Capturing Stories of the Past… from Those Who Have the Most to Share

Throughout my adolescent years, I was ‘forced’ to make weekly trips to visit my grandparents just like so many other close-knit families of that day. The adults would talk, laugh and bicker, and then we would all eat dinner around the small kitchen table. As I grew older, and more insolent I’ll admit, I The Days of Not So Long Agobecame less interested in these tiresome family experiences.

My grandmother, Rose, was a Troiani of obvious Italian descent with a personality to match. She was quick to bite, her steely brown eyes always flashing in anger, and her comparisons of us eighteen grandchildren were often unflattering, given the ‘favorites’ that she chose. She cooked meat-heavy meals, such as beef stews, pot roast and lasagnas. They were all dishes that I ate with dismay, not so enjoyable for an aspiring vegetarian and a dreamy girl who wanted nothing more than to escape her middle-class roots to someday make it big.

At some point, however, I realized that I greatly enjoyed talking to my grandfather and listening to his stories of the past. I would sit on the hassock at his feet, with my elbows on knees and chin in hands, as the smoke from his ever-present cigarette swirled around us. Perhaps pleased simply to have someone who would listen, he shared tales from his youth and the fascinating days of his service during WWII. He was drafted into the army, and at nineteen years old he quickly became a platoon leader, nicknamed “Gramps,” because he was senior to most of the other young men. Over two years, his troop marched into Europe and then the Pacific Islands, and although thousands of soldiers did not return, my grandfather eventually came home unharmed.[1] 

Virginia "Ginny" Pfenninger, holding a picture of herself from her earlier days

Virginia “Ginny” Pfenninger, holding a picture of herself from her earlier days

He went on to live forty more years, and despite a rather loveless marriage, he and my grandmother had five children together. He passed away when I was a sophomore in college—taking all of his stories with him. However, I was too young, then, to know that my grandfather’s tales of bravery, camaraderie and devilish mayhem were as important as they were. I had always aspired to write novels someday, believing in my young naivety that I too could create something so ‘simple’ as Gone With the Wind, but I did not know then that I would eventually become a published author. Fast forward twenty (all right, almost thirty, if we’re really counting) years later, and the opportunity to capture not his stories but those of other seniors, suddenly presented itself. One day at the local nursing home where I volunteered, the idea arose out of some poignant memories—women who couldn’t always remember how to play Hangman with me, but were able to recall the days of their past with surprising clarity. It was there that my latest book, The Days of Not So Long Ago, was ‘born.’

Ginny's husband, Joe, who wanted nothing more than to be a pilot during WWII

Ginny’s husband, Joe, who wanted nothing more than to be a pilot during WWII

To note, there have been many wonderful oral history projects done over the years. The Georgetown Institute launched the Profiles in Peace Oral Histories Project in 2012 in order to collect unique, firsthand interviews from women and men who support peace, security and post-conflict reconstruction. Over three years, more than 50 leaders participated in these oral histories. It was a unique project that represented the largest collection of on-the-record interviews with leaders in the field, including President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia; Zainab Bangura, Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict in the United Nations; and Mari Skare, NATO Special Representative of the Secretary General for Women, Peace and Security.  

Barbara Dukes Grant, who suffered through the loss of two husbands and so much more

Barbara Dukes Grant, who suffered through the loss of two husbands and so much more

Swarthmore College also undertook an oral history project; the initial goal was to capture the voices of minorities who may not have been heard when they were on campus — “specifically alumni who’d been here during the 60s and 50s and are minorities, ethnic or any type that hasn’t been captured fully,” said Reference and Digital Projects Resident Roberto Vargas, who oversaw the project from its inception. “The stories shared by the alumni are unique insights into the realities of an institution that society has chosen to forget.”

If you are interested in undertaking such a worthwhile project, the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center recommends a number of key points, including:

  1. First, determine the project’s goals. What is the main topic? Why is worth doing?
  2. Learn about the work that is required for a typical oral history project. Various websites, such as the Oral History Association and the Veterans History Project provide helpful information on this.
  3. Determine the scope of the project, including duration, location and geographic range.
  4. Conduct preliminary research to find out what has already been written.
  5. Finally, create a budget and time frame, including a release form for all parties.

    Mine "Ruth" Fontenot, who could have been a country music star, but her father forbade her from leaving Savannah, GA and going to Nashville, TN with the talent scout who discovered her.

    Mine “Ruth” Fontenot, who could have been a country music star, but her father forbade her from leaving Savannah, GA and going to Nashville, TN with the talent scout who discovered her.

My own undertaking involved fifteen residents of Summit Place, the nursing home facility on Daniel Island, South Carolina, where I reside. They were all cognitive enough to understand the purpose of what we were doing together, and readily shared stories from their past. Northerners and Southerners, rich and poor, men and women—all who lived through the Great Depression, WWII, tragedies, loves and marriages, deaths and much more. One woman auditioned for and made the famous Rockettes dance troupe, a man was on the Queen Mary’s first voyage transporting soldiers overseas, and another man spent six months at the age of 10 in a rehab institute three states away after being afflicted with the then-dreaded disease polio. The stories are real, often heart-wrenching and truly indicative of that era. . . a time when families stayed together, when children obeyed their parents almost unconditionally, and when families had fewer possessions and smaller homes but greater hope for the future.

One gentleman by the name of Anthony “Tony” James, who is now known as the Candyman at Summit Place for his propensity to eat and dole out treats to the other residents, told this about his experience in Belgium during WWII:

I got shot just because of some sneaky Germans! They’d captured a bunch of American uniforms, and they put them on. When my troop approached them, we were exposed, out in an open field, and didn’t know they were really Germans until it was too late. They took fire on us and we all hid behind some hills. We were lucky that none of us died, and only two of us got shot. I was one of them.

All of the collected stories are moving, real-life examples of our nation’s past. Since I finished this project, others have approached me about writing their family member’s memoirs, as well. With a love for capturing this history, I am presently interviewing an aging mother to collect her memories on paper, and the project is a gift for us both. There is an old African proverb that says, “When an old man dies, a library burns,” and I believe that we should all take more care and interest in preserving the stories of those who came before us. Share the stories while seniors are still here with us, tell the younger generations and those who need to be gently reminded that the way the world is now. . . is not, at all, the way it’s always been.

[1]  Although is impossible to give true statistics on this because many soldiers were unaccounted for, most sources say that American casualties were the following: 406k killed (including 6,000 merchant marine civilians); 600k wounded; 5,600 American civilians killed, most of them Merchant Marine Sailors that died in convoy wars, and ammo accidents.


Have you thought about capturing your families’ past? What do you feel the younger generations could learn most from understanding the past?

2 thoughts on “Capturing Stories of the Past… from Those Who Have the Most to Share

  1. Years ago I was involved in an oral history project to capture the stories of residents who lived in my historic in-town neighborhood after it had “fallen” from its glory days as the chic abode of Atlanta’s rich and famous (early 1900s) but before we “urban professionals” rediscovered it (1970s) and made it once again the hip place to live. In fact, “HIP,” found on our residential parking permits, means Historic Inman Park.

    Anyway, my small group interviewed a dozen or so residents, but we never did what you did, Crystal, that is, transfer all these stories onto the page. Instead, our tape-recorded interviews are stuck somewhere, forgotten, in a room holding our archives.

    All this to say that, that next harder step you took is every but as necessary as getting the interviews in the first place. So, well done, my friend.

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