The great joy of producing a Life Story is the unexpected and wonderful moments that are created for others. Here is a guest post from Jane about the experience of producing the content for her father’s Life Story and the wonderful effects that it has had for her family – Ian
We go through various stages in our lives with the expectation our parents will always be there for us. As we begin to mature we start to appreciate our own mortality and the mortality of our parents. We increasingly value our parent’s influence in our lives, their gentle guidance, their qualities and skills, the important role they’ve played. With this comes the realisation that the opportunity for us to hear their story, the story of their achievements and heartaches, is fading. My 76 year old father had a stroke a number of years ago and I’m pleased to say he has recovered well but it made me appreciate how delicate life is, how suddenly things can change.
After the death of my stepmother it became increasingly important to me to record my father’s proud moments along with his trials and tribulations before they are lost; lost not only to me but to all his children, grandchildren and future generations. Many times I’d thought about creating a written record of his life but this never really satisfied me, it seemed cold and impersonal.
Dad has had a long interest in genealogy. There is a sense of “place” that comes from knowing who your ancestors are. However, the written word doesn’t let us experience their personality – it’s two dimensional. A pictorial record is important but, once again, it isn’t really complete. It’s not often we get the opportunity to hear a person’s story told in their own words. I felt it was important to let my dad tell his story his way but I didn’t know how to go about it.
I was fortunate to meet Ian Kath, who has a podcast called Your Story. During a casual conversation with Ian he mentioned he records peoples’ stories. This instantly resonated with me but I still didn’t have a solid idea or direction on where to go next. Over a period of weeks Ian gently encouraged, directed and inspired me to do a series of projects to capture my dad the way I felt best portrayed who he is.
My family history is (perhaps) a little different to the traditional family in as much as the family was split in the 1970s when my parents divorced. My brother and I stayed with my father while my two younger sisters lived with my mother. My youngest sister was five years old at the time. For many years we lost contact with each other so my sisters didn’t get the chance to know dad until they were adults.
Dad remarried to a lady who had four adult daughters and our family instantly grew with new sons-in-law and eventually grandchildren. We have a very large family with my sisters and their families rejoining us but we are now separate by distance. One stepsister lives in the USA with other members living interstate. Once again, the opportunity for us to get together is limited and rare. Coming up with a way to pass on dad’s story to everyone young and old, computer literate and illiterate alike was a challenge.
In order to cover all bases, Dad’s project was done in several parts.
The first part was a photo book – a professionally bound and printed book recording dad’s ancestors, childhood, hobbies, family and so on. The book was made specifically for my father to have on his coffee table and show to his friends. I felt this was a great way to preserve the photos and allow him to enjoy them in a tidy and manageable fashion. The book contained a small amount of text – just enough for someone who wasn’t familiar with his life to be able to understand what the photos were about and to bring them to life.
The second project was to do an audio recording, a conversation if you like, with my father telling his story in his own words. Unlike the book, I didn’t want to be the one to record Dad’s story because I didn’t want him to hold back, plus I had no experience in this area. Ian very kindly offered to do the audio for me. Dad’s stroke left him struggling to find words to express his thoughts. Ian and I discussed how much the audio should be edited and we decided to not compromise the integrity of Dad’s story (even if there were one or two things he said that “stung” a little). In the end Ian cleaned up the pauses between dad’s words except for one special moment when, despite his best efforts, Dad got a bit teary. Ian was very respectful of my father and the outcome was incredible. I often find myself smiling or laughing while I’m listening to it. Much of what Dad said I already knew but he told some amazing stories I hadn’t heard before. There were also a few surprises. I’m so glad we did this. Whilst the book is very special the audio is the real gem.
Dad’s audio was then put onto a mp3 player for him to listen to at his leisure. Perhaps he will listen whilst browsing the photo book, who knows.
A web page dedicated to my father was the next step. This encompassed key photos, text and the wonderful audio recordings. My dad has a computer but he really only uses it to play games so doing something too technical for him was out of the question. One of my nephews is currently on a tour of duty with the air force in Afghanistan, Dad’s other grandchildren are spread out interstate and overseas. The web site was created for members of the family and friends to share Dad’s story using technology they are familiar with.
This project is a dynamic one. It will continue to change and grow as my father’s life progresses and will only come to a close after he has passed.
I started this project for my Dad and for me, but I also wanted to share it with family and friends. I wasn’t sure if I would receive any feedback from others. Whilst it’s always lovely to hear what other people think I was constantly aware that personal recognition or praise wasn’t the purpose of the project.
Something happened. Actually, not just one thing but many little things happened that were so totally unexpected.
The first revelation came when I phoned my father and asked him to get out his old photos. He told me had had thrown out some of the photos because no one looked at them anymore. I was mortified. Dad said he had started to throw things out; he was tidying up his life. As I scanned photos and put the book together I noticed my father had stopped smiling in the more recent photos. I realised he was getting ready to die – not tomorrow or next week, perhaps not even next year but he had fulfilled his life goals and was now just going through a daily ritual of living without any real purpose. Doing this project started to bring some excitement and anticipation back into his life; you could hear it in his voice. He was happier.
Once I put the word out to my family to start looking for old photos some wonderful documents and pictures were sent to me. These are things dad wouldn’t have seen for many years and he probably thinks they’ve been lost. I can’t wait until he sees them again. Putting the book together proved to be quite emotional for me. There were times when I would sit at the computer looking at old photos and tears would be streaming down my face.
The book was finished and sent to the publishers plus a copy was put on the web for my family to view. Quietly, I would have like to have received some feedback from them, to at least know they had bothered to look at it. Unfortunately, for many weeks I didn’t hear anything. I tried not to feel disappointed.
With Ian’s help Dad’s web page was finished and I’m thrilled with the outcome. I can’t wait to show dad and let his friends and family share his story. I’m indebted to Ian for his inspiration, advice and guidance. The outcome is beyond my expectation and I’m sure my family will be amazed at how clever I am (joke).
The book also arrived from the publishers this week. I phoned dad to tell him everything was done. I then phoned my stepsister and her husband to invite them to join us for the big launch on dad’s birthday. My stepsister told me her husband had been up until late in the night looking at the book on the web and they can’t wait to see everything. Unbeknown to me her husband has looked at the book many times. She told me how special Dad is to her and her husband and how they think of him as their real father (both of them had lost their fathers at a young age). As I listened to her tell me how they feel about my father (our father) my throat started to constrict and I had to fight back the tears. I think lunch with Dad on his birthday will be a real “Kleenex moment”.
I feel an immense sense of relief to have captured Dad’s story before it was too late but I also realise that in many respects it is already too late. I wonder what Dad would have remembered before he had his stroke. I wonder what photos we would have if I had done this project before he started to tidy up his life. We may never know what has already been lost. I also wonder at the impact this project will have on my family and the chain of events this may start. So many possibilities. So very exciting.