Sunday, January 15, 2012

Family history - "Wait a minute, I see a pattern here..."

On a cold wintry morning in February 2009, I was wrapping up the very first video biography interview I had ever created in my life. There was a pause in the conversation and the lady I was interviewing tilted her head sideways and thought for a bit.

"You know, I never realized my interest in arts and crafts came from my mother," she said wonderingly. "And now whenever my grandchildren come and visit, they look forward to crafts-time with their grandmother. It's a continuing legacy."

On my part, I was thrilled to have helped connect the dots. I did wonder for a brief second how interesting the human mind was that a chance question posed by a stranger could help a woman in her 70s realize something new about the bond she shared with her mother and grandchildren... but the thought vanished almost as soon as it had occurred to me.

Then, a few months down the line, I interviewed an elderly gentleman who had served in the air force during the second World War. I happened to ask if he remembered the first time he had ever been in an airplane, and he had to think about it. He decided it was when he was a teenager. They were offering 30 minute rides up in the air if you paid a dollar or something like that, and he and his brother decided it was time to look down on everyone around them (literally). So up they went. And he said rather proudly, even now 60 odd years after the fact, that he never got sick while others around him did. And he thought it was all right. Then he looked directly at me and said:

"That's probably one of the reasons why I signed up for the air force during the draft. That and the fact that I couldn't imagine myself marching to someone else's orders - so the army was out. I never thought about it, but that one plane ride probably set the tone for the rest of my life."

But it wasn't until I interviewed my own father many months later that I experienced the same shocking (or rather, shall I say surprising?) sense of revelation. When I was young, my father decided to quit his very lucrative international job at a very prestigious firm, and return to India to do something new. Something more fulfilling and satisfying. He wasn't sure what yet, and though a period of uncertainty and most definitely doubt followed, he ultimately succeeded in doing just that. It was a risk but it paid off. It could well have not. And being at an age when none of these lofty ideals made sense to me, I was upset. I questioned his wisdom. And many times, his authority.

Years later, with a lot less at stake, I did the same things. Left a job when the future at the company looked promising just because it wasn't satisfying anymore. Left the country to be with a man I loved. Started a new life, and a new profession when my peer were getting promotions and moving on and moving ahead. But I was happy. And it felt good to not be dictated by illusions of how things should be, but rather do things I had not done before and learn and grow from the experience.

It seems painfully obvious where I learned these lessons from, but it never hit home till that interview with my father. And then, I paused, lost in my thoughts... looked at him clearly in the eye and nodded. He may well have thought I had lost my marbles and probably wondered at my interviewing skills. But in that one moment, things fell in place. Past demons had been exorcised. All was well. And it was because of him. So much of it was.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Family pictures and the art of the sideways glance

And now for the latest installment in my adventures while sorting through the family pictures spanning a 100 years. At least. You may be able to tell that I am very proud of this ongoing project but for the life of me, I'm not sure what gives me away every single time!

This week, I noticed a curious trend from pictures belonging to my grandparents on both sides. Of course they're looking young, dashing, handsome and beautiful in all of them, but inevitably, they're also looking sideways. To the left. To the right. At an angle. The pictures definitely benefit from the air of grace alternating with graveness that their beautiful profiles lend to them but I don't think it's all about showing off their best side. They made me pause and think.

My grandparents grew up at a time when photographs were still an occasion. Cameras were not a given in every household. And the opportunity still demanded an effort at dignity. Which is probably why I always think of my grandparents with awe. I didn't really get the chance to know my father's parents very well because they died when I was very young... and whatever memories I've fabricated of them while looking at their pictures are tinged with the respectability of their somber faces looking somewhere into the future (which is inevitably on the side of frame!). They weren't completely devoid of humor, I assure you... I have a few real memories tucked away of happy times spent swinging on their legs or finagling candy out of their unsuspecting kind hearts... but the pictures leave them looking forever all-knowing. Wise. With quiet dignity and romance.

And old habits die hard. This past summer, when my husband and I were visiting my family in India, we took a few pictures with my maternal grandmother - the only branch on the grandparent tree left for me. And it's with a faint smile that I now realize that my grandmother is looking off to the side even in this one, dated June 28th, 2011... in the age of digital cameras and instant gratification. My husband and I are looking directly into the camera - eyes wide open, smiling like monkeys - and there's my grandmother, seated between us... looking thoughtfully into the (sideways) distance.

Just another sign of the good ol' days. And what a pity it is to bid them farewell.


Monday, July 18, 2011

"Everything must go!" - Except the memories

I walked in to the house today and the sight of all our things in boxes made me pause. No, it wasn't a surprise move engineered by the husband (that wouldn't have gone down too well, let me add)... it's just that we've been so occupied with the move that after being gone from the house for half-a-day, I'd forgotten that when we'd enter, the table where I put my keys wouldn't be there. That the dresser with the sunscreen was now in someone else's home. That the space occupied by the couch in the living room was now occupied by boxes. Lots of boxes. Three years worth of boxes.

