A Wider View

by Pam Pacelli Cooper

Verissima Productions


Today’s excerpt from the “Abbott Leonard Cohen Tapes,” recorded when he was 91 years old, provide a perfect example of the ways our perceptions can be altered when interviewing subjects or when reading diaries someone has left behind.


For most of his life, Len Cohen’s grandson Rob believed that his grandfather was a teetotaler. He remembers his grandfather’s often quoted comment:

   “He who puts liquor to his brother’s lips is in danger of hell’s fires”


As we read through the transcripts, we found one entire side of a tape which described Grandpa Cohen’s experiences during Prohibition. Here is one excerpt:


Anthills Disturbed


[When Prohibition started] I was 32 or 33 …it lasted 13 years.


What people went through …was sort of like the disturbance of a colony of ants when their hill was kicked over…everyone scurried to find their comfort level. First there were those who accustomed to having hard liquor were determined to continue to have it unlimited. And they did just that…bootleggers and illicit chip stills sprouted like mushrooms over the land and Tennessee was way up in front in that development. The name bootlegger is derived from the seller of illicit whiskey. Of course, he carried bottles of his product handily in the leg of his high boots for immediate delivery. Bootleggers also carried real whiskey in the same way when they could get it. And there were ways to get it and they did, such as hijacking. And I know of one highly regarded citizen who had an arrangement with two negro Pullman porters whose run took them to New Orleans or El Paso, Texas who brought back to him and others, real bonded liquor.


Experiments with home brew

Everybody started the national experiment of making home brew, that’s homemade beer. And everyone had a different recipe for making it. Most efforts were not successful. Corks were popping all over town, not in celebration of the success, but because of too much yield that was in the mix, caused the corks to pop out of the bottles.


The Kick of the White Mule

Everybody had a friend who told him of a friend from whom he could buy White Mule …a raw un-aged corn liquor. In its infancy hardly fit for human consumption. So we would buy a five-gallon charcoal lined keg of it and put in some very small charcoal chips and then put the plug in the keg and that was it. Then we would set the keg aside for months or more, for Christmas or when it was ready to use.


[One year]I bought a keg of White Mule getting ready for Christmas which was about nine months away and stored it in the attic. Nine months is no age at all for [most] liquor.. . but White Mule has a real kick, or one might say, a wallop, even at that age. 


Two weeks before the gestation period was over I went up to the attic to bottle the treasure. I had lived up to every part of the prescription implicitly. So I leaned over cautiously and fondly to pick up the keg expecting to strain a bit in lifting a five gallon keg full of liquor. Imagine my surprise to say nothing of the shock, the keg was as light as a feather, absolutely empty. It seemed that the keg had a tiny pinhole leak and drop by drop the whiskey had escaped. We found a moire pattern on the floor under the keg as the only evidence that we had that it had been gradually dripping out. The bunghole was still perfectly tight. So we called the emergency bootlegger who saved the day. Merry Christmas!


What a shock! This upright man who everyone knew to be moderate In every way had broken the law on a regular basis (along with many others) during his 30’s.


As you explore your family photographs, diaries, tapes, and films, what surprises have you found? Have they altered your view of your ancestors?


For us, reading the whole chapter about Prohibition led to the understanding that Mr. Cohen was quite well versed in the nuances of the liquor trade. And it altered the myth a bit and made grandpa seem more believable, a more well-rounded character in our family’s story.


Young Men at the Stills during Prohibition

Young Men at the Stills – Photo Courtesy of the New York Daily News

Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

5 Great Reasons to Love the Family History Library in Salt Lake City

Several years ago, the Association of Personal Historians held their conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Mecca of family history. While I was there I had the opportunity to visit the Family History LibraryAs RootsTech 2015, a large annual genealogical conference, kicks off in Salt Lake today, I thought I’d share 5 reasons to visit (and love) this fabulous library.


Courtesy of familysearch.org
Courtesy of familysearch.org


1. It is the largest library of its kind in the world: You will be amazed at the vast holdings there. I was able to find an obscure land record from the 1840’s within a half an hour of entering the library because…

2. There are hundreds of well-trained volunteers to help you. Part of the service that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do involves going on 2-year missions to various parts of the world. Some missionaries serve the family history library, and they do so with a passion and a knowledge base that is impressive. When you enter the library, you are asked if you need help. No searching out harried reference librarians with limited hours. Wish every library had the funds and staffing to do this!

3. It’s free!

4. Records are available from other countries as well as the United States and are being digitally updated on a daily basis.

