By Pam Pacelli Cooper
President, Verissima Productions
“Mother’s German potato salad,” “The Rauh sister’s Spice Cake,” “Successful Icing as of 1975,” and “Oy! Lebkuchen.” As I opened the little tin box of my mother in law’s recipes, I was able to see the history of her family in about 100 3×5 cards. Some were written in her mother’s hand (born 1892), some referenced great aunts who were born in the 1860’s, and some (such as the “Successful icing” card) annotated the struggle—over years—to master the art of a 7 minute frosting.
What’s in the recipe box of your family, or in your family cookbooks? Do you always make the same dishes for the 4th of July? Do you have periodic family reunions where each person brings a favorite dish? Or, is your family reunion, the reunion of a “heart family,” friends who get together once every year or two and recreate foods that they ate when they first met? If you’ve been attending for years, how have the reunions changed over time?
Think about the history of food at your summer family or friendship gatherings. Are you a steamed veggie person for 11 months of the year who brings the coconut cake to the party? Or are you the only one who brings Jell-O made with mayonnaise and fruit, a wiggly reminder of family picnics in the 1950’s and 60’s? Perhaps you are the maverick, introducing a new, nontraditional dish to every reunion.
Jot down a few memories that come to you after reading this blog and see what’s inside your picnic basket.
Here’s a recipe that dates back to the early 1900’s in Natchez, MS
I’ve really enjoyed reading some of your comments and reactions to the last post about the importance of including friendships in our personal histories through social media and I’d love to know what books you’ve read where friendships play a major role. Here’s a list of a few that I’ve read and enjoyed. Add your favorites to the list in the comments section.
By Pam Pacelli Cooper
It was the first day of my sophomore year in high school. I was opening my locker when I noticed a tall, rawboned girl next to me with a brilliant smile. “I’m Kathie,” she said. “Our friendship began at that moment. Though we live on different continents and live wildly different lives, our bond remains unbroken. We hold experiences for one another in a way no one else can because of our shared history.
If we were married, this year would be our Golden Anniversary.
How much do we emphasize the depth and complexity of friendships when we are creating a personal history? There is always at least a question or two about important friends in our lives, but how many of us showcase friendships as a major category in the audio histories, videos, and books that we produce?
Here are a few questions I might ask in creating a “Friends” section of a personal history:
By Pamela Pacelli-Cooper
President, Verissima Productions Incorporated
Who takes the photos in your family? Do you have stacks and stacks of albums from past years, a Picasa or Flickr account with thousands of images, or do you stay away from taking photographs because it’s too much trouble? And what about photos from your parents, grandparents, and great grandparents’ generation? Were your ancestors photo- inclined? Or are there just one or two precious pictures of family gatherings?
May is National Photography month, and it’s a good time to think about the ways that photographs, past and present, can help create the context of your family history. Using photographs to enrich personal histories involves three major functions:
Identification: Who is the person/people in the photograph you own? When was it taken? Where was it taken? What is going on around the people in the image? If you can follow some of the clues in even the simplest photograph, you may learn things about your family that provide missing details about how they lived and what they enjoyed, details not found in genealogical records or oral histories handed down over the generations.
Organization: Where are your family photos? Online? In a closet? In someone else’s closet? Pulling everything together into categories that make sense is often a huge task, but one that can yield great benefits for generations to come. If you organize your photos, which includes pruning your collection, you can ensure that noone down the line says: “ Didn’t Joe have seven siblings? Where are their pictures?”
Preservation: While it’s tempting to think you can save everything online, the Internet is far from foolproof. Photo sites can be hacked, go down, or disappear altogether. Familiarizing yourself with the best methods for backing up your files digitally and preserving older, valuable prints and photographs (such as daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes) in hard copy is essential for maintaining a complete family record.
With these three steps and help from the listed online resources it’s easy to get started on making your family photographs a rich and informative part of your history.
Photo credits in top banner from L to R: Young Child, 1850 (public domain); Brownie Camera (Library of Congress); Oregon Ladies Basketball Team (public domain).
By Pamela Pacelli, Personal Historian
President, Verissima Productions
So you’re doing a personal history for someone and they want to write about their grandmother who was the first woman to vote in her tiny Kansas town. Or, you’re interviewing a 90-year-old man from Pennsylvania whose father fought in the First World War 100 years ago. How important is it for you to do research on the suffrage movement in Kansas in 1918 or on Pennsylvania militias?
Very important. If you don’t know the context, you can’t ask the questions that will elicit the deepest and most thoughtful responses from your subject, or to place those responses in the broader picture of the times in which they lived. If you don’t make yourself familiar with the history of the War in Vietnam or Afghanistan, how can you ask about their effect on the lives of your subject and his/her family? While someone might not have certain things at the top of their memory, “contextual prompts” are likely to bring forth memories and associations that have never been mined before. You’ll then be able to help them create a work that will place them squarely in history –and that personal history will leave a deep legacy for future readers.
