History Finds A New Home: The Journey of the Plastic Bins

By Pam Pacelli Cooper

President, Verissima Productions



My mother lives in a small, one bedroom apartment on Chicago’s North Side. The one big thing about the apartment is the closets. There are three large ones, and they would be the envy of anyone in the Northeast who lives in a 19th century house designed for wardrobes. For years, her closets have been filled, top to bottom with strong boxes, plastic bags, suitcases, old hat carriers, and a lavender jewelry box with a scene from Godey’s Lady’s book on the lid. Much of this trove of history has seen post offices in Kansas and Kalamazoo, San Diego and Saint Louis and Chicago apartments ranging from post WWII efficiencies to a 13 room “palace”.


And now, they’re all coming East with me.  Not able to organize them herself, mother has asked me to take them to a new home.  I go to the local Target and buy color-coordinated bins and spend four days packing them, carefully, for their journey.  Some of the paper is very old and crumbling (note to self: acid free sleeves). Some of the photos have been stored deep in boxes so they appear almost new as I unpack them from their hiding places.  There are familiar pieces of history: my great great grandfather’s affidavits for his Civil War pension, the napkins with love notes on them from my father to my mother, the daguerreotype c.1850 with the stern looking twins in it.  There are also surprises: a long series of letters between my great grandmother and her older sister about their other sister, who was suffering from mental illness, a lock of hair from the young son my great grandmother lost to tetanus in 1900; the lectures my grandmother gave across the West in the 1930’s when she ran a depression-era charm school.



1861 Godey’s Ladies Book.


We pack them up and drive back to the East, across Michigan, into Ontario, then New York State and back to Massachusetts—the exact reverse of the migration that led my Ipswich, Massachusetts relatives to Illinois in the first place.


We carry the six bins up to the third floor of our house, where they will be keeping company with the bins we brought from Memphis six years ago when my mother in law passed away.


Now, I begin the task of cataloging these artifacts and adding the stories they bring with them to the names and dates in my family tree.


How many bins have you transported?  What have you done with your family materials and what have you learned? Please write in and let us know.
Please also tune in to our podcast for this month, where John Morrison describes his adventures with history in an historic home.



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Life Preservers Podcast: Episode 5 – “Amateur Historian”

Old Houses and Puritan Contentions

A special Waltham childhood in an unusual house sparks a love of history and research and…what is the connection between a fiery Puritan and the United States constitution?  Hear it all on this month’s “Life Preservers” podcast.





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Life Preservers Podcast: Episode 4 – Beach Listening


Hooked on podcasts? So are we. We listen at the gym, while travelling, at home, and even relaxing on the beach. For our summer episode of Life Preservers podcast, we’ve chosen 7 off-the-beaten-path podcasts that entertain us, teach us new and useful things, and pique our desire to learn more . Old movies? Ben Franklin? “Hamilton ” as a teenager? Tune in and enjoy. We hope you’ll find a new podcast obsession, and share yours with us!



Attribution This episode contatins excerpts from the following: Plimoth Plantation podcast (iTunes); You Must Remember This (http://www.youmustrememberthispodcast.com/) ; Becoming Wise (http://www.onbeing.org/becoming-wise); Ben Franklin's World (http://www.benfranklinsworld.com/); Still Buffering (http://www.maximumfun.org/shows/still-buffering); Sawbones: A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine(http://www.stitcher.com/podcast/sawbones-podcast/sawbones); The Bowry Boys: New York City History (http://www.boweryboyshistory.com/).

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Brilling and Bedazzled: Creating New Words

By Pam Pacelli Cooper

President, Verissima Productions


My family of origin adores words. We did crossword puzzles, word games, Boggle and Scrabble when I was growing up. I was lucky enough to meet and marry someone who is also a lexophile.


What his family doesn’t do is create words to capture a feeling, an object, or a process where regular words don’t seem to work. I figure if it was OK for Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll (Oh, that “frumious Bandersnatch”), and e.e.cummings, it’s OK for us. We are Neologists.


This custom is proving to be immensely valuable as I talk to my now 90-year- old mother. In some ways, she is as sharp as ever, but her vocabulary is slipping along with her memory. As I try to piece together her personal history, we amble through our conversations, stopping along the way to clarify words and memories that are now quite murky. One day, we were working our way back to 1936 when she made a cross-country trip with her parents, seeking a dry climate for her stepfather, whose mustard-gassed lungs couldn’t take the cold, humid Chicago weather. She stalled when trying to describe the diary her mother had kept of the trip. “I don’t remember the correct sequence,” she said. “ My memory is just not what it was.” Then she paused again. “Just a minute, I think I’ll go into my Remembory and see if I can find it.” And she did.


