Among my various, mid-life passions, one that became a satisfying if not lucrative business was the five years that I spent recording video life histories for seniors. Inspired by the unanticipated and untimely loss of my father, I sought comfort in trying to piece together the richness of his life through photos and memories. This only left me wanting more. I had not yet made the time to learn what truly made him tick or what experiences were his most profound …and I didn’t have his stuffed cabbage recipe. This, and the fact that I needed an outlet for my pain, compelled me to help others avoid this same mistake. I launched Remember When…Video Memoirs through which I worked with others to preserve their own and their loved ones’ legacies. It was during this time that I convinced my mother to sit for a three hour interview, and subsequently edited the footage into an hour-long video of her life, complete with background music and hundreds of family photos. I was determined not to miss the chance to preserve my mother’s stories for posterity, and this became a treasured memory for my family when we watched it together at her memorial service. The memoir was recorded at a time when she was still vital and strong, and it truly captured her essence. Fast forward ten years. I have long since retired the video camera and moved onto other professional endeavors, which are no less labors of love, but better suited to paying the bills.
But, I met a man recently who reminded me of the reason I have always enjoyed the company of older adults, and why recording video memoirs became such an important and impassioned pursuit for me. I describe Peter to others as a national treasure, whose life has been an endless series of adventures that the rest of us can only dream about. And, his ability to tell his stories with intricately woven plots and elaborate detail surpassed that of anyone I had met for a long time. Peter, or “Peter the Elder” as I fondly referred to him, was half of the father-son pair of Peters on a Rick Steve’s group tour that my husband and I took of Sicily. Peter entered our group orientation looking grizzled and frail, walking slowly with a cane and slightly hunched over. While the average age of our group hovered around sixty-five, Peter was by far the eldest at 96. Through meeting and getting to know Peter the Elder, I was forced to challenge my own tendency to judge others’ abilities by outside appearance. His son, “Peter the Younger”, mentioned at one point that the tour company did not initially accept their deposit due to concerns about his father’s age. He informed them that his father continues to compete and win medals at international slalom skiing competitions, and would likely have no problem keeping up with a group of middle aged tourists. This was borne out in spades throughout our eleven days together.
Peter was a walking encyclopedia of culture, geography and history, all of which he had experienced first-hand. From his descriptions of donning white coat and tails at the Kaiser’s Ball in Vienna, to his role in the liberation of Italy after VE day, Peter had a story for every occasion, replete with sumptuous detail and personal anecdotes. Before long I learned to position myself by his side during walking tours, to get the maximum benefit of his personal vignettes. You would think that this required me to hang to the back of the group. On the contrary, Peter was generally near the front, exchanging pleasantries or comparing notes with our tour guide. There were a number of instances when the group was offered the chance to hop into a van instead of trekking by foot in some of the hilly, cobblestoned towns we visited. Without fail, Peter opted to walk, and did so at a relatively brisk pace. On one such occasion, my husband was gravitating toward the van, fearing that his arthritic knees would act up. He immediately veered away and opted to walk after being inspired by Peter, already halfway up the path.
His wardrobe and walking stick added to Peter’s image as a man of international intrigue, and this was reinforced by that that he spoke five languages fluently, and could make himself understood in a few others. Despite the fact that his bag for a month of travel was the size of a day pack, Peter always wore a sport jacket, with a button down shirt and an ascot. The handle of his walking stick transformed magically into a seat, allowing him a brief respite on the longer stretches. He had visited all but two countries in the world through his work as a career military attaché and his wanderlust; those he had missed were still on his bucket list.
Jewish Women’s Archive: Sharing Stories, Inspiring Change
The Boston Memoir Project: A Partnership between the City of Boston Elderly Commission and Grub Street Writers to Turn Memory into Narrative for Boston Seniors since 2006.
Software APP for recording life stories at home:
The Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL)