September 30, 2014

Narrative Portraits

My Grandma, Marion Straus, c. 1899-1900
My previous post introduced you to a vintage collector I've just met via blogging, and some lovely old French fabrics.  Here's an intro to another friend of mine.

My friend Barbara Novak has a really interesting and unusual business.  She makes audio recordings of elders speaking about their lives and experiences so that they can review and interpret their lives, and so that families can keep and share family tales and memories.  She's just recently been starting up a second theme - stories about birthing babies.  Barb has loads of experience as an oral historian and interviewer, and is able to gently draw out lots of information and thoughtful insights.  I love the name she's given her business.

When people ask me about repairing family heirloom quilts, this paragraph is always part of my reply:

"I always recommend to people with family quilts to write down the history of the quilt and quiltmaker - the maker's name, where she was living and what her life was like at the time she made the quilt, how it came to you, etc.  All this information makes it much more special as a family heirloom, and also can be really great if a local historical society is interested in local quilts.  You can keep the information, maybe with a photo of the quilt attached, with your other important papers."

A stellar example is a snowflake quilt that I repaired.  There is detailed documentation of its creation in the diaries of the quiltmaker.  Priceless!

Barb's oral history business takes that process one step further. You can learn more about Barb and her process on her website and her facebook page.

I have a little, old cassette tape of my uncle telling all he remembered of family genealogy and some stories, too.  It's a real treasure!  I wish I had recorded my mom telling her memories, too.  She was really good about labeling all the family photos we have, but she didn't write down the stories.  I've since wondered why she didn't do that as well, because she loved to write.  And I was too young to be quite aware enough to urge her to do so.  Now I need to fill in that gap with the stories I remember hearing as a child.

My parents, Adelaide Flexner and Henry Wasserman, on their wedding day, August 30, 1946
Here are two stories I remember her relating, on the theme of names.

When one of my mom's uncles, David Straus, enlisted in the army, he had a bit of a problem.  He'd filled out all the forms, but they were returned to him for being incomplete.  He hadn't filled in the "middle name" space.  Well, the thing was, he didn't have a middle name.  The army didn't care about that though; all spaces had to be filled in.  So he gave himself a middle name on the spot.  Copperfield!  David Copperfield Straus.  He became a lawyer, and used the middle initial on his letterhead for the rest of his life.

Another of her uncles, one of David's brothers, was given the name Samuel Straus.  All through childhood, he really hated the name Samuel; he didn't like saying "mule" in his name.  So when he was old enough, he changed his name to Noel.  He became famous as the long-time music critic of the New York Times, and I have seen him quoted in a symphony program as recently as 10 years ago.  That was really cool.

This photo was taken c. 1920.  My Mom is sitting on David C. Straus's lap.  His father - my mother's grandfather, Simeon, sits on the left.  David's sister, my Grandma Marion, is standing on the left.  Then their brother Ira and his wife Veronica, and their sister Edna.  The only sibling missing is Noel, so I'm assuming he took the photo.

Family stories are wonderfully fun!  And sharing them gives us a personalized view of history beyond the big dates and names in the history books.  This is where history is really lived, and I feel it's very valuable to document our heritage as much as possible.

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