Thursday, February 23, 2012

A "Heartwarming Story with a Little Surprise:" Don't Forget to Document the Mundane

It took me a long time to learn how to speak to an audience. I am basically a shy person, but after over 40 years on this earth, I think I am finally learning how to be myself. Public speaking, like writing in many ways, has given me an opportunity to present the real me to the world. If you meet me one-on-one, I am not likely to tell you my personal stories with much detail. I always think, "Why would this person care to know so much about me?" (I am working to get over that.) I have never fancied myself a storyteller because I try to go light on the details and shut up as soon as possible.

I had been presenting a workshop for many years on preserving your family materials. I invited people to bring their personal items so I could tell them how to care for them. I kept the groups to twenty and under so that I would have the opportunity to look and talk about everyone's materials to give advice. It was (and still is) a fun presentation. But soon, people began asking me if I could accommodate larger groups. I needed to redesign the class, so I started seeking items with preservation issues at antique shops to use for demonstration materials. (If you are a regular reader of this blog, you now know how "More Finds at the Local Antique Shop" got started.)

When I began thinking about writing my book "The Unofficial Family Archivist," I started to learn to be a storyteller. My own childhood materials from the 1970s were perfect samples of imperfection. My yellowing Polaroids and browning "magnetic" albums would be great for demonstration. I began searching my collections for more materials for demonstration. Memories came flooding back. I began to incorporate my materials into my writing and my public talks. I also began telling stories behind the materials and most surprisingly to me, people have responded enthusiastically.

Stanscopes and slide viewer from my family collection
Yesterday I was working on a photo collage to use in a banner in a web site overhaul for ArchivesInfo. In the collage I included a photo of Stanhopes. I showed the collage to a few friends and asked them for their opinions on my design. My good friend, Erica Holthausen of Honest Marketing Revolution suggested that I leave out the Stanhope image because she didn't know what those things were. I wrote her the following: "the image on the right is of an old slide viewer from the 50s (the black thing) and old Stanoscopes [sic], which are picture key fobs with images put right inside. (Think viewmaster with one image built right in.) Stanoscopes [sic - I've since re-learned the proper name] were made as little keepsakes, often at touristy sites like Coney Island, which is where I suspect my father may have had one of these done. A picture of him as a little boy is inside.)"

Erica wrote back enthusiastically and I hope that she doesn't mind me sharing what she said here. "Oh, I love that story! Have you done a blog post on it? Totally blog-worthy! A great, heart-warming story with a little surprise: the photo of your dad as a little boy. Very cool...again, it's the story about the real person that makes the object so special." 

Wow! My story - Worthy of telling - People want to hear. I am reminded of that once again. 

In "The Unofficial Family Archivist" I made a point to tell my personal family stories to show how my family memories and archives are not so very much unlike yours. And when incorporating those stories into presentations, I see eyes shining in my audience and nods of recognition. Each of us has stories that make up a greater community story. Each story I have in my head has roots in some community with other people who experience similar things. The little surprise at the end is how each story is so personal. An object is an object until you figure out its purpose and then tell its history through a community lens. If you can put a personal lens on it, that makes it all the more special.

I have had two presentations each week this month. The presentation topic focuses on two chapters of "The Unofficial Family Archivist" and relates to personal narrative and preservation of personal papers. In working and reworking the presentation, I've had many memories flood back as I try to find personal stories to shed light on points I am trying to make. I am going to leave you today with a personal story I remembered the other day and incorporated into a presentation a couple of nights ago. The point of the story is to tell people that sometimes important things about our lives do not automatically get recorded. We automatically grab a camera for special occasions, but we usually need to think more about things that happen to us on non-"special" occasions. Some of the things we do every day may be worth recording to shed light on our own personal narrative or our own family history, and to show what it is like to live in this time and place. Grab the video camera to document a morning routine; write in a journal about the mundane events of your day; make a list of things that struck your fancy as you went about your is one of those stories in my life.

There will never be another pizza like
mom's. This is not mom's pizza. This is from
When I was a kid, my mom made pizza from scratch every weekend. She would start the dough early in the afternoon - mix up the ingredients, put them in a glass bowl, and let it sit in the cold oven (which was warmer than the rest of the room even though it wasn't on.) She would come back to the dough a couple of times in the afternoon to pound it down and let it rise all over again. While the dough rose, she would defrost her home made tomato sauce. Mom kept a garden and would use the tomatoes for her sauce. My sister and I helped with the garden, though what I most remember about it was planting seeds and tossing cherry tomatoes in the air to catch them in our mouths. The sauce was kept in a downstairs freezer alongside meat we had delivered monthly and other frozen garden treats. Once the dough had sufficiently risen and this sauce was defrosted, Mom would roll out the dough and pull it into a square pan, then adding its toppings and placing it in the oven. Three little kids would hungrily peer into the square window while we watched the edges of the pizza brown and the cheese ooze on top.

This was every day life in my house. This story tells a lot about how I lived and what my mother valued. Perhaps it's a "heartwarming story with a little surprise." My eighties teen years were a holdover from a time that was quickly passing. My family, like yours, is a microcosm of life as we know it now, but we may soon forget. I have no pictures. I have only this blog post about mom's pizza. (I hope it wasn't too wordy.)

1 comment:

  1. I am so glad you are working to get over that reticence to share details. That's where the gist of the story lies! And it is always worthy of being told, though you may sometimes need to find the right match with the right audience.

    I love your theme of the greater community story--much like what I think of "The Continuing Conversation." It is that heritage passed forward that I have found valuable--and interesting--about researching local history in the communities where my ancestors once lived...or even reading nationally-known stories that have a historic basis. Even when I read the "Little House" series aloud to my young daughter, it brought home to me the point that it was the little details about how life really was in those times that makes the series endearing to me. I even like reading through hundred-year-old newspapers, just to get the sense of what day-to-day life was like in that time and place.

    By taking your suggestion and learning from your experience, we, too, take our place in a long chain of story-tellers laying down micro-history for those yet to come.