Tracing your roots
NH storytellers share insights on recording family histories
ON THEIR FIRST DATE, Shannon Chaney and Russell Morvant went to a movie. They saw "Serenity." It was 2005.
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.
That date, plus eight years, has brought Chaney and Morvant a beautiful daughter, Milly. Now their story is her 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.
"My mom gave it to me when I moved to England, so that I'd have something to take with me," said Chaney, who studied overseas in college. "So I'm the holder of the history at the moment.
"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.
"The importance of family storytelling in general is that it's how we establish and maintain our identities," said Jo Radner, a Maine storyteller who will be holding several workshops in New Hampshire on how to mine and collect family stories.
"That is really hugely important. (Those stories) carry the kind of creation myths of our families. You know the story of your marriage and the courtship of your marriage. That story talks about how your family got established, and it's always a tricky story because it talks about how your family incorporated a stranger and how your family got together to create something that hadn't been there before."
The stories are told for comfort, for entertainment, for information, but they also can serve as models of how to behave or cautionary tales of what to avoid. They're also used to reaffirm identity and even establish who we are.
"We create the same myths about our children," Radner said. "From very early on, we look at our children and say, 'If so-and-so did that, what does that mean about her character?'
"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."
Immortalized in film
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.
In 1997, when his grandfather Bob Tubin was about to turn 80, Garnick made a film called "Don't Call Me Abe.'' In it he had family members tell their favorite stories about Grandpa Bob. One of those stories was about how, as a little boy named Abraham, Garnick's grandfather came to be known as Bob.
"There were three Abrahams in the class," said Garnick. "Just like how today there might be three Ashleys or three Madisons, the name Abe was really popular in the 19-teens, so the teacher asked (Tubin) to go by his middle name, Bob - and he became my Grandpa Bob years later.
"And that was one of the great stories. A childhood story of having your name changed by your first-grade teacher is a story we'll pass on for generations."
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."
Seizing the moment
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.
"Most people will tell you, 'I don't have any stories,'" Phillips said. "But then once you start asking questions - or if I tell a story about, say, my mom teaching me to cook on wood stove - I'll have a half-dozen people, because it's a senior audience, say they know how to do that. It brings back their memory, and they will start thinking about doing that and start telling you about it.
"So you need to know what questions to ask or what things to say - how to prompt them."
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?
These questions, Phillips said, bring back not just an object but an entire memory - a story.
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."
Once the source of the story is there, Radner said, the interviewer can ask follow up questions about the place: Who was there, and what were they doing?
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.
Embrace those stories, Radner said.
"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.'"
For more information on Radner's family stories workshops, along with a complete schedule of when they occur, go to the NH Humanities Council website at www.nhhc.org.