The generation of people now in their seventies, the late Margaret Meade used to say, has lived through more change than any other species on our planet. William Fletcher believes that generation embodies "a tremendous cultural resource" that is all but ignored in the bustle of modern America. "It is the emotional core of our society," he says. "And we can tap into it."
For Fletcher, an anthropologist by training who lives in the District, tapping into that resource means taping oral family history. Sitting down with an aging parent or relative and recording a sentimental journey into the past, he says, is a powerful and priceless undertaking.
"It is a small, human-being-sized project that everyone concerned about strengthening the family can do," says Fletcher, stating his purpose in writing the book, Recording Your Family History: A Guide to Preserving Oral History with Video Tape and Audio Tape (Dodd, Mead & Co., $18.95).
An ordinary tape recorder or a videotape camera is the only equipment necessary. The motive is "self-evidently valuable," Fletcher says. "What would a three-hour video recording of a grandfather or mother you have lost mean to you now -- if you could see and hear them, listen to their stories?"
But Fletcher believes influences besides sentiment are fueling an emerging public interest in recording the personal stories of older relatives -- and a rush of guidebooks and services in response to that interest: "I think it has to do with family identity and the communication of traditional values in a time of tremendous social and technological change."
At 43, Fletcher laments those facts of life in our mobile and fragmented culture that minimize the kind of cross-generational interaction that happened almost daily 75 years ago. Contact between many grandparents and grandchildren today occurs once or twice a year during hectic holiday visits. And Fletcher knows from his own experience that, often, adults postpone meaningful conversations with aging parents and relatives until its too late.
A decade ago, while Fletcher was toying with the idea of writing a how-to book about preserving oral family history, his aunt died. "I could've got so many of these things on tape that I remember so well her talking about," he says of the missed opportunity. He didn't make the same mistake twice. Today, he treasures the tapes he made with his now-deceased mother.
"I tried to do for families what anthropologists try to do for nonliterate cultures -- to find some way to preserve their experience," says Fletcher of his comprehensive guide to greasing the memory of aging relatives and getting them to talk freely about their lives, their dreams, "their values and thoughts -- not who was born where and that genealogical stuff." Says Fletcher. "This is about finding answers to the question: What kind of people are we?"
That sense of familial identity is where America's youth-oriented culture "has short-changed us," he contends. The result is a population of young people terrified of growing old and a population of older people denied their psychological need to communicate experiences, knowledge, values and philosophy. "Older people deserve to express these things," says Fletcher, "and younger people deserve to hear them."
Viveca Stackig decided she wanted more from her grandmother than the talk of politics and gardening that she heard at family gatherings. The Silver Spring advertising executive figured the best impetus to recorded reminiscing with her grandmother was to write down the questions she wanted to explore. "The stories that they have to tell if you ask them good questions are just amazing," says Stackig, 31. She says the hours taping her grandmother's recollections were "the most meaningful, interesting, fun, fascinating and entertaining" time they'd spent together.
When friends recognized Stackig's enthusiasm for the project and asked for her list of questions, she decided to put together an oral family history kit -- with the emphasis on "do-able," she says. The eventual product: Grandmother's Memories (Random House, $24.95), including a guidebook with "sentence starters" and "memory joggers" on 14 subject categories, two blank cassette tapes and a simple photo journal with a family tree. "It's geared to get people to tell stories," says Stackig.
Meanwhile, Fletcher's 314-page book, which started as a spiral bound manuscript he published himself and sold only by mail order, was released in hardback and paperback last January. Its 12 chapters provide an exhaustive list of "the right questions" to ask, in categories from Family History to Grandchildren.
Rob Huberman's book, Video Family Portraits: The User-Friendly Guide to Videotaping Your Family History, Stories and Memories (Heritage Books Inc., $9.95), is among recent entrys in the oral family history field.
A former cable TV cameraman, Huberman wrote the guide with Laura Janis to encourage people to use video recording to "capture the personalities and images of people and explore their own lives."
But Huberman and Janis, who live in Arlington and once ran a business that video recorded family interviews, believe younger parents should take the opportunity to pass on recorded messages to future generations of their family. "This is a chance to pass on a living record and something that will become a family treasure even to children who haven't been born yet," says Huberman, whose book covers interviewing tips as well as instructions on achieving better-quality footage when filming. "There is no age that people can't start recording the things that have been special to them."
Some practical shortcuts and emotional considerations from the experts on undertaking an oral family history interview:
Don't put it off, warns Fletcher, who acknowledges a common rationale to wait. "It is easier to say, 'I'll have another Thanksgiving to do this.' It's easier to say I'll always see my mother again," he says. "The fact is your parents won't be around forever ... And it's really younger people who have this resistance. Older people are quite capable of speaking about death and dying -- it is one of the strengths of old age."
For those who can't find the several hours a full-blown interview can take, Stackig suggests "when you go home at Thanksgiving, just sit down with Granny and take 15 to 20 minutes. Then give her the recorder and questions and let her take it home and continue. Even if that 15 minutes is all you ever get done, that becomes a very important 15 minutes."
Forget the misconception that it'll just be grandpa talking about the Great Depression, again. "In the context of people communicating about their successes and struggles and defeats to the younger people they love," says Fletcher, "it has real meaning."
Don't overlook the "possibilities of self-knowledge," says Fletcher. "To hear your father talk about how he tried to raise you as a kid, to see his hand movements and listen to his pattern of speech, there is a shock of recognition."
Oral history as a family communication project is almost an excuse to start talking across generational lines. "You are going to have a conversation with your parent or grandparent," says Fletcher, "like you've never had before.