Oral Personal Histories of Women I Love: A Winding Process

family tree
No less than three times with three different people have I tried to compile and compose a personal history based on oral interviews.  First with my mother, then an elderly friend, and finally an aunt who was like a grandmother to me.  With my mother I just took notes, but with the next two women, I sat down for some beautiful, unforgettable hours and recorded interviews about all aspects of their lives.

The goal was grand: I wanted to transcribe the interviews, and extract and recount a narrative that reflected the woman’s voice and subjectivity, and convey all the fascination I felt for their lives.

Dear Reader, I failed.

I have learned a few lessons about oral storytelling though. For one thing, it takes eons to transcribe interviews and gives me a sore neck. Also, people do not talk in linear pathways, but take rambling strolls through memory, criss-crossing back and forth through time and across anecdotes, and don’t always bother with consistency (not to be confused with truth).  The most intense and interesting and integral revelations are often exactly the ones she will ask you not to include.  And that trying to piece together the vagaries of anyone’s life into tidy chapters that flow one to the next, and doing so with some decent literary texture, is a grueling and massive work.

Which is why I have three incomplete personal histories under my belt.

As suggested above, I viewed this, for a long time, as an utter failure. Two of the women I worked with have long passed away, and I presented neither with the book of themselves I had so clearly envisioned and told them about.  Their stories, their amazing stories, lie tucked away in cabinets or the recesses of my computer and no one knows them except me.

And yet… I’m not sure what has shifted for me exactly… maybe a greater appreciation for grey areas?… but recently I am not experiencing my unfinished projects as the defeats they once were to me.  It’s true I haven’t accomplished my written goals of preserving their lives, but I did take enough steps to at least preserve the ability to to do so.  Their stories are not public, but neither are they lost. At the least, I have the interviews, the raw data and materials that they shared.  With a bit of editing out to honour their wishes of what should not be shared, the histories of these women can be passed on, imperfect but intact, as they are.  Maybe my one of my sons, or my great grand niece should I be so lucky, will come across the files one day and do with them what I couldn’t, or something else entirely that I can’t imagine.  The chance has been preserved.

Or maybe it will be me who comes back to it.  It’s possible that the chance that has been preserved has been preserved for me, and the thought of this is as warming as the spring.  Maybe I will revisit these projects at a more right time and have better success pulling the pieces together, and the talk of failure will have even less hold than it does. I feel reassured by this possibility, how it brings me just that much closer to the lives of the women I love. They are remembered, and somehow with that, the process of preserving their history feels yet alive and well.

Oral vs. Written Family History: Not the Only Options

Which is the better way to preserve memory, stories told or stories written?  The debate is a long-entrenched one, with written documents claiming ascendency over the oral tradition in the western world.  So suspicious are we of oral testimony, even when you swear an oath in court, you do so with your hand on the Bible, a written text.

As anyone who has ever lost the contents of her computer’s hard drive or suffered a flood or a fire or an over-zealous co-habiting purger will know, written documents are exceptionally vulnerable.  The written record is only as good as its ability to survive the elements and the whims of fate.

My husband is an avid Franklin expedition historian, and he has been writing about the search for the missing ships of the ill-fated English captain for years. When researchers finally found the lost ships of the Franklin expedition, they were right where the Inuit had said they were all along.  I admit to feeling delight at that confirmation, not least because it validated the oral tradition.  I felt an odd sense of satisfaction in knowing that the written tradition that I hold so dear had not come through in this case.  I am overly dependent on writing and on photographs for recording history, and I like to think that something like a needle in a haystack could be found with stories that have been told for hundreds of years.

The oldest piece of English literature, Beowulf, is a marvel to me.  How did the bards manage to pass that poem down through time and generations?  How many hundreds and thousands of times did people gather to hear it before it was written down?

How do we know that what got written is definitive?  Does definitive matter?

It does in court, which accounts, perhaps, for covering both bases by swearing on the Bible.

There are other ways to confirm a spoken promise, though.  We also seal deals with handshakes, and it’s that tactile element of history that’s got me thinking these days.  In last week’s posts, Beth-Anne, Carol, Kerry, and I all chose objects to illustrate our family history that we can touch, and even though some of these are out of reach of small hands, some of them do get frequent handling.  I like the idea of capturing history in things that get frequent handling.

As poor as my memory is (Very poor.  For my own purposes, I’m squarely in the written and photographic record camp because I cannot be relied upon to remember anything.  I hoard books not just because I’m a bibliophile but because they are a (false) security blanket.), I do remember a designer on a TV show once saying about a very expensive front door handle that it was worth the price.  “It’s something that you will touch every day.”  That has stayed with me.  Something you will touch every day is worth paying more for, and something you touch every day would also surely be a wonderful piece of family history.Data dump Sept 15 2015 134

How does a tactile record of family history look?

I’m about to find out.  For Eldest’s Grade 8 graduation, I am having a quilt made for him from a selection of his old hockey, camp, school, books, movie and sports t-shirts.  They tell a story of who he was as a kid, a story that he will throw over himself every day, whether he sits to watch next season’s hockey games or read the next Hunger Games-like series that captures his imagination.  I picture him bundled up in it, and that’s the kind of (security) blanket in which I have full faith.  It is a gift I plan to give to his brothers, too, and to all three of them I will say the same thing:  If you ever tire of this and are tempted to throw it away, don’t.  Bring it back to me, and I will give it a home until the stories it tells speak to you again, as I hope they will for many, many years to come.