Everyone has a story, or more specifically as Mark Twain put it, "There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside of the dullest exteriors there is a drama, a comedy, and a tragedy."
And it's the mantra for some 20 writers, videographers and audio documentarians involved with the Personal Historians NW organization, an offshoot of the old Association of Personal Historians national group.
The collection of people, through contract or for fun and goodwill, document human history — one family, one individual, one group, one company at a time. They live and work anywhere from Centralia, Washington, to Eugene, and include the likes of Connie Shipley of Portland, AuraLee Loveland of Oregon City and Gloria Nussbaum of Beaverton, and have told stories for people around the country — many of them elder folks who want to share details of a life well-lived.
Want your story told? Give them a shout.
"The beauty of it is listening to the stories," said Nussbaum, an audio documentarian who has done "hundreds" of stories through her company, Real to Real. "Storytelling is not my job; my job is listening to stories and drawing them out. I just feel like there is so much we don't know about families' lives.
"In the past, it was a family dinner at grandma's house where stories were told. Not everybody lives near grandma. I see my role is to preserve these stories to tell who you are. They are stories on which the foundation of life has been built. For me, it is sacred work. We need this stuff."
In 17 years, Loveland, who owns Timeless Legacies, has
done about 50 books.
"It's just an opportunity to connect and build bridges between family members," she said. "Old age is not for wimps; it can be hard on a person. When you get individuals to start talking about their past, there is an amazing mental health benefit for them. Gene Cohen wrote a book that said reminiscences for older adults is like chocolate for the brain."
Nussbaum helped start Personal Historians NW, along with Lisa Kagan of Family Heirloom Arts. Loveland, who teams with a son on Timeless Legacies, has been involved from the start. Shipley, who runs Capture Your Life Stories, has been writing short life stories for years.
"We all find our niche," Shipley said. "We're not competing against each other. Why not be friends?"
The number of stories generated by Personal Historians NW is in the hundreds. Another top writer is Julie McDonald-Zander, who has produced about 20 books through her Chapters of Life company. She recently wrote a story about a military veteran, and then helped him establish a veteran's museum.
Most of the stories are in book form. Shipley helps facilitate sales through Amazon and other outlets.
It's mostly individuals and families, although some corporations and groups — a fishing group, a construction company, etc. — want their stories told.
Shipley, who has done about 25 books, has a book on Amazon about her life as a young child.
Her first story involved her grandfather, John Tschida, in 1978 for a class at Portland State University. She recorded him on a "boom box," collected some photos and it ended up being 200 pages.
"He autographed it, and we sent it out to relatives," she said. "It was called 'The Seven Visions of John.'"
Another one was on a World War II veteran, Art Sorenson, and "you wouldn't believe how he loved that book. He went back to Europe for the 60th anniverary (of war's end), and we added to the book." He was a pharmacist, and took great pride in being in the Army.
Shipley enjoys interviewing subjects, and turning their words into concise stories.
"Seeing how these people are so satisfied about getting it out, so they won't be forgotten ... it inspires you," she said.
Loveland has an undergrad degree in public relations and journalism, and master's work in social work. In grad school, she worked on her family's geneaology, writing up stories about grandparents.
One client, Paul Robinson, a Portland opthamologist who died last year at age 89, had her tell his story and she helped him put together a book of poetry.
"My son, Ross (business partner), and I went to visit him in hospice and two of his children were so grateful that we had
done his history," Loveland said. "Stories were used at his memorial service, and at his grandson's wedding."
Stories can be revealing. Loveland also wrote a book about Joe and Kit Sisul, former Canby residents and the owners of High Rocks Restaurant in Clackamas County. Joe built a nine-hole golf course in his backyard, which later opened to the public. Kit told stories about how Joe would write her letters during World War II and include two sticks of gum — one for her, one for the Navy's censor.
Another veteran, Gabriel Baccash, came to the United States at age 5 from Syria. He told stories of being in France right after D-Day, 1944.
"He was in his early 90s and just made me laugh," Loveland said. "There were a lot of hard things that happened in his life, and he would say, 'Can't complain, I've had a heck of a life.' That became the book title, 'Heck, I've Had a Great Life.'"
Such storytelling helps with mental health, Loveland reiterated.
"It helps them realize they conquered things in the past and they have the strength to go forward," she said.
Nussbaum had a radio background, which prompted her to do audio histories. "I always had a thing about voice; voice brings a person back to memory more vividly than any photograph," she said. "I don't call it oral history, which is more 'academic,' I record personal stories."
She'll interview a client in an intimate setting with nobody else around, and prompt them with questions, working chronologically.
"A story can last an hour or two, and the longest has been 16 hours," Nussbaum said. "I don't do them all in one take. They tell me stories, however long it takes.
"You end up with a talking book in the voice of a loved one, and it's for the family."
She worked with an older woman in Portland, named Beth, who grew up as a missionary in China. When Beth was older, she returned to China and was forced to live in a Japanese prison camp "and she had two of her four children born there in that camp." Nussbaum recorded the audio of Beth's story, and Loveland wrote a book about her.
Nussbaum served as a hospice volunteer and recorded the story of a woman named Mary, who had ALS. Mary could only move her head, and needed a breathing machine.
"She wanted to record stories for her two young children," Nussbaum said. "She would rest all day to talk with me, so she had a good voice. She died within days. When she was done with her story, she was ready to go."
Recently, Nussbaum worked with a 27-year-old woman, Diane, who was born in the Philippines and spent part of her youth in California. One parent lived in the Philippines, the other in California. "Her family had money, and she would buy clothes and jewelry," Nussbaum said. Feeling the need to contribute to others' well-being, Diane ended up starting a scholarship for people who can't afford to go to college. Two years ago, she got cancer," Nussbaum said.
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