When people learn what I do, they often recount the stories they remember their grandparents telling them as children. Needless to say, I have heard many amazing stories – some inspiring, some informative, some heartbreaking – all offering a glimpse of history as experienced by ‘real’ people.
To learn about history through the people I meet (and those whose lives I document) is one of the things I love most about my work as a Video Biographer. But, so too, is encouraging families to recognize the importance of preserving life stories for their children and grandchildren to know, whether in written, audio or video format. Do you know your story?
Below are two life stories, that help to bring a family’s history alive for the younger generations to know and cherish.
What’s Your Story?
~ Downton Abbey ~
‘MY MOTHER, the eldest of seven children, grew up in the beautiful, remote Scottish Highlands. The nearest store was an hour’s walk, the nearest hospital 70 miles away. Life was hard and in those days everyone left school to find work at age 12 or 13. For the first 6 months my mother worked as a live-in domestic for the family of a wealthy landowner, scrubbing and cleaning from 6am to 9pm, seven days a week. Fortunately, shortly before World War II broke out, the family of the British Secretary of State for Air and leader of the Liberal Party, Sir Archibald Spencer, who owned much of the land in that part of Scotland, paid a visit and invited my mother to work for them in their London home.
Very soon, an elegant motorcar arrived at my grandparents’ home to whisk my mother off to the big city. How exciting it must have been for a young Scottish girl to suddenly find herself living and working in London. (And not just anywhere in London, but in one of its most exclusive neighborhoods, Eaton Square!)
On her first day off, Sir Archibald approached her as she was about to leave the house with her friend. He was carrying some evidently urgent official correspondence and asked if she could mail it for him while she was out. “Be sure to go to the main post office,” he added.
My mother was puzzled by the specificity of the instruction. What was a main post office? In her experience, the post office was a room in the local postmaster’s house. Not wishing to appear inept, she took the letters and assured her boss that she would do as he asked. As she walked with her friend along the busy, unfamiliar street, they scanned the buildings for any sign of a post office. Soon she found just what she was looking for and disposed of the precious letters, pushing them firmly through the shiny brass flap marked “Letters.”
The following week, the housekeeper happened to leave the house at the same time as my mother and her friend. She accompanied the girls for a few minutes, then said goodbye to them, saying she needed to go to the post office to mail a letter. Since they were walking in the opposite direction from the post office my mother had used, the pair decided to follow the housekeeper at a discreet distance. Soon they saw her walk into a building with a large Post Office sign above it. Upon further, panicky investigation, it transpired that my mother had dropped her boss’s important correspondence through the polished letterbox of the upscale Hotel De Vere!
Terrified of admitting their error, the girls decided they would keep simply keep quiet and hope for the best, a plan that apparently worked as they heard nothing more about it. As my mother says, the hotel likely redirected the highly official-looking correspondence into the nearest (genuine) mailbox. However, I like to tease my mother that she probably changed the course of the war!
My mother also decided it was best to keep quiet a few months later while helping out as a server at a VIP dinner attended by Sir Winston Churchill. While serving Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister who would soon be succeeded by Sir Winston when the Allies were forced to retreat from Norway, she realized to her horror that she had dribbled gravy down the great man’s jacket. Fortunately, he appeared blithely unaware of what had just taken place behind his back.
My sisters and I are endlessly fascinated by the tales my mother tells of her working life. “The funny thing is,” she says, “I was so young that I thought nothing of the fact I came up against so many famous people of the day. I just thought everyone had a job like that!” ‘
What’s Your Story?
~ Summer Job at Western Union ~
‘My father came to the USA at the age of 7. At 16, before completing high school, he began working for Western Union, first as a messenger delivering telegrams, and then at higher levels until his retirement. He was a devoted and a loyal employee and progressed to what I would describe as a mid-level range, obviously limited by his lack of formal education. Our family was poor, and at age 16 I was seeking a summer job. I was a very good student, a good kid and my parents’ only child. Using whatever connections he had at Western Union, my father arranged a summer job for me at what then was a very good salary.
My job entailed taking a group of 20-30 telegrams from a counter and walking about 40 yards to another counter where I sorted the telegrams and placed them into various cubbyholes depending of the telegram’s eventual destination. The problem that I encountered was that there was a very large clock above each of the two counters. Assuming that the round trip between the two counters took about 3-4 minutes, this translates into 15-20 round trips per hour, which means that I probably looked at the large clocks 120-240 times during each 8 hour day. Although I attempted to look at the floor to avoid seeing the clocks, it was impossible. Each 8 hour day seemed like an eternity. I lasted 10 days and quit.
My father must have been embarrassed by my quitting the job that he used his influence to obtain for me, but to his credit he never made any critical remark to me. Thereafter, in the continuance of my education through college and post-graduate professional school, in the pursuit of a successful professional career, and in raising my own family, I have tried, and I believe that I succeeded, in earning my father’s respect, and hopefully I have atoned for the disappointment of quitting my job at his beloved Western Union.
What’s your story? What stories do you remember your grandparents telling you?