Lost in the Junk Drawer and other Rookie Mistakes

Eleven years ago I conducted my first personal history interview. I’m sorry to say the recording is gone, lost to history. Only the fragments of my memories remain. 

The interview was a powerful life history of a humble yet inspiring woman who rocked convention more than once. I recorded it on an eight-track audio recorder I borrowed from a musician friend; the hulking machine was overkill for our one-track audio needs, but it was the only decent recorder I had access to in 2005. 

I was a wannabe radio producer and desperate to join the cool kids at WBEZ’s This American Life in Chicago. To gain interviewing experience I asked a nun named Sister Beth Rindler if she would sit for an interview and tell me her story. I lugged the eight-track recorder up to her second story flat in Hamtramck, Michigan. It was a sweltering hot summer day. I didn’t ask Sr. Beth to turn off the noisy fan, my first rookie mistake. 

 Photo by  Jonund .

Photo by Jonund.

I knew Sister from a women’s spiritual group my mother belonged to called Women’s Eucharist. Sr. Beth co-founded the Detroit area group and it was her way of ministering, speaking her mind, and sticking it to the Catholic Church. Since her early nunhood with the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor, she dreamed of becoming a priest. When she spoke of her dreams to a priest one day she was ridiculed. When she mentioned it to some fellow nuns, they nearly put a boot to her backside.

I remember asking her, “Why not just become an Episcopal? They have women priests.” She told me that despite her disagreements with the Catholic Church, she loves it – the church is her community, her family. She didn’t want to leave, or break the rules; she wanted to change them.

I wish I still had that recording.

But I don’t have it. Nothing ever came of that first interview because I started documentary school and other projects cropped up and vied for my attention. The CD was lost in a Goodwill donation box. My laptop, which contained the audio file, gradually slowed to a computer death and was shipped out to be picked for parts. Before I realized it, the recording of Sr. Beth had vanished. Losing that recording was my biggest rookie mistake. 

I wish I could go back and listen to the stories Sr. Beth told about growing up on a farm in some Midwestern state I can’t recall. I wish I could recount the odd details she told me about her early days as a nun - something about fasting, vows of silence, and self-flagellation. It’s a bit murky now. Memory is elusive. We don’t remember everything, even the stuff they repeat over and over, sometimes even the stuff that matters.

Maybe you’ve taken the effort to carefully write down all of your family stories, laid them out in a beautiful heirloom book, photos included and identified. Or perhaps your aunt recorded Grandpa in the 1990s, and miracle of miracles – the tapes weren’t lost or deteriorated, so you finally digitized them; then all of your grandkids downloaded the mp3 file to their smartphones. I hope so. Your stories and memories will obviously be cherished instead of tossed out with the recycling.

Sister Beth’s recording may be lost to the vagaries of technology and poor file management, but as a personal historian I now have the tools and know-how to save stories in really special ways.

I’d love to wax poetic about the beauty of memoir and family history books, but a book seems to speak for itself – we know it is important simply by looking at a grandparent’s name on the spine. It’s all there: photos and family lore, bits of humor and life lessons. What I really want to tell you about is how audio can look special too.

 Would you put Grandma's stories in this pile? Photo by  makelessnoise  on flickr.

Would you put Grandma's stories in this pile? Photo by makelessnoise on flickr.

An audio memoir needs more love and attention in order to stand out from the crowd of media paraphernalia in our lives. At best – a collection of bland unattractive homemade CDs holds rein over a shelf in your family den. At worst – homemade CDs, unlabeled thumb drives, outdated cell phones, SD cards, old cassettes clutter your junk drawer. Imagine if you put Grandma’s stories in the junk drawer? And then threw it out?! 

  You know it's special! An audio memoir on bamboo USB housed in a linen case. 

 You know it's special! An audio memoir on bamboo USB housed in a linen case. 

I wanted to avoid a rubbish destiny for my audio memoir clients. Last spring I scoured the internet for a way to make audio look beautiful. I eventually found these linen cases. The digital file is on a USB thumb drive or CD, whichever the client prefers – and the USB isn’t the typical plastic; it’s made of bamboo. There’s a photo of the author on the cover of the linen case. They open the box by pulling a ribbon, and the stories are inside, a secret treasure waiting to be unlocked by the magic of technology. This way your family can see from the outside – this is a precious gift. 

I hope to have another chance to gather Sister Beth’s story. She’s still kicking up dust in the Church and inspiring women in the Metro-Detroit area to have a rich spiritual life. This time I’ll be sure to put the finished piece inside something special that won’t get tossed in the junk drawer – and I’ll ask her to turn off the fan. 

If you’d like to know more about saving personal stories in a special way, give me a call. I’d be happy to talk about it with you.

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