Danville Express

Column - June 8, 2007

Diablo Views: The history of - you

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

Everyone has a history. Maybe Alexander the Great makes a better movie than you do, but I'll bet your personal history would make better reading for your children and grandchildren.

Leslie Rupley is in the business of preserving personal histories. She said her clients are usually people who have elderly parents and, as they watch them age, they become frantic about preserving their knowledge.

Once she sits down with the subjects, they may have to be convinced their stories are important.

"They often say, 'What do I have to tell?'" Leslie told me over coffee at Yellow Wood in Alamo last week. "I have to convince them of the richness of their family stories."

This is where her interviewing skills come in, as she coaxes them along in sharing memories of their early lives, during four to 10 hours of interviewing and recording. First they fill out a biography form. Then she asks what they might like to see in their story.

She recalled speaking to one woman who was reticent. She asked where she went to school, and the woman answered simply: "PS 190." So she asked if she had a favorite teacher. With that, the woman began to recall her school days, what the classroom looked like and her memories of being a student 80 years ago.

"These are the pieces that make their stories rich - the sights, the sounds," Leslie said.

She returns again and again to develop the relationship, and this break gives the subject time to think of more to share. A person may tell her about doing something they always regretted but looking back they can see it turned out beautifully and they feel a sense of resolution.

"It's an opportunity to reflect on their life," Leslie said. "It's a type of therapy."

When people talk about their past, she also gets them to put it into a larger perspective, asking, "What would that mean for your grandchildren? What would you like them to know about you and your beliefs?"

Next, Leslie assembles the fragments into something cohesive, which reflects the individual life as well as records the history of the era. For each interview hour, there is another 20 hours of work, she estimates. She must decide how best to tell the story - chronologically? In flashbacks? Each one is different, written in the first person.

"That's the art of what I do," she said. "After each session I read it over and go back and think about what were the turning points."

Leslie and I are about the same age and we began to discuss our era - our '50s childhoods, the arrival of television, the '60s and the Vietnam War. We both took our first airplane flight at age 21 and recalled donning skirts, nylon stockings and high heels for the occasion. She recalled the little packets of cigarettes handed out by the stewardesses. Now that's history!

Leslie's been involved with personal and organization history for 14 years, and when she retired as a school administrator in September, she started LTR Productions. She honed many of her skills coaching teachers and principals, as well as writing and editing. As her son told her, "It's the perfect new career for such a nosy person."

She said that as an educator she witnessed the importance of children knowing about their pasts.

"A child without a legacy has a real lack," she told me. A child who knows the family's past is "confident to go forward in life."

In the fall, Leslie attended the annual conference of the Association of Personal Histories in Portland. She also trained in oral history through San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum, and took part in its Legacy Project to preserve the lives of Bay Area artists. Her subject was ballet dancer Lareen Fender, now 71. Leslie had studied ballet under Lareen and after the project she produced a book for the family, hardbound with photographs.

The personal histories can take many forms. They can cost from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, depending on whether the family wants an oral memoir or an elegantly bound heirloom legacy book. One couple wanted their story recorded on their 50th wedding anniversary as a present to their children and grandchildren. Sometimes grown children will each contribute funds to the project.

To learn more, call Leslie at 934-8307 or e-mail leslie2745@astound.net. First thing you know, you'll be telling her all about yourself.

-Dolores Fox Ciardelli can be e-mailed at editor@DanvilleWeekly.com.


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