In the spirit of the last days of American History month, here are 8 blogs I have found to be useful and stimulating to my work. Readers, add your favorites to the mix in the comments section!
By: Pamela Pacelli
President, Verissima Productions
I was 7 years old and the huge grey building with its copper dome and tall, fluted columns seemed like one of the palaces I had read about in fairy tales. My mother and I walked through the heavy bronze door into a room with marble floors, large wooden desks and books surrounding everything. A librarian sat behind the desk and asked, “What can I help you find?”
At that moment, standing in that magical room, my long love affair with books, and with the buildings that house them, was born. I have favorite libraries to visit—some are architecturally awesome, others have comfortable nooks where I can read undisturbed, still others have special collections on subjects that interest me, like art and architecture, or civil war history.
This is National Library Week, nestled in the center of American History month.
I began to think about the history of libraries in the history of our nation and to appreciate just how important they have been to generations of new citizens.
At first, all libraries were private and consisted of collections of books, which were as rare as precious gems at the time, held under close guard and available only to the few. As the American colony became a nation, the first free libraries sprang up, most notably in Philadelphia and Boston, a sign of the new democratic ideals of spreading knowledge and civic pride throughout the citizenry (for years, only “white” and “male”). But it wasn’t until the late 1800’s that libraries, designated as temples of learning”, were being built by towns and cities all across the nation. It was in those libraries that young children of immigrants became the first in their family to read and translated the world for their parents and grandparents. My father was one, son of Italian immigrants. His mother couldn’t read, so he read to her.
Today, libraries are changing, but they are no less vital. They are much more digitally based, of course, and some lament that physical books are going to disappear. Yet, they continue to serve their communities. My friend, who does literacy training, meets with her student in the study carrels at a local library. Young families check out or download video and audio books to take home.
As a personal historian, I am fascinated by the place of libraries in the lives of my subjects, their ancestors, and, now, their children and their grandchildren.
What about you?
What was your first experience with a public library?
What place did libraries play in the history of your family?
What is happening in your community library today? Do you know?
Do you think physical library buildings are still important?
What do you think would happen to our culture if knowledge were
available only online with high speed Internet?
If you’d like to know more, and see some ways to think about libraries, check out this link: http://www.ilovelibraries.org/national-library-week or take a peek at this video from one of my local libraries, the great Boston Public Library.
By Pam Pacelli Cooper
As Women’s History Month winds down, I think of all the marvelous, silly, gripping,
and sometimes infuriating roles given to actresses over the years in the thousands
of films I have seen. A list of some of my favorites follows (in no special order).
1. Who is your favorite, or least favorite, characters and say what attracts or
repulses you about them?
2. If you were to write a memoir about yourself, which movie character(s) would
come closest to describing you?
3. If you are a personal historian, have you ever asked one of your subjects who her
(or even his) favorite female characters are?
Mona Lisa DeVito ( Marisa Tomei) in “My Cousin Vinny”
Juno McGuff ( Ellen Page) in “Juno”
Eleanor Shaw ( Angela Lansbury) in “The Manchurian Candidate
Norma Rae (Sally Field) in “Norma Rae”
Frances Farmer (Jessica Lange) in “Frances”
Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda) in “Klute” also Jane Fonda in “Coming Home”
Karen Silkwood ( Meryl Streep) in “Silkwood”
Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence in her first role) in “Winter’s Bone”
Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) in “La Strada”
Cesira (Sophia Loren) in “Two Women”
If you haven’t seen some of these, you will be in for a treat. Viva Netflix! And…Viva
Women’s History Month!
A post for Women’s History Month, 2015
By Pam Pacelli Cooper, Verissima Productions
Many people are used to thinking about women’s struggles to gain equality and physical safety as a thing of the past. We see the statistics describing women’s rise to the top in corporations, in educational achievement, in politics, and in the Supreme Court, where we now have 3 female justices.
And yet…things are not always as rosy as they seem. Two powerful films, recently released, provide context for the life of women in the 21st century. The first, “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, “ traces the rise of the women’s movement from 1966-1971. Excellent footage and in depth interviews with veterans of this movement connect with the voices of contemporary women who continue to struggle with issues of choice, violence against women, and income inequality. Click here to watch the trailer.
Another haunting film, just out is “The Hunting Ground,” which explores the complexity of violence against women on college campuses. Viewed in conjunction with “She’s Beautiful,” it provides a stunning commentary on what can happen when sexual “freedom” is abused and issues of power are not addressed. Click here to see trailer.
Questions for Personal Historians:
1. Are you familiar with the history of women in your country, state, institution of learning?
2. Are you familiar with what is happening in the lives of women today?
3. How does this inform the questions you ask your female subjects when you are conducting an oral history?
4. Do you believe it is important to include contextual questions like these?
5. How do you deal with the challenge of people who say these questions are “political” and don’t belong in a personal history?
NEXT WEEK: My list of some books and movies that have inspired me as a woman, and a request to comment and add yours.
by Pam Pacelli Cooper
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:
[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.