Oral Histories Offer Link to Family Roots

Veciana-Suarez, Ana. "Oral Histories Offer Link to Family Roots." Grand Forks Herald, 25 July 1994.

When Tamara Cohen’s aunt was dying of a fast-growing cancer, Cohen, a Hollywood psychologist, feared that the memories of her mother’s family would die with the last member of that generation.

So, a few weeks before the 80-year-old woman died, Cohen’s friend interviewed her, and the result was an hours-long tape that chronicles, in fascinating detail, the times and lives of the family. Excited with her findings, Cohen made copies of the tape and passed them out to cousins.

"They were surprised and delighted," Cohen says. "It’s a wonderful keepsake, and I know it meant a great deal to her to have somebody interested in her story and the story of the family."

Like Cohen, more people are becoming interested in their family history, and they are borrowing the techniques of historians to gather information. Many regret not having started sooner.

Tradition keepers

Collecting oral histories is not unusual. For generations, various cultures have designated a family member as keeper of tradition and family flame. But as clans disperse across continents and our lives grow increasingly harried and hurried, family folklore is too often lost to the pressure of modern day.

I wish it weren’t so. As I grow older and become more aware of the importance of what came before me, I regret the many stories that died with my great-grandmother, an illiterate woman who was the best storyteller I know, and my grandfather, a man whose real-life adventures competed with the best picture shows. If only I had recorded, in some way, the tales they told so my own children would enjoy them. My memory is faulty, as is my parents’, and recounting what I do remember hardly does the tales justice.

Remembering so much

Rose Riesel, a North Miami Beach grandmother, was interviewed recently as part of her family’s oral history project. There were many stories of her childhood and early marriage she had never told anyone, and when the interviewer asked her questions, she was flooded with bittersweet memories that left her both happy and tearful.

"I didn’t think I remembered so much, " says Riesel, 71. "It was wonderful experience, and now my children and grandchildren will have something to remember when I’m gone. It’s a wonderful way to bring families together."

At Dade Heritage Trust, experts have noticed the growing interest of ordinary people in recording their families’ histories. The past two years, the trust’s oral history workshop in May has been full.

"People are usually motivated by some change," says Ruth Jacobs, education chairman of the trust. "Someone growing old or getting sick makes people realize that family stories may be gone with that person."

Jacobs also believes the popularity of family histories may have something to do with a renewed interest in establishing roots. Often a simple conversation with Grandma Mabel or Great Uncle Milton sparks the interest in a young person. "They want to have a feeling of belonging to family, of knowing where they come from," she adds.


University of Miami professor Eugene Provenzo has interviewed several of his relatives as well as modern-day historical figures. He has noticed that recollections aren’t always accurate and calls the skewed memories "social construction of reality."

But accuracy is not particularly vital to record family history, and contradictions in the telling by various relatives may even add a little spice. The important thing is to capture the essence of the tale.

"Families are extraordinary for exaggerating," Provenzo warns, chuckling. "That’s part of the fun. You might want to verify it against other people, but if a person believes it’s real, it’s real to them. It may not be accurate, but it’s important because it has defined that person in some way."

Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald, Grand Forks, North Dakota.

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