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Your Personal Memoir preserves priceless family histories

Susan's grandfather Walter Hibbins (front and center) June 23, 1923 on the "The Montrose" headed to America from Liverpool

Susan Carroll and Gigi VanderWeele

Susan's grandfather Walter Hibbins and grandmother Helena Hibbins holding her father, Frederick Walter Hibbins, after he and Helena arrived in Detroit in 1926


Susan Carroll grew up with two cassette tapes that her grandfather recorded, telling his stories of growing up in Liverpool and eventually immigrating to the United States and settling in Detroit. Her mother eventually typed them up and printing them out, making a book that included some of his old photos.
 
"I was always fascinated with these stories," Carroll says. "It was such a treasure for me and my siblings and our kids."
 
One day her sister saw an article about personal historians and encouraged her to do something like that. Carroll was ready for a career change, and started talking to her good friend Gigi VanderWeele, a longtime Detroit-area journalist who was also ready for something different.
 
"This sounded like so much fun, and it has been really rewarding for these families," VanderWeele says.
 
They launched Your Personal Memoir over seven years ago, and since then have been documenting people's personal stories as well as doing workshops throughout the community to encourage people to document and record their loved ones' stories, emphasizing how important it is to do so – because once the person is gone, their stories are gone too.
 
"A lot of times the people who find us are the kids in the family when there's an elder mom, dad, or grandparent and they know that if they don't document their history, it's going to be lost," VanderWeele explains. "They often feel this urgency. They may have wanted to do it themselves but could never get it done."
 
When Carroll and VanderWeele are hired for a project, they sit down with the family and outline the stories the family wants to include – maybe they’re about the family's history, or a family business started decades ago. They then create a list of questions they will ask during the interview and review them with the family for feedback. The interviews themselves last several hours over multiple sessions and are recorded then transcribed word for word with only some light editing, creating a narrative in the person's own voice.
 
"We're not ghostwriters," says VanderWeele. "We felt very strongly that when someone reads one of these books later they should hear the person's voice in their head as if they're sitting around the kitchen table talking."
 
Carroll then works on developing a design layout with photos supplied by the family, and then they work with a publisher to produce a small run of heirloom books printed on high-quality archival paper just for the family that can be cherished for years to come and passed on for generations.
 
"We have come to the conclusion that people will always be able to read, but technology is changing constantly and we don't know how accessible something recorded today will be even 10 years from now," Carroll explains as to why they chose a printed product over a digital one (though families do also get to keep the recordings, delivered unedited on a flash drive).
 
VanderWeele says that a lot of the stories that are shared are stories about people who have already passed on, stories about where the person came from and what brought them to the Detroit area, and stories about their youth, what life was like when they were young and how different the world was then.
 
This also allows them to present their core values, VanderWeele says.
 
"Core values are learned and if we're not sharing those, future generations aren't going to learn them. Saving, finance, the importance of education and of family to them, how they build and maintain relationships, the keys to a successful marriage – this is their opportunity to tell people how to live life to the fullest."
 
As their clients tend to be older, one question they always ask their interview subjects is, "What is your secret to longevity?"
 
"They often talk about how they don't hold anger; they let grudges go," says VanderWeele. "They don't hang on to the negative things in relationships. Obviously they're doing something right if they're buzzing around town, volunteering and going to church like they're doing!" 
 
They also ask where these people were during significant world events. Some of them lived through the Depression and WWII. Others experienced the riots in Detroit and how much they impacted the city.
 
"They put a personal twist on history for their readers," says VanderWeele. "It's really valuable to all the generations because they learn this history but it's also personalized through their family."
 
Telling their stories can often be emotional journeys for the clients, who will go through their lives and remember the good with the bad – alcoholism, miscarriages, the death of spouses and close family members. Because of this, and the importance of creating an end product that honors the person that they are also comfortable with, a memoir takes about a year to produce.
 
"We want it to be a very professional product so there are multiple drafts," VanderWeele explains. "We also don't want people to feel rushed. We want it to be fun. We want them to enjoy the process. We take our time but we move along at the pace that the project dictates."
 
Memoirs such as these allow families to honor their loved ones, and also allow those loved ones to connect to family members across generations. If Grandma also had trouble dating or deciding what to study in college, that's a way for her to connect with younger generations who don't know what their elders have gone through (and how similar those personal struggles are to their own lives).
 
"We didn't expect how rewarding it would be for the memoirist to review all these memories," says Carroll. "These people feel such a sense of accomplishment after they've done this."
 
VanderWeele adds, "They're often so honored to be asked to share these stories, and to share them with the younger people in their lives."
 
Both echo the importance of getting these stories documented while you can before you regret not doing so.
 
"The fact is, today families just aren't hearing those family stories like they used to," says VanderWeele. "As a child we would get together with the family for dinner every Sunday and hear those stories. Today we don’t have that; a lot of families don't live in the same community, or have much busier lives than before. We don't have the same opportunities to hear those oral stories."
 
Other forms of documentation have also disappeared in our current culture. "People don't write letters like they used to," VanderWeele continues. "People don't journal anymore. We take pictures still but we don’t even print them. Yet it's an emotional trigger to see the photo and remember that day's events. We're not hearing our stories anymore. We have to figure out some way to save them."
 
Your Personal Memoir offers projects for many different budgets, from their full interview, transcription, and publishing services to audio-only, transcription-only, coaching, editing, and writing services. These services make for ideal birthday, anniversary, and holiday gifts. To learn more about personal memoir documentation and the importance of preserving family histories first-hand, save the date for March 6, 2018, for their next memoir workshop at the Oakland County Genealogical Society
 
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