Her Remembory: I loved it this new word! It brought to mind the famous “Memory Palaces” created by the Ancient Greeks, buildings in their brains that had rooms and shelves and doors in which they organized and stored vast amounts of material.




My own Remembory resembles the stacks in an immense library built in the 19th century. The stacks go up several levels, but there are also basements and subbasements where some of the most arcane and fascinating materials are stored. When I can’t think of something, I imagine myself filling out a slip of paper at the
library and the reference librarian “ sending down to the stacks” to get it. Sometimes it takes awhile, but with patience, it returns.


Do you have a “Remembory,” a place where you go to search for information from the past when you can’t find it in the present? Can you describe it for us?


NOTE: After I wrote this blog, I looked up Remembory on Google and found this from the “Urban Dictionary”: the recall of an almost forgotten memory, leading to a story.

Someone else out there is making up words, too…





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Life Preservers Podcast–Episode 3: An Interview with Francie King

A responsibility not “accepted blithely.” Join us as Francie King of History Keep describes her work with personal history clients, drawing on her years of journalism experience. You’ll also encounter treasured letters, Revolutionary War re-enactors, and a magnificent mother as we enter Part 3 of our journey to find the personal stories of personal historians.



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How We Tell Our Stories


By Pam Pacelli Cooper

President, Verissima Productions


We tell stories with video and audio. In the personal histories we create we hope to capture the successes and happy moments, but also the moments of pain, mistakes, and repair. If future generations see only the “great” moments of their grandparents’ lives, they may be cowed and dispirited, rather than inspired, so we try to encourage our subjects to cover the whole terrain–not with sensational “tell all” moments–but with depth, sensitivity, and a regard for their own  humanity. These are the stories that will be remembered, not as “family myths,” but as guiding stars.


In that spirit, I offer a link to the 2016 graduation speech at Colgate University, delivered by  Dr.  Omid Safi of Duke University, Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies and also a columnist for the popular podcast “On Being.”


It’s  long, but so very rich. And, far more than just advice to 21 year-olds, it’s a reminder to us all in this time of discord, about how we might define success. I graduated long ago, but I find these questions stunningly relevant in  my own life.


CLICK HERE to read it (or watch it below) and tell me what you think of it, especially as it relates to how we collect stories–what we ask, what we make forefront, what we push away. And how we tell our own…


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Personal History & Making Choices – Part 3

Personal History and Making Choices - Part 3 by Pam Pacelli Cooper Our first two blogs about making choices  in personal history dealt with awareness and contemplation from: “What is personal history? Never heard of it, “ to “ This sounds interesting, but I want to think more about it.”  Ok, now, you've made it through those first two phases and your relative or your personal history client has thought about it and says they're ready to move forward. Ready to start talking or taping, right?  Not quite. The next step is huge. The  decision has been made to go ahead, but the decision about HOW to proceed has not. As someone who has painted a lot of rooms, I can say that I dislike the spackling and the sanding—I’d rather put the beautiful colors on the wall NOW—but having tried that a few times and ended up with a bumpy, uneven mess, I’ve learned the importance of preparation. If you want want a high-quality personal history, there’s a lot of “spackling” involved.   How can you help in this stage?  1.	Identify supports and obstacles to creating the project. Brainstorm about  how to amortize the supports and overcome the obstacles.  2.	Create a map:  There are many ways to do this, but your map must have a beginning, signposts along the way, and a destination ( the final product).  3.	Keep the larger purpose in mind: Why are you doing this, and for whom? If things get dicey or stall,  visualize the faces of your great grandchildren as they learn about their family, or imagine an historian coming across the World War II letters from your grandfather that you’ve donated to the local historical society.   You’ve made the decision, you’ve got the vision, you’ve made a map. NOW you are ready to take action!  This is the stage most of us are familiar with. It involves setting the steps of our carefully laid plan into motion and adjusting as we need to, always keeping the end in mind.  What has your experience been with these three phases? How did you help move someone through the first two stages to the third stage of being ready for the project? Do you have a system for creating a personal history map that's worked well for you? Share your experiences in the comments section!

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Life Preservers Podcast – Episode 2: An interview with Leah Abrahams

What do Georges Briard, Gertrude Stein, and a Lutheran fraternal organization have in common? Find out when you listen to our interview with Leah Broyde Abrahams, personal historian. As a subject in our series on getting to know personal historians, Leah describes the path she took to become one, what she has learned, and some insights on why creating a correspondence with the future is so important.