It made me think back to the first time my family moved - it was a big one because it was from one country to another. The whole experience of 'moving' is quite different when you're 9. My parents made my sister and I go to every landmark in New Delhi and took our picture in front of it. There's one in front of the President's home, in front of a Lotus-shaped temple, sitting on the trunk of the car, outside the club where we learned to swim. I never understood what they were doing. It wasn't like we were going away forever. It wasn't like these places wouldn't be standing when we visited during summer break after a year.

That was in 1989. Today, packing the first home my husband and I set up together... putting away the mismatched plates we ooh-ed and aah-ed over when we bought them at an expensive store, the books we've scoured over on lazy evenings, selling the bookcase we painted together... I feel like I understand a little of what my parents were trying to do through the pictures. This house will continue to stand after we've moved out and new tenants move in. The yard will continue to flourish though one or two trees may take a hit in coming summers. The garage will still provide shelter to cars, bikes, strollers, and junk. But as of tomorrow, it will cease to be our own private paradise. It will have someone else's imprint on it... someone else's memories. That's what we were truly boxing away - the memories. And that's what my parents were trying to hold on to in the pictures - the memories of a city at a time it still belonged to them.

I mention the pictures because I encountered them again yesterday after years while in the process of sorting out my family's photo archives. I am fortunate that most of the photographs in my family's possession can fit into two large suitcases. I think the fact that we moved 10 times in 25 years necessitated some pruning of the collection... most of it intentional and some of it accidental. Along with the photographs that faced some downsizing, we also said goodbye to many books, journals, paintings, dolls, clothes and oh so much more with every new house. Of course, we were constantly adding to the collection as well... but not all the markers of my childhood made it.

My grandmother's home on the other hand is the complete opposite! She has had the amazing luck of living in the same home for almost 70 years... and it shows. Her room sprouts memories. From pictures on the dresser table and on the walls, to those tucked away in trunks, under the mattress, in drawers and closets, in storage rooms, in the garage and in the office... she has them all. The books, the clothes, the dishes, the music, the pictures, the letters! It makes sense to me, most of it does at least, because they are from a time I can remember. But what will my nieces and nephews make of it? Will they know the people in the pictures? Whose wedding it is that we're posing for? Why Nani still holds on to a doll with cotton coming out of her belly? Why there are still clothes hanging from closets of unused rooms? Whose clothes they are? What is the story behind the unused and falling-apart jeep under the mango tree?

My grandmother's a smart woman. She may be old and confined to bed for the most part, but at heart, she's still 16 - that's how old she was when she got married. Over the past two years, she has been organizing her papers, pictures, diaries and memories. So it's quite likely that the stories of our family will translate and transcend to future generations.

I just have to make sure that I take care of mine... that there's place enough for all the memories in the boxes. That nothing slips through the folds. That one day my children will know of their parents as a giggly young couple who set up home for the first time. Without them, but in anticipation.


Monday, July 4, 2011

Stories from a black-and-white photo of a man I wish I knew

A suitcase full of photographs accompanied me back from New Delhi to Austin last Friday. Thankfully the airline was feeling generous and let me check it in free of charge - a sign perhaps that it was the right thing for me to do. It helped calm the nerves as I confess, I felt a little nervous assuming ownership over these one-print-left-only photographs that ranged from my grandparents' parents to my sister's daughter. So nervous was I that after checking in the bag, a flood of new worries took over - what if my baggage got lost in transit? What if someone else were to pick it up thinking it was theirs? What if the plane crashed - well, that would have been truly sad for more reasons than one, but I am glad to report, nothing amiss came to pass. And they are now being slowly digitized, one picture at a time, piecing together the story of four generations of my family.

Amongst these, a set of four black and white pictures caught my attention. I did not recognize any of the faces in them and may have summarily put them away for 'later', when by chance, I flipped them over, and lo and behold, the most marvelous story was unfolded. They were taken by my paternal grandmother (Dadima)'s brother... whom I had never met. In the 1960s, he moved to the United States (Stanford, perhaps) from a small village in India to do a Masters in Agricultural Sciences, I believe. Along with him were his wife and son. The four pictures provide vignettes from their lives... and on the reverse of each, in the most beautiful and concise Hindi language, he has written in great detail the wonders of life in the United States.

The first one (my favorite) is of a lady (his wife) in a sari at a grocery store, wheeling a cart in front of her - a cart which contains many, many things, in addition to her young son. Nothing remarkable about it until you read what he has to say about it. I paraphrase:

"Supermarket. That's what they call really big stores in which one can buy almost anything of any type. Different shelves stock fruit, vegetables, spices, ice cream, milk, and meat - with their prices neatly printed in front. You can pick whatever you want and place them in these carts with wheels, which you can then push around the whole store. You can see one in front of me in the picture!"

