Patricia Pearson is among a number of creative professionals taking documentation of family memories beyond the family portrait.
Recounting family lore by writing a memoir can go a long way, Patricia Pearson tells us how.
Martha Harris was an elegant woman, still beautiful in her mid-80s, who hadn’t thought of her small-town childhood in years. There was no occasion to speak of the past. Who would ask, after all? Her grown sons figured they knew the outlines of her story, and the ladies she dined with at her well-appointed seniors home kept the conversation light.
But, for me, as an author who crafts privately commissioned portraits of women like Martha, she was a blank canvas waiting to be filled in, and I wanted to know everything: what Christmas had been like for her as a little girl growing up in the deep forest of northern Ontario, what movies she and her sisters snuck into on Saturday afternoons by the side door because they only had one ticket between them. I was curious to learn what she dreamed of becoming and how the war had cast its mid-century shadow upon her family.
For several afternoons, over cups of coffee and plates of ginger snaps, we travelled back in time. “Oh, for heaven’s sake,” she’d say with a laugh, “I completely forgot about those trips to Fran’s Diner after school.” Or she’d murmur, “You know, that’s a good question. I don’t know why my grandparents settled in the Prairies.”
I would take Martha’s answers home and spend happy hours on the internet, trying to layer in some social history around her personal recollections. Why did Ukrainian immigrants in the late 19th century opt to head west to Saskatchewan? How much was a Coca-Cola at Fran’s Diner in 1948? The next time I had coffee with her, I’d offer my findings, and she’d listen with excitement. Together we were weaving her history, enriching the strands with new information and uncovered recollections. By the time we were done and I’d filled in my proverbial canvas with a written profile, Martha Harris could see her place in the world in a new light. She inhabited a fresh story.
Lots of people jot down some kind of memoir when they age, but not everyone is comfortable writing; nor are they confident they have something to say. Working with a journalist helps surmount those barriers, and it can take many forms. Allanah Campbell and Judy Maddren, former CBC radio reporters, create Sound Portraits of people’s lives. (After Maddren went to England to record her grandmother’s stories in 2000, the family said, “Judy, those are stories we’ve never heard before! That’s fantastic!’)
“When you lose your elders,” Campbell says, “you lose your library. To hear their stories, in their own voices, with their own expressions is wonderful. You can hear joy, disappointment, longing. It’s so evocative of what they were like at the time they were remembering, like when they attended the debutant ball.” Layering sound effects or music deepens the experience of the one- or two-hour CDs she creates. “It washes over me and through me,” Campbell adds, “some of the advice that we hear that’s directed to grandchildren. I, myself, learn so much. I’m the stranger on the train.”
When families first began to document themselves for posterity with the invention of the camera in the 19th century, they almost always posed stiffly and sternly, dressed in their Sunday best. It’s hard for their descendants to tease apart what they were actually like as people. We’ve come a long way from that stilted standard. Photographer Catherine Farquharson brings the eye of a photojournalist to family life, shooting all day at the cottage, for instance, while her clients swim, paddle or play cards. Her aim is to capture the unguarded intimacy that makes for another way to celebrate legacy.
“I love knowing that I am showing my clients images they don’t expect,” the Toronto-based photographer says. “When the forced smile and poses are removed and the real people come out, so do the real relationships.”