Thank you! What a wonderful response to last weeks post, I Need Your Advice. My appreciation to all of you who gave your thoughtful reasons for my recording my life story.
Your reasons boil down to these five:
- It’s an opportunity for reflection, insights, and renewal.
- Friends and colleagues want to know the person behind the blog.
- My life’s been interesting and it should be documented.
- My personal view of the events that have shaped my past are part of our collective oral history.
- I’ll be more empathetic of my clients as they work through their life story.
As great as these are, it was an e-mail response from Bruce Summers, a fellow member of the Association of Personal Historians, that moved me the most. I was reminded again of the power of storytelling. And how stories can be far more effective than facts and arguments in touching our hearts.
I asked Bruce for permission to reprint his story. He kindly agreed.
Do yourself a favor and read this lovely reminiscence and its convincing argument for the need to record our life stories.
Joe & Helen
by Bruce Summers
Growing up I lived next to Joe and Helen Sitler. They were an older couple with no children. Joe had no brothers and sisters and he was the end of the Sitler line. We loved Helen. She was like a third grandmother to us. Joe was a bit gruff. He would not let us play in his yard, especially when he was mowing. He was afraid that the lawn tractor might throw a stone and hit me or one of my three brothers. In middle school I shared a bit of Joe’s story in an article I wrote for the school magazine. People thought I made it up, notably the parts about what I had learned from Joe.
Later when Joe was very ill and nearing death, my older brother and I went over and helped Helen move him. He was skin and bones. Helen needed help so she could give him a sponge bath and change his linens. Joe died soon after. This was my first encounter with the death of a friend and a neighbor. Even though he was a bit gruff, he was Helen’s husband and because of this he was a special man. They used to love to go to the City and dance to the music of the Big Bands when they came to town. He was born in the 19th century and had lived a full life and retired before I knew him. Most importantly he captured Helen’s heart and had been a good husband. I missed Joe and 40 years later still treasure my memories of him.
Another eight or so years later after I graduated from college, I had the privilege of house sitting in Joe and Helen Sitler’s house. This was after she herself had grown older, more feeble and hard of hearing and needed to be in a nursing home. Her hearing aids did not really work well and it was hard to talk with her, hard to share with her how important she and Joe had been as our older grandparent-like neighbors, too late to tell her that I felt a little bad for stealing some of the grapes each year that Joe grew on his grape arbor just five feet from the border of our yard. I wished too late that I knew more about Joe and Helen who had no descendants and no relatives that we knew. They were our neighbors. They were our friends and they shared part of our lives growing up.
As I sat in their living room and slept in a bed in one of their bedrooms, cooked my meals at their table, wrote newspaper stories on my typewriter at their dining table, as I explored their home, the time capsule that they had lived in, I wondered about their lives. I remembered that Joe never let Helen turn on the electric lights. They used candles and were very frugal. She canned vegetables and fruits. The jars were in the basement in the back room on a built-in shelf made just for that purpose.
I finally left that house to join the Peace Corps. I visited Helen to say goodbye, realizing that I would likely never see her again. When she died, I asked my parents to purchase an old high-backed Walnut Chair from their living room. It was the one I sat in to watch TV or to write letters to my future wife late at night. I wanted to have a piece of their story since I was never going to have any written history.
I am left with memories of Helen and Joe – my good and my gruff neighbors. They have no descendants. They are the last of their line but are not yet forgotten forty years after they both had died.
Perhaps you will or will not decide to write your story – a bit of a legacy to the rest of us and to friends and colleagues, many of us very virtual and little known to you. I enjoy your blog posts. I very much enjoy the stories you tell and I admire your work and your background. You never know for sure who will read, who will remember, who will retell or share your story. It might mean a great deal to many of us to know a bit more about the man behind the camera and the man behind the blog. Good luck with your decision.