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.

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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!

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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!


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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 : ) !


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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.

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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!


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August seems to be a favorite month for families to reunite. Years ago, I remember

multiple Italian relatives who had come from the same village in Italy, descending

on my grandfather’s modest farm in Naperville, Illinois. Baseball games, card games

going on late into the night, Neapolitan dialect flying above my head like exotic



My African American friends often took the bus or the train south from Chicago, and

stayed a month or more with the ‘grans’ and the aunts, and the uncles who had not

chosen to migrate north. They returned with stories of farm life and delicious food

and family togetherness.


There are so many ways for re-unions to happen. Sometimes these meetings are

joyous because years of separation—through war or death or disappearance—

have kept people apart. I think of the Jewish communities after World War II,

when reunions with family members were almost miraculous, or the reunion of an

adopted child with a birth parent, which might bring unexpected happiness, or a

decision not to continue the relationship.

When you are relaxing and sipping a cool drink during these “dog days” of August,

what are your reunion memories, sweet and bittersweet? What do you think about

re-unions in general? With old friends, with distant family, with groups that have

meant a lot to you such as service groups or sororities?


Here are two poems, both about Aunts, that raised thoughts of reunions for me.


By Al Young

She talks too loud, her face

a blur of wrinkles & sunshine

where her hard hair shivers

from laughter like a pine tree

stiff with oil & hotcombing


O & her anger realer than gasoline

slung into fire or lighted mohair

She’s a clothes lover from way back

but her body’s too big to be chic

or on cue so she wear what she want

People just gotta stand back &

take it like they do Easter Sunday when

the rainbow she travels is dry-cleaned


She laughs more than ever in spring

stomping the downtowns, Saturday past

work, looking into JC Penney’s checking

out Sears & bragging about how when she

feel like it she gon lose weight &

give up smoking one of these sorry days


Her eyes are diamonds of pure dark space

& the air flying out of them as you look

close is only the essence of living

to tell, a full-length woman, an aunt

brown & red with stalking the years


Don’t say a word, but they look at each other

As down from the hill comes Jill, comes Jack.

The children are back. The children are back.

The Aunts

By Joyce Sutphen 

I like it when they get together

and talk in voices that sound

like apple trees and grape vines,


and some of them wear hats

and go to Arizona in the winter,

and they all like to play cards.


They will always be the ones

who say “It is time to go now,”

even as we linger at the door,


or stand by the waiting cars, they

remember someone—an uncle we

never knew—and sigh, all


of them together, like wind

in the oak trees behind the farm

where they grew up—a place


I remember—especially

the hen house and the soft

clucking that filled the sunlit yard.

2010, First Words



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At the Height of Summer, Memento Mori*

Last weekend, my 87 year old mother shared her memories of the summer that her family drove south across the country from Chicago to Texas to California while her mother looked for work during the Great Depression: the grocery store on stilts, each leg surrounded by buckets of water to keep the ants from climbing into the house; the Model A breaking down on a road devoid of gas stations or human habitation; the beauty of Mission Beach, California when only a few fishermen’s shacks dotted the shore. Increasingly aware of the limited time that remains for her—“memento mori”– she gave me her memories to hold, to preserve, to pass on.


The next day, one of my Facebook friends, a retired minister, posted this evocative poem:


It Is Not the Fact That I Will Die That I Mind

but that no one will love as I did
the oak tree out my boyhood window,
the mother who set herself
so stubbornly against life,
the sister with her serious frown
and her wish for someone at her side,
the father with his dreamy gaze
and his left hand idly buried
in the fur of his dog.
And the dog herself,
that mournful look and huge appetite,
her need for absolute stillness
in the presence of a bird.
I know how each of them looks
when asleep. And I know how it feels
to fall asleep among them.
No one knows that but me,
No one knows how to love the way I do.

By Jim Moore, from Lightning at Dinner

Greywolf Press, 2005


Jim Moore has given us an opening into his unique way of loving. Perhaps we can remember to collect the stories of our loved ones in order to remember their unique ways of loving.


