All families are rich in stories, some tell them, others not. Not many stories were told in my family. I would have loved to know more. I think it is an urge many of us have. It might be because we hope that they answer some questions about who we are or that they provide for a snippet of immortality or allow for building family history.
Telling stories and old age have always gone together. Passing on lessons learnt to a younger generation is part of it. It was easier at a time when families lived closer together and there was more opportunity for casual, unplanned story telling moments. The way we currently live these opportunities are harder to come by but the wish to know the stories of our parents has not faded. What has evolved as an answer is the role of the personal historian, somebody outside the immediate family, who records the life story of the elder. According to Susan Rothenberg, a former social worker and personal historian in the Bay Area, the elders are mostly motivated by their children to tell their story. In our last AHWGO session she talked about her experience and her approach to listening and recording. As in the old days telling a life story is not a hasty affair. Over a period of about 10 months she meets regularly with her clients. After a year or two there is a book, most of the time privately published. It is an exercise in respectful listening where at times memories are prompted with objects and photos, and secrets are always respected.
The elders who are telling their stories today are mostly in their seventies and beyond. They grew up without therapy, without social media. For many it is a luxury and thrilling to have the undivided attention of a listener. This might be even more important than the end product. Although a growing phenomena, personal historians are still rare. Apart from their role as recorders they also offer a chance to combat the disease of old age ‘loneliness’ by being listeners. There is a need for a program especially directed towards recording stories of the elder. I can see this in senior centers, in senior residences, in neighborhoods. At a time when unemployment among college graduates is high, this could be a great way to give and receive for young adults – an alternative to ‘Teach For America’, ‘Listen For America’. And it is not only about the time spent together in recording the story. There is a relationship between the story teller and the story recorder that goes beyond those hours spent together. Like Susan Rothenberg said, her adjunct family is growing with every story.
Even if there are no kin, as somebody in our group noted: ‘We all stand on each other people’s shoulders,’ and telling a story helps both the storyteller and the one who listens. A more public alternative to the personal historian, StoryCorps reflects this notion. In partnership with National Public Radio this nonprofit provides everyday Americans the opportunity to record and share stories of their lives.
I vote for a ‘story stimulus package.’