Recording the Past

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne


I was up at my Mother-in-law’s house this weekend in the historic gold field town of Maldon, and one night we got talking about the importance of recording the stories of many of our, now very elderly, relatives. This conversation was prompted by my husband reading a book about a famous Australian landscape architect by the name of Ellis Stones who had designed his grandmother’s garden in the early 1960s. As we read some excerpts out aloud we realized how little any of us really knew about the details of her life. It turns out the garden she designed with Ellis Stones was considered one of his finest but, apart from photographs, the garden no longer exists (destroyed after redevelopment) -yet another piece of history consigned to the rubbish heap.

Tim’s grandmother is now 97 years old and imagine the stories she must have to tell – about her life in a country town before the second world war when, despite her talents, her father refused to let her go to university; her recollections of a brother who was taken away; her trials during the war as she struggled to bring up two boys alone; and her despair when her husband was declared missing and no news of was received for 2 years (during which, it turns out, he was a Japanese POW). Imagine the insights she would have into the way people lived and worked then – yet no one has chosen to record her story, and, I fear, she is now too frail to be interviewed at any great length about her life.

As a writer of historical fiction, I draw upon the stories of ordinary people to be able to paint an accurate, detailed picture of what it was like to live during a particular era. Thinking about all the lives that go unrecorded has made me realize how much ordinary day-to-day history we may be losing. Hardly anyone writes letters or keeps hard copy records anymore – still fewer probably take the time to ask and listen to people tell their stories of the past. Much of our world is consumed with the here and now or the latest and greatest innovation. Thinking about my husband’s grandmother has made me realize that we all need to become keepers of the stories of the past. Interviewing our relatives and friends may become an important first step in ensuring that these ordinary lives do not get forgotten.

So have you talked to anyone ‘of a certain age’ about their lives lately? How do you think we can preserve these stories so writers like me will be able to read them (perhaps even hear and see them as well) in the future and be able to recreate the past in all its ‘ordinary’ detail?

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7 thoughts on “Recording the Past

  1. One side of my family is all about the past. My great-great grandfather built a Queen Anne-style house that’s still in the family. It’s on the National and State historical registers, and was recently featured in a book. Visitors always say it’s either like stepping through time or walking through a musuem, because everything is still as it was–though it’s an actual home.

    Photos: http://travel.webshots.com/photo/2939630410010823636ULUInr

    Restoration work: http://www.conradschmitt.com/portfolio/projects/?projectID=201

  2. Linda, how fabulous! I love visiting old houses it’s like being immersed in the living past. Anonymous, I would have to check re:submissions but I think we may have reached capacity.

  3. So true, Clare! A few years ago, my “aunt” passed at 101. Although she was a neighbor in my childhood years, I spent much time with her. (As one of eight, going to visit a childless woman pretty much guaranteed some one-on-one time!) For the last ten years of her life, we reconnected and I saw her regularly. Most impressing of her stories? Being a child in a horse-drawn carriage riding through a woods at night. We’re talking 1915 here. The woods was so dark they were blind, depending completely on the the horse to know it’s way. Imagine her life. Living off the earth, witnessing the first train, car, a man on the moon, a telephone . . . Yeah. History is insight. I’m with you. We should all mine the precious memories of our elders.

  4. We have indeed reached our capacity for submissions for this round. Next time!

    My mother has been keeping a detailed memoir that she calls either a “chronology” or a “database.” She puts everything into it–her memories, stories from relatives and others, bits of history and clippings–into a gigantic memory file. She’s doing so much (and she’s now 82) that it lets me be lazy. I do remember her saying that she regrets not talking to a distant elderly relative back in the 1950’s. Evidently that relative was the only one who had living memory of some events that might have shed light on some family mysteries.

  5. My grandmother is 97. Last month she tried to roll over and dislocated her replaced hip, now we can’t take care of her alone and had to put her in a home (read “old people prison”).

    She was the first child in her family born in America. Her dad came over from Scotland on the ship right before the Titanic and my G’Grandmother came over on the ship right after the Titanic. My G’Grandmother was mostly blind with 4 small children at the time and her husband told her not to worry, the ship she was traveling on was built by him and her brothers.

    They hadn’t been here but a few years when all but the youngest two children ended up in the hospital with typhoid. Months later my G’Grandmother was a widow with her 7 children, plus a new baby to take care of.

    Fortunately, my grandmother gathered a lot of family history together, records, pictures, stories, etc… about 20 years back and had each decedent lines add to the book as well. I also interviewed her in college around that time and have her on tape (that I really need to put onto disc). Now, she only remembers a few stories and mixes things up. She had a razor sharp wit and has led quite an interesting life.

    You are right- I hope we can all be better historians.

  6. Wow, such great stories. Kathryn, a database is a great idea. Kathleen, just imagine what it must have been like with all the stars visible at night too. Chaco, amazing stuff. We definitely need to become keepers of these kinds of stories.

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