Oral Histories Offer Link to Family Roots
Veciana-Suarez, Ana. "Oral Histories Offer Link to Family Roots." Grand Forks Herald, 25 July 1994.
When Tamara Cohens aunt was dying of a fast-growing cancer,
Cohen, a Hollywood psychologist, feared that the memories of her
mothers family would die with the last member of that generation.
So, a few weeks before the 80-year-old woman died, Cohens
friend interviewed her, and the result was an hours-long tape
that chronicles, in fascinating detail, the times and lives of
the family. Excited with her findings, Cohen made copies of the
tape and passed them out to cousins.
"They were surprised and delighted," Cohen says. "Its
a wonderful keepsake, and I know it meant a great deal to her
to have somebody interested in her story and the story of the
Like Cohen, more people are becoming interested in their family
history, and they are borrowing the techniques of historians to
gather information. Many regret not having started sooner.
Collecting oral histories is not unusual. For generations, various
cultures have designated a family member as keeper of tradition
and family flame. But as clans disperse across continents and
our lives grow increasingly harried and hurried, family folklore
is too often lost to the pressure of modern day.
I wish it werent so. As I grow older and become more aware
of the importance of what came before me, I regret the many stories
that died with my great-grandmother, an illiterate woman who was
the best storyteller I know, and my grandfather, a man whose real-life
adventures competed with the best picture shows. If only I had
recorded, in some way, the tales they told so my own children
would enjoy them. My memory is faulty, as is my parents,
and recounting what I do remember hardly does the tales justice.
Remembering so much
Rose Riesel, a North Miami Beach grandmother, was interviewed
recently as part of her familys oral history project. There
were many stories of her childhood and early marriage she had
never told anyone, and when the interviewer asked her questions,
she was flooded with bittersweet memories that left her both happy
"I didnt think I remembered so much, " says
Riesel, 71. "It was wonderful experience, and now my children
and grandchildren will have something to remember when Im
gone. Its a wonderful way to bring families together."
At Dade Heritage Trust, experts have noticed the growing interest
of ordinary people in recording their families histories.
The past two years, the trusts oral history workshop in
May has been full.
"People are usually motivated by some change," says
Ruth Jacobs, education chairman of the trust. "Someone growing
old or getting sick makes people realize that family stories may
be gone with that person."
Jacobs also believes the popularity of family histories may
have something to do with a renewed interest in establishing roots.
Often a simple conversation with Grandma Mabel or Great Uncle
Milton sparks the interest in a young person. "They want
to have a feeling of belonging to family, of knowing where they
come from," she adds.
University of Miami professor Eugene Provenzo has interviewed
several of his relatives as well as modern-day historical figures.
He has noticed that recollections arent always accurate
and calls the skewed memories "social construction of reality."
But accuracy is not particularly vital to record family history,
and contradictions in the telling by various relatives may even
add a little spice. The important thing is to capture the essence
of the tale.
"Families are extraordinary for exaggerating," Provenzo
warns, chuckling. "Thats part of the fun. You might
want to verify it against other people, but if a person believes
its real, its real to them. It may not be accurate,
but its important because it has defined that person in
Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald,
Grand Forks, North Dakota.