A Family History, On Tape

Monday, August 27, 2012

Historians have made careers out of examining pieces of paper — letters, manuscripts, articles — to decipher just a little bit of history, to learn someone's story. But in an age of smartphones and digital file-sharing, why aren't we letting our family members' voices speak for themselves? Why don't we record more of their advice, their stories, their lives, with a camera?

When Ben Heineman, Sr. passed away on August 5, that was one of the many thoughts going through his son's mind. Just a few weeks after his father's death, Ben Heineman Jr., a senior fellow at Harvard Law School, says not catching his father on tape is one of his only regrets — and says we should take advantage of the age we're living in. 

That's exactly what Takeaway listener Gigi Gerben did. A teacher and mother in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Gerben recorded her father before he died unexpectedly last year. She stresses the importance of having the recording to cherish in her family. 

Guests:

Gigi Gerben and Ben Heineman, Jr.

Produced by:

Arwa Gunja and Brad Mielke

Comments [6]

Kim from New York, NY

Just want to give a shout out to StoryCorps, which most NPR listeners should know about already, but if not, it's a wonderful resource for recording interviews with loved ones (or anyone). I don't know the numbers, but I'm sure there are at least 10's of thousands of stories that have been recorded and preserved. I interviewed my mother a couple of years ago and not only was the whole family grateful to have a copy of the interview, it also reinforced the validity of my mother's life and made her feel like her life story is important.
My father passed away before StoryCorps was started, but fortunately, about 4 or 5 yrs before he died, my brother and I spent a day taking him to the town he grew up in and followed him around with a video camera, while he reminisced about his life, going from the house where he was born to the church where he was an altar boy to the beach where he worked as a beach "boy". Each location brought back poignant & sweet & funny memories.

There are so many ways to preserve the memories/life stories of our families/friends, I urge everyone to do it, no regrets!

Aug. 27 2012 07:45 PM
Anina Karmen from Greenwich Village, NYC

This is amazing synchronicity: Just yesterday, at an annual reunion for my father's family that I had missed for the past 11 years, I talked with my oldest living cousin and heard some details for the first time about the day and aftermath of my mother leaving my father in 1966. At 81 years old, my cousin Jerry is the only one left to have known my parents intimately.,

The details made what was a necessary, but tragic, event in my life an even sadder story. I now know that my father asked Jerry to help sew up the loose threads of his life, and to have him committed to a mental hospital. My father would spend the rest of his life in the care of the New York City mental health system. Jerry confirms that my mother was nearly a saint for staying with a mentally ill husband for 16 years. She left only when she saw his mental illness affecting her only child, her 11 year-daughter--i.e., me. She never remarried, and died fairly young, never quite letting go of her guilt about my father.

My parents left a very small footprint. Today's show on the Takeaway has sprung me into action to get their stories on record somehow--and fast. Cousin Jerry is 81 years old, and I will immediately call him and try to set up a date with him, me, and a tape recorder.

Thank you guys.

Aug. 27 2012 04:40 PM
Karen Teichert Escalona from Miami

My WWII veteran father may have survived WWII, but he used silence to survive his return home to the States. He went silent each time I'd try to record his recollection of experiences as a young infantryman in Patton's Army. "You don't show where you've been hit," he used to say. "You show how you've healed." Years after he died I interviewed his younger sister who shed some light on my father's silence. His father and uncles were conscientious objectors to war, she said, and forbade my father to sign up for the Navy when he was 17. Once he turned 18 he disobeyed them and entered the war in Europe as a machine gunner. He survived Bastonne and countless horrors, and not once did he receive any contact - letters, nor encouragement- from his father and uncles. He was alone in his convictions to fight for his country. He remained silent when he returned. I wish now I could have coaxed the stories out of him. I feel the ability to express a memory helps reduce its magnitude. Perhaps my father felt he was up to bearing that weight to his grave.

Aug. 27 2012 03:40 PM
Donna McDaniel from Southborough, MA

I have done an oral history for my town, interviewing 40 of our oldest residents. It is a gift to them to have someone care about them and their memories. Too often when elders speak, the rest of us "tune out." This was an empowering experience for them.

Aug. 27 2012 12:36 PM
Katherine Cantrell from Elgin, SC

Back in 1993 we set up a video camera in my Grandpa's cabin in Northern Minnesota and filmed as we all ate dinner and had conversation. My Grandpa (Roger McDonald Sr) was in his 80's, had homesteaded there, was a forest ranger along with many other side jobs in the North country, living off the land. It is a treasure to have him on film.

Aug. 27 2012 10:08 AM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

I have made fun videos with my kids. One day they will be able to play these for their kids, long after I'm dead and say,"Oh Dad! That was your Grandpa. He was something."

My Grandfather would tell me stories about growing up in Lithuania, and I spend my time recording it in stories.

Aug. 27 2012 08:01 AM

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