24 September 2011

The Magic of Music

Bert and Anne Whitney 1946

Are there certain songs or pieces of music that tug at your heart? Especially when that music is combined with images that are also touching? On September 11 this year we “celebrated” the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedies from 2001. On the anniversary special presented by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Tom Brokaw I watched the heart-warming footage of that year’s rescue efforts, heroism and Americans pulling together accompanied by the choir’s wonderful singing of “Amazing Grace” complete with bagpipes. (Click on Brokaw's interview on the Choir website.) Scenes from across the country accompanied “America the Beautiful” and brought forth tender patriotic feelings in my heart.
My sister and her husband singing "Devoted to You"
 At our family reunions my sister and brother-in-law always receive a request for a few songs that we all love. Their voices blend beautifully with each other and his guitar accompaniment. One of these songs is “Devoted to You” made famous by the Everly Brothers. This year when they sang the song, they dedicated it to the newlywed couples of the family who were in attendance.
Grandparents Ralph and Doris Whitney
Another sister begged them to record their singing for our family history. Since the singing duo was staying at my house for a few days after the reunion, I prevailed upon them to do just that. Later it was published as a family history podcast with photos of family couples—the grandparents, parents and children, many on their wedding day. Thanks to Facebook for the ease of obtaining these photos. The photos were simple, the program that put it together was free (Windows Live Movie Maker), but the completed podcast has a lot of impact for our family because of the music that was a part of it. The song evoked years of family reunion campfires. The photos also portrayed the passage of time and generations.
M.J. and Hazel Christensen
A great source of historical music is The National Jukebox, a part of the Library of Congress. Don't forget that no matter what family history “writing” project you do, it is always appropriate to remember permissions and copyrights.

07 September 2011

At Least - Leave a Living Legacy

With the recent earthquakes and violent storms, I’m feeling a need to be prepared for the future. However the dill pickles and tomatoes I’ve been canning this week are not nearly as significant as another type of preparation I’ve been thinking about.

Many of us (including me) think we have plenty of time to complete our personal histories. We want it to be just right. We want it to include as much of our lives as possible. But what if we don’t have time to write the big wonderful autobiography we have planned. A lesser type of personal writing is a memoir—writing about just one aspect or time period of our lives. Or what about beginning with just one paragraph or one page or just one letter?

My daughter Rachel was killed in a car accident when she was only 29. She left two little girls that will someday wish for a letter to them from their mother. My great-grandmother, Elizabeth Zimmerman Lamb, wrote a journal, beginning at age 69. I wrote about it here. My favorite part is the place where she addresses her granddaughters. She thought about me!

In the scripture, the most touching and long-lasting words are those that are recorded at the end of a prophet’s life. See these words. Or these. A deathbed pronouncement is important legally and emotionally to loved ones. After someone has died, we often long for something of that person’s to hold onto, to keep bright when memories fade. A legacy letter or an ethical will can be just such an item.

We don’t have to distribute it immediately. We can revise it later or include it in the magnum opus type history we are planning to write someday. But maybe life will surprise us and that one thing we wished we could say will already be written when it is needed. It’s easy to let perfectionism stop us from doing something as important as this. How about just a first draft? How about thinking out loud into a recorder? Let me think for a minute about my life. What is important to me? If I could only say one more thing, what would it be? How about a letter to someone we love, maybe someone we can’t talk to right now? I have done that on occasion, like this day.

An excellent 7 part “how-to” course on writing an ethical will has been posted by Dan Curtis. He reminds us that such a letter is not about getting even or giving advice to another person. It’s about me (or you) and how I feel about life. It takes some reflection and even some time, but it can be done in small segments of quiet time. Dan suggests some exercises to discover our values. He suggests that we include specific things that we are grateful for and life lessons we have learned from the important individuals in our lives. Dan reminds us to ponder the important process of forgiveness and include some of that in our writing. We have all made mistakes. Asking for forgiveness is an important part of the finishing work we are doing here. If you like, you can include regrets, achievements and hopes in your ethical will. And Dan also gives us some instructions on how to put it all together. Add some final thoughts—decide how you would like to distribute or read it to your loved one(s).

Family history writing is important. I’ve talked about it over and over in this blog. But this specific personal writing may be the most important we will ever do.  Will we do it? Will I? 

02 September 2011

Looking Back and Preparing for the Future

Today I've been migrating old family newsletters to newer formats--making a new back-up of the old scans and then spending some time word processing articles from the pre-computer days. This is important work that needs doing if we expect our histories to last. However it takes time--mostly because I can't help reading and remembering. Here are some excerpts from my account of the last Thanksgiving our family spent together before the death of our mother.

Family Reunion—Thanksgiving—Farewell in November 1980
written April 1982
In September of 1980, my sister received her mission call to the Pusan, Korea Mission. She didn’t have to be in the Mission Training Center in Provo until December 1; the timing seemed perfect to hold her mission farewell over Thanksgiving weekend and have a big family reunion (with Mom, Dad, eight sisters and two brothers) at the same time.

