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Musings: Let's Preserve Our Stories

By Franklin Abbott Email By Franklin Abbott
October 2014
Musings: Let's Preserve Our Stories

(Photo left, Source: Smithsonian)



“In the end, we’ll all become stories.” —Margaret Atwood



Author and activist FRANKLIN ABBOTT, whose papers are archived at Georgia State University, reminds us that we should save—before it’s too late—the precious stories of our grandparents and parents, and share them with future generations.

One of my favorite contemporary storytellers is the Indian-American novelist Manil Suri. We have corresponded since I read his first novel, The Death of Vishnu, set in the Bombay of his youth. He uses a neighborhood not unlike the one he grew up in to tell the story of neighbors, those who live in the apartments and on the streets around them. His second novel, The Age of Shiva, also draws on his personal story in its telling of a complicated mother and son relationship. When the last novel in this trilogy, The City of Devi, came out last year, I helped to arrange his appearance at Atlanta’s Decatur Book Festival, and then interviewed him for Khabar, which I have been reading for years.

For those of us who are lucky to know or remember our grandparents, one of the ways they bless us is with their stories. My father’s mother lived to be 101. When she was in her early 90s, I videotaped her. She was a simple woman from the country and very shy. My ruse to videotape her was to document her recipe for pound cake. She was famous in our family for her cooking, and her pound cake was one of her specialties. Although she shared the recipe freely, no one could ever replicate her cake. I had purchased one of the early versions of a video camera and wanted to make use of it.

She agreed to let me to tape her preparing her cake. While the cake was baking, we took a walk in her garden and she talked about the flowers and vegetables she had always grown in abundance. We went back into the house and she talked more about her early life with my grandfather. I put the tape aside in a drawer and more or less forgot about it. When my grandmother was turning 100, I remembered the tape and made copies for family members. My grandmother has been dead for almost ten years now and I feel so fortunate to have preserved this memory of her. I wish I had done so with my other three grandparents. I wish they had told me more about their grandparents and generations that preceded them. Most of that family history is now just names and dates in old family Bibles and crumbling tombstones in country churchyards.

Two years ago, when the staff of Special Collections in the archives at Georgia State University approached me with a request to donate my papers, I was puzzled at first. I am not a famous person. I wondered what value my old letters, notes, programs, and photos would have for others. Georgia State, I found out, is not interested only in famous people, although they do archive the papers of the famous songwriter Johnny Mercer. Their special collections are community focused. There is an interest in how communities have developed. My community work was what interested them, so I donated my papers and agreed to a social history interview.

This may sound dry, but my experience was quite different. In looking through boxes of old letters, flyers, conference programs, and photographs, my personal history became more vivid to me. I began to recognize my story and how my story connects to the stories of my family, my circle of friends, and the communities I have been involved in. My story is part of a bigger story, my “me” is a part of a greater we.

A good storyteller need not be an accomplished novelist and a good story can be crafted from anyone’s life. Who are we? Where do we come from? Why are we here? These are universal questions with answers that are unique to each person. Our stories are essential. They are part of our legacy for future generations and part of our connection to the web of life. Preserving our stories is of vital importance, both to those who are sharing their lives and those who, in the present and in the future, receive inspiration and solace from the stories that are passed along. Rabindranath Tagore wrote,
“The singer alone does not make a song, there has to be someone who hears.”


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