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'90s FAMILY : By Word of Mouth : Every family has a story to tell. But memories fade. One solution: Preserve your legacy with a taped or written record of your history.


David Weiss never knew. Never even guessed.

Then one day the question came up, innocently enough, as he interviewed his grandmother, his beloved "Omi," for a college oral history project.

How did his grandfather die?

As the tape quietly turned, Weiss' grandmother unfolded the story of a Jewish German immigrant who couldn't afford to send for his relatives before they were carted off to concentration camps. They perished there. He eventually thrived here.

Walter Koenigsberger never forgave himself his luck. On Dec. 29, 1945, he threw himself into the path of a speeding train and died.

Twenty four years later, on Dec. 29, Weiss was born and named David Walter.

"It was chilling," says Weiss, of Orange, about that moment with his grandmother. "I never knew."

What people don't know about their families for sheer lack of asking could fill volumes. And should, oral historians say. Put those stories down on paper--or cassette or videotape--and you've opened a personal window onto recent history, they say. But the greatest prizes are the little sagas the memories hold, the threads that come together and show us a bit of what we are made of.

"Now I understand who I am a whole lot better," says Weiss, 24.

With the holidays approaching, now may be a good time to compile oral histories to present as gifts. Or make plans with loved ones to set aside a couple of quiet hours during extended holiday visits for interviews.

But it doesn't really when you do it--just do it, says Wendy Elliott, an oral historian and author of several books on the topic.

"Maybe you don't feel as comfortable with it as you'd like to, but just do it," Elliott says.

Don't assume you already know all there is to know, she says; even historians find surprises. Elliott's mother was orphaned as a child, but Elliott had never given it much thought until a family history interview captured the ripple effect it had had on her mother's life as well as on her own upbringing.

"As I interviewed her, some of the feelings she had about losing her sibling and parents came out and I was better able to understand how she is today. I understand the importance she places on family," Elliott says.

Gary Shumway, a history professor at Cal State Fullerton and founder of the Oral History Program there, says many people discover family patterns of behavior and personality. The good, the bad and--in modern terms--the dysfunctional.

"I remember one student interviewed his grandfather. This grandfather recounted how his father beat him almost daily. He could count on one hand the days when he was not beaten. He really poured out his heart on this. He said, 'Maybe now you know why your father is the way he is.' It led one family to understand how long this trend had been going on," Shumway says.

Greatness can be uncovered too. Shumway's uncle had been left for dead in an Army "stiff room" during the great flu epidemic of 1918. He was saved by a friend who laid his head in grief upon the man's chest only to discover a whisper of a heartbeat. The friend went on to become a doctor.

The story nearly went to the grave with Shumway's aunt except that he thought to ask her about the epidemic, an event seared into the memory of anyone old enough to recall that deadly winter.

But family history can be haunting, too, even if the guilty ones are long dead. Glen Creason, a map historian at the Los Angeles Central Library, works with genealogists all the time. But an oral history interview with his mother added some unexpected flesh and blood to his forebears.

"One of the most surprising things was that my mother's grandparents were first cousins. Their parents were slave owners and apparently not very compassionate, either. The wife felt sorry for them and bought them shoes and because she didn't ask the father for permission, he threw (the shoes) into the fire and burned up perfectly good shoes. It's upsetting. . . . Basically I grew up a suburban bleeding heart liberal. I felt ashamed of it," he says.

By contrast, he grew to admire a grandfather he can barely remember as his grandmother and parents told stories of the robust, hard-working, loyal and kind railroad man--even if he did wash and iron all his money.


For all their fascination, a family's best stories, quirks and human failings often don't come up in normal conversation, Elliott says. Or the details will be fragmented. Family members almost always must be interviewed in a relaxed setting that offers them time to talk. And talk. The result is a focus and rapport, Elliott says.

"There's really a sense of creating something together," she says.

The most important key in the process is listening and not interrupting or jumping in with another question if the previous one seems difficult to answer, she says.

"Many times we're very uncomfortable when it's very quiet. They're thinking or trying to formulate the words," she says.

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