The Citizen’s Voice –
Many people intend to interview their older relatives and ask them what it was like when they were growing up. The problem is oftentimes life unexpectedly slips by, and people are unable to do the interviews when they say they will.
Then, when the people pass away, those vital stories are lost forever.
Ann Smith, a clinical social worker who lives in Laflin, recently started Life Stories Remembered, LLC©, a business designed to capture these memories and store them for people in a variety of formats — CD, DVD, or written transcript. Smith, formally trained in social work and education, has many years of experience dealing with people, and she brings this expertise to her business, which she runs part-time along with her social work practice in Kingston.
Smith was inspired to start her business after she did a similar project with the legendary Federal Judge Max Rosenn. At different social events, Smith always found herself seated next to Rosenn, and he used to tell her stories of his life. Many of the stories recounted his childhood, and what it was like when he grew up in the 1920s, and then developed into his professional life in the Armed Forces and later his judicial career.
One day, she asked him if he ever told these stories to anyone — or if he ever intended to put them down for any permanent record, even if it was just for his children’s benefit. Rosenn said he hadn’t, and agreed to sit down with Smith and record some interviews.
Throughout 2003 to 2005, Smith informally interviewed Rosenn, in his 90s at the time, in his chambers. The result was 25 cassette tapes, or more than 400 pages of text. Rosenn died in 2006 at the age of 96, about a year after Smith completed the project.
“When his sons came to get the material, they were overwhelmed,” Smith said. “There was so much they didn’t know about their dad.”
Spurred by Rosenn’s sons’ reaction and encouragement from her family, Smith then decided to start a business dedicated to preserving people’s stories. She views Life Stories Remembered, LLC©, as a valuable part of restoring oral history, or just as a way of creating an important keepsake and heirloom for families.
Smith has had a clinical social work practice, Counseling and Learning Associates, in the Wyoming Valley for the past 25 years, and she said in her capacity as a clinical social worker she is much more active than in her position as an interviewer, where she only guides her clients.
“In this business, I’m much more of a listener,” Smith said, adding that before she meets her clients she sends them a basic outline of what she thinks the interview should cover.
For Life Stories Remembered, LLC©, Smith interviews clients in a comfortable environment, either their home or office, and then tapes the conversation, using a digital recorder or a video camera.
Usually Smith will meet her clients for a few brief conversations before the actual interview. This allows the subject to feel comfortable with Smith, and hopefully opens them up during the interview. One of the good parts about having Smith do the interview is that many times she will ask questions family members might not ask or questions that a family member may feel uncomfortable asking.
Mostly her questions focus on family relationships, educational experiences, childhood and siblings. Of all the questions she asks, her favorite to pose is always “what are stories you think nobody else knows about?”
“I thoroughly enjoy seeing people get that ‘ah-ha’ moment, when they remembered something they thought they couldn’t,” Smith said.
Throughout her interviewing experiences, Smith has noted many people have two assumptions about the interview before it happens. One, individuals always think their own life is boring, and two, people always think their memory won’t be good enough to recall much information. Neither of these things ever turned out to be true. During the interviews, Smith is most excited when she hears her subjects say things like “I didn’t tell anybody this” or “nobody ever asked me that.”
Also, Smith sees an opportunity to capture other types of history with Life Stories Remembered, LLC©, rather than only individuals’ stories. She envisions projects that capture the history of area multi-generational family businesses, and tell the untold stories of how those businesses started from nothing to their current status.
Before she started Life Stories Remembered, LLC©, Smith spoke with Bob Wolensky, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, who authored a number of books on local history, and Jesse Teitelbaum, previous Executive Director of the Luzerne County Historical Society. Both told Smith that the business would be valuable for preserving the history of the Wyoming Valley.
Although other businesses like Smith’s exist in the country, this is the first time this type of service is available in the Wyoming Valley. Smith sees her business as offering something important for future generations, but she also takes pleasure in meeting and interviewing people about their lives.
When organizing information for her business, Smith came across an old African proverb she thinks stresses the mission of Life Stories Remembered, LLC©: “When an elder dies it is as if a library burns to the ground.”
“I think it’s the most fascinating part of living — to hear how other people lived their lives,” Smith said. “The importance of preserving life stories cannot be measured. Once that person is gone, that life story is gone.”