The second is a picture of them in the kitchen, narrating the wonders of an electric stove. And the final two are of them using a telephone - and mentioning the modern phenomenon of booking trunk calls (which I am familiar with but is anyone else?!).

I wish I knew him. I wish I knew more stories about him. But I sure am glad my children are going to see these pictures and get a glimpse of life at a time when it was still simple.


Saturday, June 18, 2011

My Father's Gift To Me

One of the questions I often ask my clients is what traits they think they've inherited from their parents. With the approach of Father's Day I got to thinking about my Dad who passed away over twenty years ago and his influence on my life. There are the obvious things such as being a positive role model and providing financial and emotional security for my family but a more subtle one has turned out to be very significant as well: My Dad loved to take home movies. And he took these starting back in the early 1940s when my 6 older siblings were young and continued this chronicle through the 50s and early 60s adding me and three other children along the way. The first films are in a grainy black and white shot on a 16 mm movie camera with no sound. These are short clips and as in most home videos, they more than likely record a new baby or a holiday. The films improve over the years with color and better quality images but he never changed cameras. Even though one DVD will hold all of the footage he took over the years, they vividly reflect a lot of my family's history as I was growing up. And that impression has always stayed with me. When our children were young, we bought a video camera even though our funds were limited because when capturing those moments, you don't get a second chance.

When I conduct interviews or create a tribute for a client, I will ask if they have any home movies they would like me to take snips of to include in the DVD. Often, the reply is that their family never used a video camera and have only still pictures. This is not necessarily related to the family's economic situation; it's often something that just never occurred to the family to do. I'm grateful to my Dad for showing me how priceless video can truly be and for providing a treasured family keepsake along the way.

You can see snippets of his home movies starting in the 8th minute of a tribute I did for my mother's 90th birthday; in fact, it ends with some footage he took around 1940 of my mother on a scooter.

Bridget Poizner

Friday, May 27, 2011

If only our brains came with a memory chip...

A question I get asked again and again is - 'What is the ultimate format to store digital photographs and files on?' Unfortunately there is no pat answer to that. The technology hasn't been invented yet that won't go obsolete in a few years and while that doesn't bode well with our plans for organizing and preserving our personal archives for posterity in one swift, effortless swoop, the good news is that there's always a bridge.

The photographs of my parents that began with their honeymoon were Polaroid. There were many that were black and white. Then came color. Then matte and glossy. Then they turned digital. Today, one can even store 30-40 digital photographs on a keychain the size of a folded dollar bill. When the trend began to move toward digital, my father invested in a scanner the size of a coffee table - maybe even a little bigger. First we stored them on floppy disks. Then came CDs and DVDs. Today the scanners themselves are compact, with a processing time of less than half that it took six years ago.

The question was posed to me again at a recent presentation in Round Rock, TX - what is the next big thing and how can we stay a step ahead. I gave the most honest answer I could - there's no knowing what the next thing is going to be. Or the one after it. Maybe it will be 3-D holograms. Maybe our memories will be digitized and stored in our brain's archive the moment they take place. Maybe human beings will have chips implanted in our minds. Who is to say? What is reassuring is that there is always a technological bridge that enables the continuation of our archives. From paper to digital and then who knows what.

The real question is - will we take the time to do the transfer? Till recently, my own family was guilty of hoarding home movies on VCR cassettes. And I bet you anything there are young adults today who have never seen one! It took the dedication and single-minded focus of my husband to transfer those home videos onto DVDS, and then also store a copy online... just in case!

It seemed like an intimidating and impossible task before we sat down to tackle it, but after a few evenings over a few days, we now had digital legacies of his childhood, and with that, all the crazy things little boys do when they're growing up. Climbing on to the roof of the house, imaginary sword fights, terrorizing innocent cats on the prowl... the most endearing part was watching my husband's mother watch these videos for the first time in 25 years. "You did that?"

It's a wonder how little boys survive their childhoods to become men.


Saturday, May 7, 2011

What's Love Got To Do With It? Everything!

With Mother’s Day upon us, I find myself thinking about how lucky I was to have a mother who indeed was worth celebrating. Though she passed away a few months ago, the example of her behavior and love has had and will continue to have a great influence on me. And that legacy directly affected how I raised my own children. I am so grateful that the path she followed has helped make my own journey such a joyful one.

It wasn’t that she was a perfect mother. She did a few things that a psychologist might have raised an eyebrow at but considering she and my father had ten children, a few mistakes were bound to be made when raising us. What she did seem to be perfect at was how she made all of us feel equally loved.

One thing that is very comforting to me is that I have several hours of audio and video interviews of her sharing stories of her life. I conducted most of these interviews before I began creating video biographies professionally. These are now such a wonderful link to memories of her. For instance some of my sibling would sometimes tease her about how she couldn’t carry a tune but that never stopped her from singing in church or singing to us. Now I have video proof that though her pitch might not have been perfect, her intent was.

Mom, we were truly blessed to have you in our lives.

Bridget Poizner