5. You can continue your research once you leave Salt Lake by forum, website, or telephone


If you’re lucky enough to be attending RootsTech 2015, be sure to make the Family History library a stop during your time in Salt Lake, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

If you aren’t able to be at RootsTech, you can follow along online via their conference live stream at rootstech.org

Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Building a family history: Where to start?

By Pam Pacelli Cooper

Verissima Productions


Wedding of AL Cohen and Irene Schloss, 1916, Memphis, TN

Wedding of AL Cohen and Irene Schloss, 1916, Memphis, TN


My mother in law Polly died 5 years ago. Her dining room table is now ours, her bed is in our guest room, and we have kept the vow we made when we inherited some of her things to have more dinner parties and to fill our guest room with family and friends just as she had done for so many years in her home in Memphis, Tennessee. What we haven’t done so well is to document and organize the numerous plastic storage tubs of family history mementos that came with us in the car when we left Memphis. We wanted the grandchildren and great grandchildren to benefit from the richness of their heritage. We’re personal historians. We do this for others, so it should be easy…


Yet, when we looked at all that material we felt as overwhelmed as I’m sure some of our clients feel when we ask them to gather materials for a family story. So, we decided to practice what we preach and do our own family history compilation. Where to start?  When I work with clients, I always ask them if they have any form of written or filmed materials from parents or grandparents, believing that a primary source is the best foundation for constructing a family history.


We were lucky and we were also just on the edge of being very unlucky. In the bottom of one tub was a compact box containing 11 audiocassettes and, we were to discover, 4 generations of family history. Inside were the reminiscences of Abbott Leonard Cohen, born in 1882. His daughter Polly, born in 1917, had interviewed him in 1974, when he was 92 years old. Len, as he was known, grew up in the Jewish community of Memphis during a very different time.

Abbott Leonard Cohen, 1883

Abbott Leonard Cohen, 1883


We had the cassettes transferred to digital files and then had those files transcribed. We had done it just in time – the cassettes were corroding and a couple of them broke when they were being transferred. Thanks to the expertise of the company we hired, we were able to save almost all of what was on the tapes.


In future blogs, we’ll share with you some of what we found, and also share with you the process of working on a family history. We hope you will enjoy it!


A hint for doing your own family history:


If you have family history materials on outdated forms of media: old films, cassette tapes, VHS tapes, get them moved onto digital media now. Film will turn black and break, cassette tapes will twist and curl up, and VHS will not be available to you. There are many reputable companies who will perform these services for you at a reasonable cost. The information you will save is more than worth the cost of saving it.


Serendipitously while writing this post I found a lovely, poignant article about inheriting objects and all that comes with them from the New York Times. If you’ve got a few more minutes to spare, you can read it here: http://nyti.ms/1Kcsqeg


Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dust in the Wind: Preserving that which will pass away

By Pam Pacelli-Cooper

President, Verissima Productions


Winter_2013_MFAI am returning to this blog after 18 months. As I was thinking about what to write, I came upon a short online essay by Christopher Cavin, a Zen monk and therapist who practices in Salt Lake City, the beating heart of genealogy in the United States.


Here’s what he wrote:

I know a truth, for I go to Estate Sales



Estate Sales: a Tour of your Future.

I loved you so much, you were so beautiful, and so brilliant, when we were young, and are even more so now.


A good man, with his religious books, his tools, his newer computer equipment and antique recording equipment…A good woman, with her important sayings framed on the walls, her sewing room filled with irons and yarn, her kitchen stocked with the correct implements, no doubt appropriately fussed over.


…And that drama, all those mini-dramas, all those intimate moments, all those supposed and real crises, washed aside but living imperfectly in the memories of those who, always from the periphery, witnessed them.


I wander through, heavy heart…And over the morning, his books, her sewing room, his tools and records, her china and cookery, are spread again throughout the village like a blanket…


…as the shoppers come and go.


As personal historians, we are dedicated to preserving and making sense of those books, those tools, those memories. What is the relationship we have with the knowledge that is contained in all these items? What can we do to help ensure that the lives of the people the items represent will live on after the items themselves have been scattered far beyond their places of origin? If we keep the image of the Estate Sale in our minds, how can it deepen the work we do?


If the traces of a life can be changed or destroyed in a moment — washed away in the floods of Katrina, buried in the silt of Sandy, left forever untold after a sudden death– what is our role?


How can we personal historians give meaning to our creations? What are the gifts a personal history can bring to the larger world…gifts that reach beyond the personal satisfaction of a story well told, or the pride of recounting family accomplishments?


