Video Memoir: The Life That Got Away
In my video memoir work, I sometimes think of my grandma. I think of her especially now, in election season, because she was mad about politics. She couldn't get enough of it – endlessly watching the candidates perform on her creaky old TV. She was definitely crazy about politics, and it nearly made her crazy.
Whenever the guy from the other party came on TV, she scowled, put her hands over her ears and looked away. I saw her do that many times when I visited her at the nursing home she lived in - called “Jindalee” - just up the street from my folks. (I'm pretty sure she also did the “la la la can't hear you thing” thing as well – but I'm not 100% sure.)
Nana died a long time ago now, and she never knew the way my life turned out. But she has been an inspiration, and a kind of perennial reproach, for my life's work.
I make video memoirs for a living, you see - personal and family history documentaries detailing and celebrating the lives of (mostly older) Americans. I have made hundreds of video memoirs now, won awards at film festivals, been featured in “Woman's World” and “Success” magazines, and even had a story about me and my work in the “LA Times”. I have helped make hundreds of families happier, and more secure, by telling the life story of their loved ones.
But I never told the story of my Nana.
I never made a video memoir of her Alice McJannet's life, as I have for so many others. I never spent time getting to know her story, never researched her genealogy, never scanned and restored all her old photos. And I never interviewed her nor edited her story into a fully realized personal history on video. I was too young, too busy, didn't know how, thought she had more time, didn't know about the technology. All the usual reasons.
Here's a picture of Nana and me taken just before she died. She had been in a wheel chair for years, ever since she lost one of her legs to amputation. But she never complained. She had been a nurse and still had that “let's-get-on-with-it” optimism that so many good nurses have.
Dad would go up every Friday and collect her from Jindalee, scooping her up in his old farm-laborer's arms, and drive her down to our house where she would spend the whole weekend. Nana and I would always cook together, and I still have the recipes I wrote out – in my 9 year old hand – from the dishes we cooked together. Her lemon flavored cupcakes – we called them “little cakes” – were my favorite and they still are. Now I still make them with my own three boys.
My husband tells me I should be a little easier on myself. The technology was nowhere then where it is now. I don't think we even had a video camera back then (when did they come in I wonder?). I certainly know that there were no video editing machines available – well, there were my husband says, but they cost $100,000 or more.
But if I couldn't make a video memoir, I could at least have made an audio tape of an interview. And I could have helped her write a life story...
Nana was never going to write her own memoir of course. And I see this a lot in my business and have written about it in my blog. I call it “The Problem of the Reluctant Subject”. Some subjects, especially those who grew up in the Depression years, are just too darned modest to think that people want to hear their stories! Vanity can play a part – none of us are as young (or as fetching) as we used to be. And poverty, which we as the audience do not judge by, can still be somewhat shameful for the subject. Add to which, a lot of older folks these days are just too busy doing other things!
No, if Nana's story was ever going to be told, it was going to have to be told by someone else.
I feel sad now that I didn't get to make Nana's video memoir. But I feel glad that I can help other people record their Nana’s stories. My Nana Alice McJannet remains my inspiration, and a gentle voice in my ear encouraging me to continue my work. And I thank Arlee Bird for allowing me to share just a little bit about her.
Jane Shafron is a video biographer who co-founded Your Story Here LLC Video Memoir, a video production company that specializes in preserving personal and family history. Based in Orange County CA, her award-winning films have been screened in festivals in the United States and Canada. Jane is on the Board of Directors of the Association of Personal Historians. She regularly writes to her blog Video Biography Central and can be contacted on 949-742-2755 or through her website.
Thank you, Jane, for taking the time to visit us and tell your story. And what an inspirational story it is. I encourage readers to check out Jane's website Your Story Here. It's packed with interesting information that I think you will enjoy. Also visit Jane's blog Video Biography Central which again provides some great information for memoirists.
Next week on Wrote By Wrote we'll hear a call to write from 25 year old Dana Sitar. She has approached the art of memoir in a unique way.