I think the best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven.
– Stephen King, American author, from On Writing
When my family and I went to the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) (736 Mission Street, 94103, 415.655.7800) in San Francisco for the first time in January, I discovered that it housed a StoryCorps recording studio. I’ve listened to a number of StoryCorps stories on National Public Radio (NPR) through the years, though not as much as I would have liked. Right outside the boxy, industrial hut of a studio, a grouping of ottoman-style chairs invited people to sit and watch animations on a flat-screen TV. The loop of recorded stories included one of the more famous stories – about the couple, Danny and Annie Perasa from Brooklyn and their remarkable love for one another that lasted decades, right up to his passing from cancer. As I quietly sniffled and wiped tears from my cheeks, an older man walked by and commented, “It gets people all the time.” And people’s lives are enriched by such stories.
After we left CJM, I vowed to talk to my sisters and see if they would be interested in recording memories of our parents as a way of honoring them and preserving our family history. My middle sister declined, which came as no surprise to me – she is a private person. My oldest sister Heidi was excited to participate. Now it was a matter of logistics, as she lived in San Antonio. When she booked her flight for the Christmas holidays months ago, I booked our appointment for StoryCorps.
StoryCorps was founded in 2003 by radio producer Dave Isay, with the idea that “everyone has an important story to tell.” One of the largest oral history projects of its kind, StoryCorps, to date, has recorded more than 51,585 interviews. More than 90,440 people have shared their stories. Nearly 35,000 hours of audio have been recorded since 2003. Storytellers are given a free CD of the recording to share as widely as they wish. The recording is then sent to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress for posterity. Approximately 1 in 200 recordings are edited down to a few minutes and broadcast to millions on the Morning Edition of NPR. Currently, there are three storybooths – Atlanta, Chicago (we saw the signs when we were there this past June), and San Francisco. A mobile recording studio also travels across the country capturing people’s stories, reaching more than 1,700 cities and towns to date.
StoryCorps has grown to offer special programs and initiatives. Since 2005, StoryCorps and the National September 11 Memorial & Museum have partnered with the goal of recording at least one story to honor each life that was lost in the September 11, 2001, and February 26, 1993, attacks through its September 11th initiative. StoryCorpsU is an educational, year-long, youth development program for students at high-needs high schools, dedicated to developing students’ identity and social intelligence through the use of StoryCorps broadcasts and animated shorts.
The Military Voices Initiative honors our veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan by recording and sharing their stories. The 18-month National Teachers Initiative honored the stories of public school teachers across the country. Latinos’ stories are preserved, thanks to the Historias Initiative, and The Griot Initiative preserves the rich stories of African-Americans. People with serious illnesses and their families have an opportunity to share their stories through the StoryCorps Legacy. Organizations have worked with StoryCorps on the Memory Loss Initiative, which seeks to preserve the stories of people who have a range of memory loss. And finally, The Alaska Initiative was a six-month program in 2008 and into 2009 that recorded the diverse lives of people living in Alaska.
Preparing for our storytelling
I had notions of spending a lot of time thinking about what we would say, how we would say it, and how to organize and put our memories in a neat narrative. But, as one friend once told me years ago, “life happens.” Work, school and its extracurricular activities, kid sports, blogging, novel, and the dreary demands of housekeeping sucked up my life as it if were air.
And then suddenly it was a few weeks before Heidi was to fly into the Bay Area. We traded e-mails, disagreed on what specific memories to share. Heidi went onsite and pulled up lists of questions that are meant to draw out one’s stories. We needed to read how this would all play out. You are booked for an hour in the recording booth. After filling out a form, you are introduced to a guide who preps you and monitors the recording. Geraldine was our wonderful guide who put us at ease, as we were quite nervous going into the session and especially once we sat down at this small table and stared at one another – with two sets of microphones intruding. At some point during the recording, I thought to myself, as Geraldine took notes for key searchable words, what a wonderful experience this was for her and all the other guides – to hear amazing stories (that’s the writer in me!) and to come away inspired and richer with every experience shared.
What we talked about when we talked about our parents
The 40 minutes we were allotted for our free-flowing dialogue went by quickly. There were certain things we wanted to cover. What our strongest memories were of our mom and dad. Dad and his garden. Mom and her steadfast desire to ensure that we lived and prospered under the American Dream through her hard work of picking grapes during the summers and packing oranges in the wintertime. We talked about learning of Dad’s post-traumatic stress syndrome after he had passed away, when our uncle said that he was a happy-go-lucky guy until WWII. Heidi had revealed, for the first time to me, that he had once told her he had seen and done things he didn’t want to talk about again. When our uncle told us about his condition, it explained so much about his eccentric behavior all our lives. We talked about losing Dad on Christmas night in 1995 and the tense Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays in 2011 when Mom was in the ICU for two weeks and then the acute-care facility for five weeks.
Our voices wavered, we cried. Yes, we laughed, too. And yes, it became a part of us. We remembered things differently. We talked as if we were 10 and 13 – siblings acting like siblings even at 51 and 54, which is just a fact of nature and family. And then our time was up! Geraldine took our picture and more information. We made donations, had our picture taken with Geraldine, were given a book By Dave Isay of a collection of recorded stories. And then we said goodbye to StoryCorps’ San Francisco home of the last five years.
Heidi noticed that the information board behind the counter announced that the StoryCorps recording studio would be closing December 13th, the very next day. We realized just how lucky we were to have made the appointment for that particular day, the evening after Heidi had arrived in town. We were told that StoryCorps would be making an announcement soon to let everyone know where the new location would be and that its new home would remain in San Francisco. That was a relief to hear! So I am letting you all know, my local friends and acquaintances, to book an appointment once the recording studio is set up. We are lucky to have a permanent studio in the Bay Area. Take advantage of its existence, its proximity. For far-flung family, friends, and acquaintances, if you are not near the other recording booths, find out where the mobile booth is headed.
We all have stories to tell. We have memories and people – family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers – to remember and honor, to make alive again through our words, through our voices. Storytelling is one of the things that I believe makes us human. We have such a rich oral history already, but to have our stories shared with each other at that moment in time, in that tiny booth with microphones and stacks of equipment seen out the corner of our eyes, and for many others to hear later and forever, that is an opportunity and a gift. Come together with family members or friends and record your story. I truly believe everyone should record his or her story for us all to hear. For when we steal away from our busy lives and quietly listen to these stories, our humanity grows evermore. And we find that our community expands to the ends of the earth.
“Tell your story, pass it on.”