This year, Eugenia Appel's four children unwrapped priceless Christmas gifts. Now adults scattered across the country, each received a DVD from their mother, a native Ukrainian who fled to Austria as a child during World War II and, with her parents, was among the last refugees accepted through Ellis Island.
Determined to pass on stories from her past and the values and lessons she came to cherish along her life's journey, the 74-year-old Mesa grandmother worked with personal historians to create a DVD memoir.
"There are some things you should treasure, and I thought it would be good for (my children) to know how we struggled to come to a free country, how important that was to us and how proud we were to make a life here. We were so desperately poor, and we worked so hard. My mother kept a journal of it all, but it's written in German; my children won't be able to read it when I'm gone," says Appel.
Capturing such "endangered" memories before it's too late is a phenomenon that's catching on, says Dee Dees, a Gilbert author who's written two books to help people get their memories down on paper and leads workshops on the subject.
"It seems like people are more in tune these days with a need to pass our histories down. Years ago, these things were told and re-told, passed down orally because people lived closer. Nowadays, families are often so scattered, and when you get on the phone, you're catching up on kids and jobs and what's happening in the now; you're not telling stories of the past or remembering the funny way granddad used to do this or that," Dees says.
Helping to bring the concept to national consciousness are large-scale oral history projects. StoryCorps, a nonprofit project partnered with National Public Radio, has recorded tens of thousands of interviews between everyday people at recording booths in New York and San Francisco and via vintage Airstream trailers converted into mobile recording studios. The conversations are archived at the Library of Congress. Project StoryKeeper, spearheaded by the International Association of StoryKeepers, aims to train thousands of volunteers to interview and record the life experiences of elderly Americans living in nursing homes, hospices and VA facilities.
"We've found that, if not preserved, stories generally are lost within two generations. We lose the stories along with the person," says Jackie Jensen, a personal historian at Heirloom Media Productions in Mesa. The company produces DVDs that flow much like an episode of TV's "Biography." Clients tell their stories - edited to remove gaps in thought, repetition or tangents - as stills of photographs, documents and other memorabilia flash across the screen.
For Mesa's Pete Thorley, a DVD is the perfect way to preserve the lore and wisdom that his mother, now battling cancer, has to pass on. He and his five siblings are chipping in to cover the cost of the project.
"Mom grew up on a ranch in Utah with sheep and dairy cattle. I can look at the box of pictures she has, but there are no stories about anything in the pictures. I want to get that information out of my mother before it starts to fade; I want to know about the challenges she faced, for her to say, 'I've been through life, and these are things that have challenged me; this is what you need to look out for,' " Thorley says.
He also wants to make sure his mother remains a real person in the minds of his children.
"My kids are teenagers now, and when I was their age, I wasn't so interested in old people's stories. It's not that exciting at that age to go through Grandma's scrapbook with her. But this will be there for them when they're ready for it. They'll know, and their children will know, how she spoke and what she meant by things," he says.
Prices for professional services like memoir books, CDs and DVDs can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, depending on the extent of the documentation.
Do-it-yourselfers can tackle the project with a note pad, computer, voice recorder or video camera - provided they guard against some stumbling blocks.
The largest is procrastination, says Dees. Another, says Jensen, is the difficulty of capturing video and sound that can be edited into a finished product that both preserves the important stuff and is pleasurable to listen to or watch. And, sometimes, the obstacles are the storytellers themselves. Many don't think they have stories worth telling.
"People don't think their stories are important. They say, 'Oh, I haven't done anything; I've led such an ordinary life,' but that's far from the truth. Even ordinary people have amazing stories, and that's what your descendants will want to know in two or three generations - not just a name alongside a photograph, but the things that made you you. The stories are what bring names and photographs to life," says Jensen.
Jensen, who began recording memoirs professionally after her father passed away unexpectedly at age 60, urges people not to wait to capture old stories.
"There is something very special about knowing your heritage, knowing where you're from. People yearn for stories of their past, particularly in a world where things move and change so rapidly and dramatically. There's much to be gained from the stories of our ancestors, so many nuggets of wisdom and recognition for those of us who are still making our way through life," she says.