This is one of the topics I plan to explore in 2015. I will be posting new Blogs every two weeks. Once a month, I will blog about larger topics like this one. The second monthly blog will trace the creation of a specific personal history for Abbott Leonard Cohen, a resident of Memphis, TN, born in 1882. You’ll be able to see how we take outdated forms of media (cassette tapes, 8 mm film) and long-scattered snippets of information to create a coherent story of his life.


I welcome your thoughts, questions, and suggestions about what you read in these blogs, and wish you all a fruitful 2015.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Using Your Senses to Uncover Your Family History, Part Two: Sniffing Out Emotions

By Pam Pacelli


As a junior in high school, I was given an assignment to write about a deeply pleasurable experience. Immediately, I recalled to the joy of baking sugar cookies with my grandmother in her kitchen but—try as I might—I could not describe the glorious smells of the newly baked cookies. Frustrated, I placed a drop of vanilla extract on the paper, hoping that when my English teacher smelled it, he would be able to share my experience.


“Miss Pacelli,” he wrote on the essay, “ In future, could you take care not to spill grease on your work before turning it in.” Mission aborted.


Smell is the only sense that has a direct line to the emotions. A scent travels immediately to the olfactory cortex, which is embedded deep within the limbic system of the brain, our emotional center. Smell evokes direct memories from our earliest childhood in a way that sound, sight, hearing and touch do not.
Here is what Natalie Angier, a science writer for the New York Times had to say in her article on smell, published in August 2008:


…Maria Larsson, an associate professor of psychology at Stockholm University, described the power of smell to serve as an almost magical time machine, with potential for treating dementia, depression, the grim fog of age…Studying groups of Swedes whose average age was 75, the researchers offered three different sets of the same 20 memory cues — the cue as a word, as a picture and as a smell. The scientists found that while the word and visual cues elicited associations largely from subjects’ adolescence and young adulthood, the smell cues evoked thoughts of early childhood, under the age of 10. And despite the comparative antiquity of such memories, Dr. Larsson said, people described them in exceptionally rich and emotional terms, and they were much likelier to report the sudden sensation of being brought back in time.


So how do we use this intense and immediate sense in our work as personal historians? We can’t put a dollop of vanilla on the pages of our books or on a DVD case, but we can ask questions that will help our subjects unlock olfactory memories. For instance, someone who grew up in a crowded urban environment: What was the first thing you remember smelling when went out the door on your way to school? Or, for someone who grew up on a farm: what were the first smells you remember on your parents’ farm?


Of course, as personal historians, we need to vet our clients before we ask these deeply evocative questions: someone who was a child in a labor camp or is a refugee from a war is not a good candidate for these kinds of questions.


For many of our clients, though, being “nose-y” may lead them back into their own personal time machine.

Leave a comment

Using Your Senses to Uncover Your Family History, Part One: Stop…and Look

“Mary’s Hamburgers” aka the Swedish State Bank in Chicago; photo credit: Blueprint Chicago

I love to walk. For over 30 years, I’ve walked in my adopted city of Boston. I know most of the streets, the byways, and the landmarks. But until I became a volunteer architectural and historical tour guide, I had no idea what I was missing. As part of our knowledge base, we were asked to identify cornices and pediments, stringcourses and lintels…in other words, we had to look up. From that moment on, I lived in a new city, or, at least, a renewed city. Buildings familiar to me at eye level were rejuvenated by the dates I found beneath the roof pediments. I suddenly discovered that a building with a burrito shop on the first floor and a modern façade had been built in 1867! Now, whenever I take a walk, I look at the buildings from eye level, as I always have, but then I look up, for a glance at a fresh, new world. Looking up has also helped me see the sky in a new way (yes, even in the city) and recently, I was introduced to the world of Jack Borden, whose passion in life is getting school kids to see what’s going on in the clouds (for a treat, see his website).


And what does all of this have to do with the work of personal history? Try taking a photograph of someone(s) in your family, one you have seen a hundred times before. Stop. Look around inside the photograph at the expressions on the faces, at the cars or buildings in the background, at the clouds in the sky, for that matter. What does the photo tell you about that captured moment that you’ve never considered before? What questions does it make you want to ask? Where does it lead you in the journey to create a full history of the family or person you are studying?


If you like the idea, try it, and share your findings with others on this blog.
And a much belated Happy 2013 to all!

