa. A battered wife hid her shame and embarrassment in the charming bungalow. The strict piano teacher on the corner produced three successful concert pianists. A president visited his old college chum in the brownstone.

That is why I enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s book, “Behind the Scenes at the Museum,” in which she provides a bird’s eye view of a family history. The reader is led back-and-forth through time through objects, places and people as informative bread crumbs gently and often humorously ultimately bring us to a complete picture. The book’s story, as with  life, is multi-layered.

Pay more attention to what surrounds you. Leave the flat plains of existence and explore the depths and heights that surround you. You won’t be bored. I promise.

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?

You Are a Classic

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.

You Are A Classic

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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? 

You Are A Classic

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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 »

Coop and DietrichGene Autry only kissed his horse.  Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced their way to romance.  Humphrey Bogart showed Ingrid Bergman how much he loved her by sending her away.

I was fascinated by the movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s.  My brothers were fascinated by sports.  The inevitable battle would break out on who could watch their program on the large color television set, instead of the small black-and-white one in the back room.  They usually won, because the games were in color, and my movies were in black-and-white. 

The magic of romance transcended the stark colorless screen, however, and I would melt into the kissing scenes, as the camera panned to the moon and the viewer was left to his or her imagination.

Dramas

Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall

Key Largo
Gone With the Wind
Wuthering Heights
Love Story
Camille
A Place in the Sun
Casablanca
Notorious
African Queen
An Affair to Remember
Doctor Zhivago

Comedies

Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn

It Happened One Night
The Lady Eve
Pillow Talk
Harold & Maude
Indiscreet
The Awful Truth
What’s Up Doc
The Palm Beach Story
I Was A Male War Bride
The Thin Man
My Man Godfrey

What is your favorite romantic movie classic to watch this Valentine’s Day?

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Duplex Planet

Duplex Planet

If, for some reason, you’ve been out of the loop for the last couple of decades, I wanted to bring the wonderful “Duplex Planet” to your attention.  I bought this book about ten years ago, and share it whenever I get the chance.  It’s an example of why I enjoy the biography business.  You never know what someone is going to say.

As activity director of the Duplex Nursing Home, David Greenberg became friends with the residents.  He had the idea of asking common and wacky questions to the residents, from “How did you meet your wife?” to “Who was Frankenstein?” and record their responses.  Because it was a nursing home, the mental processes of the residents varied.  “… the names of their conditions of deterioration mattered little to me,” wrote Mr. Greenberg.  “What did matter was that this was someone still very much alive, very interested in conversing, in entertaining or being entertained, in connecting with someone else.”

 

Excerpts:

 

What’s the most valuable thing you ever lost?

 

Well, to me it was valuable.  It was a letter written to us extolling the virtues of my son from the Superintendent of Schools.  He said it could be used as a letter of recommendation anytime in his life.  It told that he was not only good scholastically, but he had good character as well.  I lost it somewhere. It fell out of my pocket.  To me it was valuable.

 

Herman Seftel

 

What can you tell me about the Beatles?

 

I don’t know nothin’ about the Beatles.  I can tell you more about the Salem Fire.  June 25th, 1914.  It burned seven days and seven nights.  We had doughnuts and coffee by the Salvation Army. I also wrote a book on the Salem Fire.  Worked with the Salem Public Works Department, fifteen years.

 

Walter Kieran

 

What’s the worst trouble you were ever in?

 

Probably I’ve been in plenty, but I don’t remember it.  My memory isn’t as good as it used to be.  Used-to-be.  How long ago is that, huh? 

 

Fergie Ferguson

 

Treat yourself to this insightful, humorous and poignant book of collected conversations of seasoned individuals.

You Are A Classic

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What did your grandmother do before you knew her?

Mine was a sharp shooter.  It was news to me!  Never saw her hold a gun in my life, which is probably a good thing.  She was always yelling at us kids to get out of the house, because we were making it dirty.  If she had a gun, I wouldn’t be here writing this …

Ask a grandparent about their childhood; what they did for fun when they were little.  Share here what you find out.

You Are A Classic

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