Families turn to professionals to document their stories


James Lanning, 84, discusses his personal story as an avid pilot who went on to train his family and countless others in Silver Spring on Nov. 22. Ronda Barrett is a filmmaker who worked in the corporate world before quitting to become a personal historian. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Elizabeth Lanning, like many members of her family, got to know her grandfather on the flight deck of a rebuilt 1965 Cessna as he taught her how to fly.

She heard about his travels across six continents, including the time he flew to Hawaii in a single-engine plane using cloud formations to guide him and the time he crashed in the Amazon and survived in the jungle for a week.

The Silver Spring, Md., native wanted to turn her now 84-year-old grandfather’s stories into a book. But there never seemed to be enough time during breaks from graduate school. So she talked to her parents and the family decided to hire a professional filmmaker and historian to document his experiences.

“Memories fade,” said her father, James Richard Lanning. “I thought it would be a neat thing for our children’s children to be able to hear Pop tell these stories himself.”

A growing number of families are turning to professionals to record their family stories, employing “personal historians” to sit and ask the open-ended questions they don’t have time to ask during the rush of holiday gatherings or the sporadic bursts of long-distance communication.

The cottage industry is emerging as extended families are spreading far across the globe and at the same time pursuing a renewed, technology-fueled interest in their roots, searching online genealogy records or mapping their ethnic and racial ancestry through DNA.

Personal historians tend to focus on documenting the stories of living relatives before they are lost.

“When we all lived three generations in the same house or around the block, you were getting those things through osmosis. We don’t have that any more,” said Ronda Barrett, the Kensington., Md.-based filmmaker who is working with the Lannings. Barrett left a career in marketing to start a business making films about families.

More than 200 personal historians, many operating small businesses with names such as Time Pieces and Real Life Stories, met at a national conference of the Association of Personal Historians in Bethesda last month. The organization started in 1995 to help nurture a profession that is drawing a growing number of entrepreneurs, many of whom said they thought they’d invented the job before they discovered other people doing it. The organization counts more than 700 members.

Some were drawn to the work because of a loss, a death in the family that suddenly sealed off a valuable cache of memories. Others described an exhilarating experience recording their own family history that motivated them to reach out to others.

The finished products are diverse. Cookbooks that pair recipes with recollections, digital scrapbooks set to music, glossy coffee table tribute books for anniversaries and birthdays, or full-length “heirloom memoirs” that read like historical novels.

Prices can range from a few hundred dollars for an interview transcript or audio recording to tens of thousands of dollars for more elaborately produced books or films. Some charge by the hour to coach or edit for people who would like help developing their own family history.

Barrett described growing up “underfoot” of her great aunts and uncles in her home town in western Pennsylvania, where her family has farmed for four generations.

She heard proud stories about her successful grandfather who advocated for other farmers in Washington and somber stories about how her grandmother coped after she lost her first son, who was strangled in a chicken coop.

By looking back at her family history, she learned that you could succeed in the wider world and experience tough times and move on, she said. She wanted to share the stories with her younger brother and cousins who were growing up farther away.

Researchers have found that intergenerational storytelling can be good for children’s development.

Three psychologists at Emory University analyzed recordings of dinnertime conversations and the results of a “Do You Know” scale they developed — with questions such as “Do you know where your parents met?” — to evaluate how familiar teens were with their family stories.

They found that adolescents who knew more stories and could tell them in more detailed ways also reported more self-confidence, as well as fewer instances of depression and anxiety or signs of aggression.

“Adolescents really rely on these kinds of stories to help make sense of who they are in the world,” said Robyn Fivush, a developmental psychologist who co-wrote the study. “They anchor their identity in important ways.”

James C. Lanning said he was not thrilled about the idea of starring in his own movie, calling the effort “too much about nothing.”

But he was willing to do it for his family, he said.

“My wife said I should be polite,” he said. “The kids want it so they will have it when I kick the bucket.”

That’s how Lanning, better known as Poppy to his 14 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, ended up looking into the lens of a video camera one November afternoon with a microphone clipped to his blue plaid shirt and another positioned overhead.

Under the bright lights, he looked decidedly less comfortable than in the pilot seat of one of his retooled planes.

But with some patient prodding from Barrett, he started talking. He described how he left home at 13 and didn’t turn back. How he paid his way through Christian boarding school by planting beans and plowing fields. How he saved enough money to take flying lessons as a teen, and how he married his wife the summer he graduated.

He also talked about some of the highlights of a career that has spanned 33,900 hours in the air. He was a chief pilot on a corporate jet. He also has delivered planes around the world and taught hundreds of people how to fly.

He showed a photograph of himself with Ronald Reagan, whom he once flew to a company event. And he talked about some of his adventures during scores of transatlantic flights on the small planes he delivered to tiny airports in Monrovia, Liberia, or Cape Town, South Africa.

He survived emergency landings on a road in the Dakotas and on the side of a mountain in West Virginia.

Those were “nothing much,” he said.

There was one accomplishment that he said he was proud of: “Teaching the kids to fly. That set them up for a career, something to do.”

His three sons have followed in his footsteps. Two work as pilots or flight instructors full time and one has picked up work occasionally flying corporate jets.

Barrett said that it’s common for the adult children who hire her to be more excited about the project initially than the older subjects of her interviews.

“This is the generation that doesn’t like to talk about themselves,” she said. But she suspects the dynamic will change as baby boomers age.

“The ‘Me Generation’ is going to want to die right,” she predicted, by creating personal histories that reflect on the whirlwind of social and cultural changes they experienced.

In the meantime, Elizabeth Lanning said humility is one of the qualities she admires in her grandfather.

In the film that Barrett is creating, she said, “I trust she will be able to capture his humble attitude toward his incredible life story.”

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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