The library is on fire
Posted by donraymedia on May 16, 2009
Time doesn’t have to erase wisdom and memories.
By Don Ray
It’s a phrase I’ll never forget. It was in the first oral history class I took back in 1975 that the instructor, historian David L. Clark, urged us all to sit down with Grandma and Grandpa and record them telling the stories of their lives.
“It’s like a library that’s burning down,” he said. “You have to move fast.”
My own grandmother had died earlier that year — she was the last of my grandparents to die — so I understood the opportunity that I had missed. Indeed, the library was gone. Twenty-two years later, when my mother made the decision to spend her remaining time in home hospice, I made good on my vow to capture on videotape the stories that my sister and I had heard in bits and pieces over the years.
My mother always had a way of talking “baby talk” if I was in her presence when she talk to someone else about me, so
I arranged a “head fake” when it came time to capture her recollections on videotape. One of my former students, David Ritchie, conducted the oral history interview — I operated the camera. Immediately before David began prompting her to talk, I put on big headphones and made it clear to my mother that I would be listening to my favorite Latin music.
“Don’t even bother talking to me,” I warned her. “I won’t be able to hear a thing.”
The plan worked. David listened to her for more than two hours there in the comfort of her apartment in Burbank, Calif. Only once was it clear that she was saying something about me. She gave me that smile as she looked my way. When I didn’t respond at all, she got the message and never looked my way again.
I decided to not watch the interview right away. Less than two years later, the emphysema squeezed the last of the breath out of her. It would be another year before I was ready to watch the video and listen, for the first time, to what she told David during the interview.
I was astounded.
I’ve always known that people are much more open to people outside the family that they are to those within. The immediate family members are usually the last to know the juiciest of the details. If I had any doubt about this concept, it had vanished when I sat, watched and listened. What a miracle to be able to see her smile emerge and hear the voice that brought me into this world.
My fantasy has always been to use my journalism and teaching skills to change the world in some way. Looking back, I have to smile when I think about how the oral history of my mother may be the most lasting jewel that I will leave behind when I move from the living to something, I hope, beyond.
There are no great-grandchildren yet for my mother, but it won’t be long before my nephews father the next generation. And while nobody is paying attention, there will be another generation and yet another. Imagine young children in the 22nd Century being able to watch a smile emerge from their great-great-great-great grandmother and hear the gentle love in her voice.
I have to admit that I’ve never made a better investment in my life. One day setting up and shooting the interview and a week or so of off-and-on editing, transferring old movies and scanning photographs created a gift that will outlive everyone on earth and probably outlive the houses we all occupy today.
If only I could listen to the calming voice of Dr. Levi Tidrick or of Dr. G.M. Rutledge when they were pioneer physicians in the little town of Winterset, Madison County, Iowa, back in the years following the Civil War. They were neighbors — they lived on separate streets, but shared a back fence — and would become in-laws when Dr. Tidrick’s son, Lee Bell, married Dr. Rutledge’s daughter, Sarah Alice.
I was four or five when my great-grandfather, Lee Bell Tidrick, was in his 90s. I can remember his voice, his beard and his shaky hands that would reach in his pocket for candy whenver my sister and I ran to greet him. I wish I could have asked him about his father, the doctor, or his grandparents back in Ohio.
Genealogists pore through documents, books and newspapers to recreate a mere glimpse of the common folks who comprise most branches on the family tree. The strange irony is that genealogists of the future will have a more difficult time learning about us. Technology is the culprit. The e-mail message, blogs, digital photos and websites of today are not likely to survive a fraction of the time that our own grandparents’ family portraits, letters, journals and newspaper clippings have survived.
The only hope is that some child, grandchild, niece or nephew will have had the foresight to set aside a couple of days to capture the expressions, voices and stories of their family members and then preserve those moving images and sounds for generations to come.
This little website with a big name can help you find the reason, the motivation and the methods you’ll need to create a priceless gift for your yet-unborn descendants.
By now, I hope you’re thinking about that important person in your life who could be sharing stories, recollections and wisdom with your own great-grandchildren and maybe even theirs as well.
Only you can prevent library fires.
Please call on me if you need more encouragement, more tips and more advice. Oh, and would you please be kind enough to leave a comment on this blog.