Tracing your roots
NH storytellers share insights on recording family histories
Amherst filmmaker and writer Darren Garnick's grandfather, Abraham Robert Tubin, aka "Grandpa Bob," as a young man. COURTESY (COURTESY)
Russ Morvant and Shannon Chaney on one of their first dates, after being evacuated during Hurricane Katrina. (COURTESY)
Those are the basic facts.
But it's the details - how they saw the movie while evacuated to Houston because of Hurricane Katrina, how they spent the movie smooching and fell in love - that make that date a story. Their story.
Chaney, 36, who now lives in West Chesterfield, said she's fond of sharing these stories and those of her clan with her daughter. One of the ways she shares them: in a book her mother and grandmother started that is chock full of photos and lore - an illustrated family history.
"It's awesome. Especially now that I'm a mom, I have a tangible history to show Milly, when she gets older, of where she came from. "
It's the little details of endings and beginnings - why does my sister like pearls?; why does Grandma save rubber bands?; what's with Grandpa's alligator-chasing-Santa Claus wall hangings? - that identify not just a family but each of the individuals who comprise it.
"And we start to tell those stories. Those stories get passed down in stories, and they have a tendency to reaffirm an identity: 'This is the smart one. ... This is the one that's always tripping over his own feet.' So family stories have a sort of function."
Amherst writer and filmmaker Darren Garnick, whose job generally involves collecting and telling other people's stories, at one point in his career decided to compile his own family's fascinating old stories so they wouldn't become lost to time.
Grandpa Bob lives on in "Don't Call Me Abe."
"He died a few years ago," Garnick said, "and that really illustrates the importance of capturing those family stories because we can all watch the video and smile and see the stories. I see the value of it in the film."
It's that sense that when a family's storyteller goes, so go the stories that underscores how critical it is to capture the stories when you can, said Lauretta Phillips, a member of the New Hampshire Storyteller Alliance. In an effort to preserve family stories, Phillips started a program in which she travels to various assisted-living centers to record the stories of elderly residents.
The way to do that, Phillips said, is to ask something specific: When did you get your first pair of dress shoes? Have you ever owned a ball gown? What was the dress you wore to the prom?
Embrace the story
"Memories are embedded in places," said Radner, the Maine storyteller. "If you ask somebody to tell you a story, they go blank. They tend to think it should be like Faulkner - you know, something finished and polished. Often there isn't enough in that request to attach things to. But if you say, 'Do you remember the first house you lived in?' or, 'The neighborhood you lived in as a child - can you tell me about it?,' they walk into that world."
Be prepared: Not all of the memories will be happy. Some might be tragic. But even those might include instances of humor and human tenderness.
"It's important to tell stories about the history of the family, even if the history has been bad," she said. "If you come from a long line of horse thieves, if the family has suffered reversals and loss and so on - to tell those stories means, 'We've survived.'"
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