NOTES FROM A STORYTELLER: FINDING LIFE'S NARRATIVE THREADS
I first noticed Jaya Aunty several years ago. She was dancing onstage as part of Jollywood, a seniors Bollywood dance group in the Bay Area. With long silver hair and a natural grace that hinted at a long career in dance, everything about her was elegant. When I began to teach Seniors Bollywood fitness at the India Community Center a couple of years ago (yes, that is, in fact, as amazing as it sounds), she was the first to join.
A couple of years later, I landed an incredible gig: Lead Concierge at The History Project, a start-up based in San Francisco. The digital platform allows you to capture the history of yourself or a loved on using the multi-media tools built right into the site. My role was to help people collect and organize their media - whether physical photos and documents or digital content - and curate it thoughtfully, so that their history became a story, a story with a narrative arc, context, layers and texture. With my background in writing, education and working with seniors, this job was a perfect fit.
I told my senior fitness students about my new job and Jaya Aunty asked if she could do a History Project about her life. I was over the moon. The writer in me was dying to follow her back through her journey in time so I could learn what brought her to this place in time. What were the life events that led to the creation of this dynamic 82-year-old woman?
We began to meet after class at the ICC. We drank chai, she brought me homemade food, and we talked. The History Project advises that when beginning your own project, start by listing a few significant life events. Just as a place to start, so you don’t get overwhelmed. Which was just what we did. Jaya Aunty was methodical, and she remembered everything. She started at the very beginning, listing all the schools she attended, the places she’d lived, the various family members she’d lived with, the adventures she’d had.
Every event sparked a memory. She had been a dancer and a model, performed skits for All India Radio. This explained the natural stage presence I’d been drawn to all those years ago. The writer in me knew this was the good stuff, the stuff her kids and grandkids will treasure, stuff they likely haven’t heard before. For these deeper, more specific memories tend to come up when one begins to actively look at their history. I wrote directly into her History Project as she talked, never interrupting her flow.
The memories came to her fast and furious, a common phenomenon once you get going down memory lane. “I just remembered a song I used to sing,” she said one day. “I haven’t thought about it in years.”
“Let’s record it onto the History Project. Here’s the record button. It’s that simple.”
I was barely able to contain my enthusiasm. My own History Project about my grandparents is filled with audio clips of their voices. Every time I hear them, I smile. And I know I have their voices forever now. Knowing that Jaya Aunty’s children and grand-children will have their grandmother’s beautiful voice forever, I was filled with gratitude.
She began to bring me photos. Her family was big on capturing their lives on film and there were dozens and dozens of beautiful old black and white photos from stamp-sized to portraits. Each had a story. I wrote them down as they came to her. In her words. This is important to me, because the way an individual tells a story is so much a part of who they are, so much a part of the story itself. Her turn of phrase, the things she recalled, all fascinated me and made her story her story.
“I want to start with my life up till my marriage,” she said one day. Sounded good to me. One thing I see over and over in my work as a concierge is that everyone thinks differently. Processes memories differently. Builds their History Project differently. If this made sense to Jaya Aunty, that was great. My role as concierge was to offer guidance and then let things unfold as they may.
I used to worry - Jaya Aunty was 82, that was a lot of history to get through. Would she get frustrated? Tired? In fact, the opposite was true. As we continued our work, she got more into it. She emailed me, “I was sick in bed on the weekend but I still wanted to look through my photos for our Monday meeting.”
She began to write out her timeline on pieces of paper. On the backs of them was Gujarati writing, the mother tongue we share, and I was dying to know what it all said. To me, it was an indication of how busy and rich her life is. She is involved in so many areas of the ICC. Along with dancing in Jollywood and my fitness class, she teaches voice to other seniors, takes Kathak lessons, and has just begun teaching Bridge to her peers.
The routine we’d follow was that after our meetings, I would take her notes back to the office and transfer them onto her project. Then one day, Jaya Aunty showed up with an iPad. She had made her latest set of notes not on the back of her Gujarati writings but on the notepad on her iPad. I had her log into her History Project. Showed her how to create an event. How to write about it. Asked her to continue on her own.
She emailed me a few days later. “I have successfully added one event to my story line. My story seems to be a story of transition from bullock cart age to an era of modern technology, from the era of British and Raja Maharaja to the Democracy of India. So many dimensions and so much to write about. Very fascinating and worthwhile.”
To me, this is the very heart of building your History Project: when you slow down and look at your life in all its nooks and crannies, these moments of deeper understanding reveal themselves. You see overarching themes of your life that you may not have noticed before. Things you already know - of course you do, you’ve lived through them - but to set it down in an intentional way, to follow through on each narrative thread of your life, is a powerful and invaluable process. Worthwhile indeed. For Jaya Aunty to have had this realization about the span of her life, going from bullock cart to modern technology, must have felt enlightening, grounding, powerful.
If Jaya Aunty finds this process worthwhile, I find it doubly so. Because for me, being able to share my experience as a writer and story-teller to help others tell their stories makes my life’s work worthwhile. Knowing I’m helping Jaya Aunty create a History Project that she will cherish, that her children and grandchildren will cherish, is the most worthwhile endeavor of all.
Thank you to Phi Romer for contributing this article.
ABOUT THE HISTORY PROJECT
The History Project empowers families to connect artifacts and memories across media to build experiential stories that transcend generations. The History Project offers a set of mobile and online tools to intelligently collect, beautifully curate and delightfully collaborate in building your personal life story. Preserve and relive the memories that matter most through The History Project. For more details visit www.thehistoryproject.com.