Life Preservers

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Personal History & Making Choices – Part 2

Making Choices in Personal History Part 2: Contemplation  How do you decide to embark on a personal history? In our last blog, we began to explore the stages of decision-making, based on the work of James Prochaska and his colleagues in their ground-breaking research on lasting change and how it happens.  Today, we’re going to discuss the second stage of change.  Contemplation: “Hmmmm…”  In pre-contemplation, we introduced the idea of presenting information that was previously unknown: that there is such a thing as a personal history and that it will have lasting value in the lives of individuals, families, and communities. This is the “awareness” stage, a move from ignorance to knowledge. We encouraged the “educator,” to share information freely and then step back to allow it to percolate, rather than trying to rush decision-making and action.   Now suppose you haven’t talked with them for a couple of months. It’s perfectly fine to check in and ask them and ask if they’ve thought any more about it (being aware of the personality of the person you’re contacting). At this point, if they say either, “I’m thinking about what it might mean to do something like this, but I need to take some more time to make any decision, or, “I hadn’t thought about it but, now that you remind me, I’d like to think further about this. “This is the signal that he/she is in the “Contemplation” stage.  What are the indicators: 1.	Consideration of the possibilities without any action steps being  involved; Their Sitting on a fence where previously no fence existed; 2.	No immediate time frame being discussed. ‘I’m aware that this is something that has benefited others and might be of benefit to me, but I’m not ready to jump in just yet.”  How can you be helpful in this stage? 1.	Validate their decision-making process: “I understand that you want to think about this some more. That’s great. It’s a big step. You want to make sure that if you do this, it feels solid. “ 2.	Clarify and discuss: Help them understand the pros and cons of doing a personal history (e.g., the pro of having something for my siblings, great grandchildren, community; the con of how much it would cost, the time it would take, I don’t feel like I’d have anything to say, etc.) 3.	Illustrate the value of contemplation: Just carefully weighing the options will deepen their understanding of their process and help them achieve resolution.

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Making Choices & Personal History

1) name the steps in the change process; 2) relate them to the stages people go through in deciding to preserve life stories; and 3) give hints about how to recognize and work through each stage.   Stage One: Pre-Contemplation…”What Are You Talking About?”  Our culture is awash in storytelling and life preservation, from Story Corps -- to the Humans of New York Facebook page -- to the huge Roots Tech genealogy convention. Yet when someone’s son says, “Maybe we ought to tell the story of our family?” or a member of the local historical society says, “Maybe we ought to digitize those oral histories that are stored on crumbling paper in the back room…” a person may often say, “Our story is not very interesting,” or “We don’t have the money to digitize those records,” or “I don’t have the time.”  This is what is called the Pre-Contemplation Stage.  In the Pre-Contemplation Stage everyone can see that there is a need but the person with the need can’t see it, or doesn’t think it applies to them. How do you help people move out of this stage?  Raise Consciousness, Educate, Inform!  Since you are reading this blog, you are most likely not in pre-contemplation, but you probably know someone who is -- a family member, a business associate, a friend, maybe even the Board member of your local historical society.    Here are some steps you can take to raise awareness  DO:  1.	Cite facts: List the variety of benefits derived from preserving their life histories. (Most people in pre-contemplation have never even considered them as personally relevant.)  2.	Share the positive changes that came into your own life as a result of creating a personal history. You can also listen to our current podcast to hear how one Personal Historian’s life changed as a result of her family journey. …or watch an episode of Henry Louis Gates’ show, “Finding Your Roots.”  3.	Point out some of the consequences of failing to preserve lives, e.g., “I wish I knew what mom thought about my dad’s years in the CIA,” or “I’ll never be able to find out more about mom’s time as a missionary in Laos,” or “I think those are my great uncles, but grandma is dead and there’s no legend on the back of the photo.”  DON’T  1.	…try to move the person along too fast. You are not trying to get the person to act at this stage—they are not ready-- you are helping to raise their awareness.  2.	…be discouraged if it takes a while…even if you feel an urgency, the desire to proceed needs to come from within. If it doesn’t it won’t sustain and the project will never start or it will feel like it’s your project, instead of theirs.   Are you a professional personal historian? This may help you understand why we often experience such long lead times between the first contact and the initiation of a project. Do you know someone who would benefit from doing a Personal History? Learning the stages involved in choosing and changing may provide insight into the complexity of the process.   Look around you this week. How many people do you see who are still in the pre-contemplation stage of doing a personal history? Please share what you discover with us.  Next Week: Stage 2: Contemplation: “Hmmm….”

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