She sat in a tiny room bathed in yellow light. Talking in low, soothing tones, she patiently answered a battery of questions from her daughter, grandson and granddaughter.
Austinite Jayne Keedy’s gift from her family on National Grandparents Day (Sept. 9) was a trip to the Block House audio studio, a top recording spot located inside a modest Northwest Austin home. There, Keedy related how she met her first husband, what her daughter was like when she was young and her impressions of the world decades ago, a world her grandchildren can only imagine.
If preserved, Keedy’s family recording should be treasured as an heirloom. Rarely are such oral histories available when we want them. And in most cases, personal memories are all any family possesses regarding its past, other than some photographs, a few possessions and official records of births, deaths, marriages and matters of property.
That kind of data is much more accessible these days, thanks to the Internet, but nothing beats the actual voice and warm memories of your forerunners. (Currently, I’m reading Michael Gillette’s oral history of Lady Bird Johnson, which comes out in December. Blessedly, I can hear her honeyed-iron voice in every syllable.)
Recording such living history has been on my mind because of the Untold Austin Stories series which runs on the third page of this section on Sundays.
Looking into Austin parks with the help of historians Kim McKnight and Gloria Mata Pennington has opened up a flood of memories from locals. Some of them have lived through three times as much Austin history as I have.
Wouldn’t it be thrilling to interview every octogenarian and nonagenarian in town, spurring memories of really Old Austin for the benefit of New Austin? Kind of like the “East Austin Stories” project put together by the University of Texas.
In Keedy’s case, the tales don’t go back that far. She’s about my age.
And her delightful grandchildren, Alex D’Amico and Piper D’Amico, threw plenty of curve balls during the interview. The grandson was interested in relating her experiences to more recent family episodes, while the granddaughter, much quieter, came out with hilarious nonsequitors like: “Did it hurt when you pierced your ears?”
They and their mother, Rebecca D’Amico, were helped by Lindsay Patterson, who does this for a living. Her company, Reflect and Record, is dedicated to family storytelling.
“I’ve always loved interviewing and listening,” says Patterson, whose background is radio journalism. “My favorite parts of interviews I do as a reporter are when people share stories of their lives, the people who influenced them and how they came to do what they do. Unfortunately, these stories don’t always make it onto the air.”
Originally, Rebecca D’Amico and some friends had hired Patterson to record a friend in Louisiana who is terminally ill. When D’Amico heard about the Grandparents Day deal, she signed up with Patterson right away.
“It’s an important job,” Patterson says. “Because if you don’t take action to preserve the stories, they are inevitably lost.”
Here’s somebody to interview at length: Martha Kirby.
“Michael Barnes has written more than 9,000 articles,” intoned Kirby, 90, as she nodded in my direction from the dais during the Retired Officers’ Wives Club of Austin luncheon at Green Pastures last week. “None of them about the officers’ club.”
Funny, formal, yet a bit scampy, Kirby launched the luncheon on a bright note. The group meets regularly, in part to socialize and share memories, but also to raise money for veterans’ causes.
I spent the most time with Donna Di Loretto, who told me about her fruitful gardening efforts, and Grizelda Black, who ran the meeting in a pleasantly businesslike manner and alerted me to some 1940s-style big-band dances in the area.
The main amusement that midday was a fashion show courtesy of the Coldwater Creek shop in Barton Creek Mall. Worn by members, the layered outfits were simultaneously stylish and age appropriate.
You know, I attend a lot of luncheons, but this one painted a big smile on my face from beginning to end.
“We’ve been trying to get publicity for decades,” Kirby said. “But the Statesman always told us: ‘There are too many social clubs.’”
Well, in my defense, I didn’t know anything about the club until a week or so before the meal. I’d gladly hang out with this merry troop any time. I’m sure what they really want, however, is to recruit more spouses of retired military officers.
Carry on, soldiers!