1 Comment

Milk Row Cemetery

We are currently working hard to build excitement for our latest project, Revolutionary Voices: A Last Muster Film. To do so, Verissima is investigating some of the Revolutionary War era stories in our own back yard, then making short videos about those we uncover. We hope these videos will demonstrate the importance of preserving the accounts we have from the early years of our country, and will also get people excited about the stories we will be featuring in our Last Muster Film.


Here is the first video which features Barbara Mangum, conservator and President of Historic Somerville, discussing some of the events that happened when the Redcoats marched down Milk Row on their way to Lexington and Concord. Enjoy!


Leave a comment

Daniel Maher Stained Glass

We haven’t posted on the Life Preservers Blog for several weeks because we’ve been developing our newest project: a locally based video blog that will feature the distinctive artists, restaurants, businesses and residents of Somerville and Cambridge, MA. These video blogs will also highlight the interviewing and reporting talents of our assistant, Jessica Gagne, and the editing skills of our intern, Deven Clements. Below is our first installment, a tribute to long time Somerville stained glass artist Daniel Maher. Stay tuned for more frequent blogs : ) !


Leave a comment

A Piece of Home

Today’s post is a guest blog written by our assistant, Jessica Gagne. Enjoy!


This week marks the end of an era in my life. The last few boxes are being moved out of the home that my great grandmother’s parents left to her — a home that has been in my family for almost 90 years. I admit I never thought this day would come. I assumed “The Apartments,” as my family calls them, would remain in the Gagne name as long as they stood, but with the economy the way it currently is, sacrifices had to be made. The buildings were becoming too costly to maintain, so it was decided that they had to be sold.


The Apartments

The Apartments aren’t that much to look at from the outside: they are two white, rectangular, three-story buildings with flat roofs that are separated only by a ten foot wide driveway. They stand atop a steep, 50 foot tall embankment that leads down to the  river that cuts through my home town. The views from the property are nice, but the surrounding neighborhood is not. If you were driving by them, they would blend in to the sea of apartments that surround them, giving you no indication of being special.


Inside is where all the beauty truly lies. One of my family members has lived on every floor of both buildings. I learned to play Canasta from my great grandmother on the first floor of building two. I had long dinner talks with my Dad and step mother when they lived on the third floor of building one while waiting for their new house to be finished. My aunts and uncles have all resided in a unit at one point, and my great grandparents lived their most of their lives. The walls are filled with memories of holidays, births, deaths, hopes and dreams, and to me, walking through the buildings is like walking through an album of memories in my head. Every nook and cranny has a story to tell.


I never had a “house that I grew up in.” My father was in the military, and my mother’s job switched locations based on contracts, so the average time my parents stayed in one place was about two years. But my great grandparents and grandparents never moved. In fact, my great grandmother spent majority of her life (about 80 years) in the same unit of The Apartments! Also, my grandparents had lived in their unit since my father was born. I remember visiting The Apartments as far back as I can remember anything. This was the only place I could really call my childhood home, because it was the only place that was always there, and there was so much comfort in knowing that.


My grandmother and the women of my family with our newest addition, baby Mollie

I thought my memories would be the only piece I could take from the apartments until my step-mother made a surprising discovery in a pile of boxes headed for the dump. Inside one box was a suitcase full of hundreds of tiny slides that my great grandmother had kept of special events in her life. Pictures of my grandparents’ wedding, my aunt’s prom, my father being sworn in the the Coast Guard, and a whole sleeve dedicated to The Apartments themselves! Pictures of them with my grandfather’s police cruiser in front, pictures of when enclosed porches were added to the buildings in the 70s, and pictures of my family, inside and outside, showing how the buildings and the people who lived there had grown over the years. It was a preserved album of my family and my home.


I am so lucky to have this treasure, and so thankful that my great grandmother took the time to organize, label and save these memories for us. If she were still here I am sure we would be chatting away about the photos over Canasta (which she always won) and laughing about the old clothes and decor that were in fashion back then. My family plans to take the slides and have them converted picture files so we can make a slide show DVD to pass on to our future generations. Because of my great grandmother’s efforts, I will always be able to take a piece of my home, and of her, with me.

Leave a comment

The Boomer and the Babe

Yesterday, Verissima had the opportunity to speak with Pete Peters live on his radio program, the Boomer and the Babe Show. Topics included information about our company, upcoming projects, and, most importantly, the need for families to get elders’ stories recorded in whatever way they can. Listen to the interview at the link below and let us know your comments!


Click here to Listen to Pam Pacelli Cooper on the Boomer and the Babe!


Leave a comment