Because of the size of our family (seven of us were married and there were 25 grandchildren), we usually held reunions on a campout basis. We decided to make an exception this time; we would all squeeze into our parents’ large home in Logandale, Nevada. The home was well-suited to the load. There were six bedrooms, four bathrooms, a huge kitchen, spacious living room and twin family room, and a playroom the same size as the double car garage above it.

Even though the house was big, we knew there would be a lot of people in one house for three days. My mother was not well; my sister and I decided to make food assignments for the Thanksgiving dinner we planned on Friday—since many of us would be traveling on Thursday—and for the other meals we would have together. We sent these assignments out in the family newsletter.

The girls still at home and my parents cleaned house and decided who would sleep where. Every family was assigned a bedroom; the three single girls slept in the living room. The only still childless couple got the family room. My family was assigned the big playroom, since we had more children than anyone else.

Because I was in charge of the turkey, I got as much as I could prepared the night before as we stayed up and visited together. Then I got up at 5:30 the next morning to stuff it and put it in the oven. Most everyone was tired; but one sister heard me and got up early with me. We had a close sisterly chat while we fixed the turkey. It was a nice quiet time for a private visit in the midst of all the confusion each day seemed to bring. As the morning progressed, each sister and sister-in-law prepared her part of the dinner. We had a lot of good girl talk in Mom’s big kitchen.

Mom was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and was always in a lot of pain. We were worried about her getting too tired, but knew how she loved to have her house full of family. She was assigned a comfortable chair in the middle of the kitchen so she could be in on everything.

She had us get out her genealogy records and showed us some additional work that needed to be done on Dad’s four generation sheets. The grandchildren wandered in and out, and we kept assigning their fathers to take care of them.

Dad had built a special cupboard in the kitchen. It had no back. Instead it had two fronts with doors. The other entrance was in the adjoining hall. This had always been a favorite with the grandchildren. This day was no exception. A constant parade of children popped out the doors into the busy kitchen.

Of course there were the babies to be cared for. If one’s mother was busy with the dinner, an aunt would tend a fussy baby until the mother was free. We had so much baby-switching, it was hard to keep track of whose baby was crying. There was always someone handy to comfort a cry. The unmarried girls did their share of tending. They got out some of their old dolls they had fixed up for the occasion. The little girls played for hours with the Pee-Wee dolls and all their clothes.

We ate dinner shortly after noon at the old Logandale School. Because Dad was the caretaker there, we were able to use the building. We carried all our goodies over in cars. The men had set up the tables and chairs that morning. When we all gathered together, it looked like a ward party instead of a family dinner. The food was delicious, and even after we all ate our fill, there was a lot left over. Dad always announces, “There’s plenty to eat, but none to waste.” This occasion was no exception.

At home again, we practiced our songs and took baths and showers, keep the water and children going in a steady stream. Some of the mothers were in Mom’s bedroom with her that afternoon, and she suggested using her Jacuzzi to bathe some of the children. The Jacuzzi was in her large bedroom suite. One sister named it the “people-washing machine.” We loaded it with little girl cousins, turned on the agitator, then drained and dried the kids and repeated the cycle with some little boy cousins. The children had been enjoying Dad’s acre of grass, sand and pomegranate trees, so the clean-up job was challenging.

Our family choir director November 1980
Dad is listening.
Mom spent most of her time in her bed, always resting for the next big event. A favorite place for a quiet mother-daughter or sisterly chat, her bedroom never lacked for visitors. She was our strength. Her love held us all together.

The next morning we were all busy getting ourselves and our children ready. Church began at 12:00 noon. That meant we had time for our last minute practices. Our sister did such a great caricature of a choir director; it was hard to keep from laughing. Because of that her husband took over as leader. His goal was to make us more serious and prepared, but he has a smile that just won’t quit; we were still pretty light-hearted.

The final thing we did before church was have a picture-taking session. As we took turns doing last minute diaper changes and hair-arranging, the various family groups had pictures taken. Then we all gathered into one large group, while a neighbor, recruited at the last minute, snapped pictures from each camera. We were told to move closer together, and we already were so close we couldn’t breathe normally. Then the toddlers and babies on the front row started to act up; one crawled away. The family mix was again apparent as a random uncle picked up a screaming nephew and posed with the yelling child and his famous smile. After much coaxing and threatening, several shots were taken. We were relieved to break ranks.

Family Photo November 1980
The family chorus sang “I Am a Child of God” for the prelude music, the grandchildren brought off “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission” with only a few mishaps. (My youngest daughter fell down on the way to the piano, and my sister had to start over on the accompaniment because no one started with her the first time.) Our other musical numbers were “Keep the Commandments” and “The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning.” We could feel the Spirit burning on our last chorus.

At home again from church, many of the family were preparing to leave, and we were trying to get our last visiting done. Our three living grandparents were there, Grandma Whitney and Grandma and Grandpa Christensen. Family groups were gathered in the living room, kitchen and family room. I was in the kitchen making myriads of turkey sandwiches and carrot sticks. My assigned meal was this last one, and most of it would be taken on the road.

Then came the time when we were all called into the living room together to have our final family prayer of the reunion. After prayer we spontaneously began to sing, “God Be with You Till We Meet Again.” Emotion was at levels hard to bear. Personally, I couldn't bear it and I left the room to finish the sack lunches.