*In Roman times, a General parading through the streets after a victory was followed by his slave uttering the words “memento mori” to remind him that, while victorious in the moment, he could as easily be defeated in the next. In Christian art and literature, “memento mori” was used to remind believers that all earthly pleasures are fleeting, and that one’s focus should be on the Eternal.

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Exploring Baby Bigfoot: Simple Video, Powerful Story

As personal historians, we bring skill sets from a variety of backgrounds to our work, but we all share a desire to apply those skills in a way that will have lasting meaning for the families we work with/for. As we strive to do this for others, it’s instructive to witness the raw power of a family member making his or her own, direct connection with a loved one, as Jim Walsh does in Baby Bigfoot on Ice. This short clip about his own father is a personal history that is truly personal—and very effective.


If you’ve not yet seen the clip, watch it now, and then keep reading to find out just why this tribute works as well as it does.



“Baby Bigfoot” is essentially a poem that reveals layers of his father’s struggles, quirks, courage, and ultimate dignity, providing a deep understanding of his life within the confines of a five-minute video. Jim’s use of elegantly simple language to vividly share specific memories overcomes any limitation of visual materials to provide a loving and complete portrait. By hearing Jim’s emotion-filled adult voice as we see him in early family photos, we are able to enter the story ourselves and join the family in that clunker station wagon in the rolling hills, feeling what it was like to be one of those “seven little faces steaming up the car windows.”


Since the video follows the arc of Jim’s personal journey of growing in love and understanding of his dad’s life, the use of actual trip (on a tandem bike—perhaps a symbol of their relationship with each other) through scenes of his father’s past is a perfect device to resolve the story. Using current footage of his dad at the end gives us a sense of connection and completion to the journey we’ve just taken with Jim as our guide.


Jim’s story also provides an example of how personal historians can learn by observing each other’s strengths. The visual elegance could have more closely matched that of the writing by more nuanced use of existing visual materials throughout…and perhaps ending with current video of Jim’s dad dissolving into that starry sky to reinforce his final words. But we could all learn by and appreciate the depth, clarity, and efficiency of his presentation and content, whatever medium we work in. If we can approach this level of connectedness in our next personal history project, we will have done a very good job.

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America’s Ethical Will—And Yours

We the People ConstitutionAs we approach the Fourth of July in the middle of an election year, I find myself thinking a great deal about the concept of an ethical will, and connecting that concept with what I consider to be the ethical will that our founders left us—the Preamble to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.


I know I am taking some liberties with the term “ethical will”, which is not supposed to be legally binding, but I think it is justified because an ethical will is supposed to transmit one generation’s values on to the next… and the next… and the next, and it is clear that our founders wanted us to think about, learn, and carry forth a certain set of ideals when they wrote:


“We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”


And how did they almost immediately come to add—after much debate—the Amendments to the Constitution which we now know as “The Bill of Rights”? To read more about the soul searching and struggles involved in the creation of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, visit the National Archives website.


Today, those of us who live as citizens of the United States continue to discuss what our country’s ethical will “means”. As we live our lives, what kind of instructions, wishes, and hopes would we like to leave for our children? What documents may inspire debate, but might also leave our children (or our friends, partners or business associates) a clear idea of why we lived the lives we did, and what we hope to give to those who might never know us, but who might take inspiration—or warning—from the way we have lived?


Two of the finest sources I have found if you are thinking about writing an ethical will are Barry Baines, M.D., and Susan Turnbull. Dr. Baines was one of the first people to re-introduce the Jewish custom of writing an ethical will to the general public. He trains professionals to guide others in creating their ethical wills. Susan Turnbull has specialized in working with legacy advisors in expanding their scope, to include helping clients write about wisdom, as well as wealth. The new edition of her book, “The Wealth of Your Life” is beautifully put together, clear, and useful for anyone considering writing such a document. You can also visit the Association of Personal Historians and search for ethical will providers in your area who will assist you in writing, or videotaping, your life’s legacy.


As you watch those fireworks this year, think about what it means to you to live under the “ethical will” of the United States Constitution.

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