• February 2011

Personal Historian Sherry Andersen Helps Celebrate a Life Well Lived

By Hope Katz Gibbs

For years, personal historian Sherry Andersen has been recording the family stories of the aging parents of her friends.

They were so impressed with the videos that in 2010 Andersen turned her hobby into a business and founded, “A Peek of the Past Living Legacies.”

“I have the utmost respect for seniors and the lives they have lived,” she explains, noting those skills have came in handy throughout her career — including at the fitness center she owned, “Fit as a Fiddle,” which specialized in seniors, and at “The Sequoias,” a retirement community in San Francisco.

The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far

Andersen says that it was her father who instilled in her a passion for capturing the past through storytelling.

“Neither of us ever tired of hearing people’s stories because we considered them to be the jewels of life,” she explains, pointing to the video (pictured above) that she created of his life.

“He had Alzheimer’s disease, and when I showed it to him he said, ‘That guy is good,’ not realizing it was him. When I explained he paused for a moment and said, ‘Damn, I’m good!’ We both laughed and laughed. It was great.”

She never tired of hearing her father’s tales about life during the Great Depression, fighting in WWII, and when he courted and married her mother. But some of her favorite stories were the fictional accounts of leprechauns from his Irish homeland, and the yarns he wove about the little people who lived in the bottom of the toaster and the imaginary underground family in his and her grandmother’s backyard.

“My father’s stories were endless, and in the end priceless,” shares Andersen, who considers herself to be a professional listener. “I love my work because by listening carefully, I am able to help families create a priceless profile that not only keeps their cherished stories alive — it leaves a legacy for future generations.”

Everyone Has a Story to Tell

Andersen’s clients know the power and importance of leaving behind a piece of themselves.

“I consider my life story to be a roadmap for my grandchildren,” says Thelma Reahm of Cardiff-by-the-Sea, CA. “Leaving behind my morals, values, spiritual beliefs, family traditions — and some of the ugliness — is important because I don’t want them to fall into the same holes in the road that I did.”

From books to DVDs, photomontages, and audio recordings, Andersen can record a family history in most any format requested. One of her greatest pleasures, in fact, is observing the family as they watch the final product.

“Having a chance to go back and look at their successes and joys, trials and tribulations — and their accomplishments — always brings them a feeling of value for a life well lived,” she explains. “They often have a renewed sense of self-worth after recounting their life.”

It is always an emotional experience for the children and grandchildren, as well.

“It was amazing and rewarding to observe my daughter watching and learning about her grandmother, my mother, on the video,” shares Olinda Newsom of San Mateo, CA. “She never had the opportunity to know who her grandmother was until she saw her talking on the tape.”

Before having your history recorded, do your homework.

1. There are many companies that record family histories, and before hiring one, talk to previous clients and watch at least two videos to ensure you like the style and approach of the videographer and historian.

2. Write an outline of your life to work from. Questions to consider include:

  • Where did your ancestors come from?
  • What was your childhood like?
  • What experiences did you have during your education, dating, marriage, and career?
  • What is your most fond memory?
  • If you could do something different in your life, what would it be?
  • What message for the family do you want to leave behind?

3. Set the scene. Make sure the recording and interview session can be conducted in a quiet room with a peaceful ambiance that is clear of phones, doorbells, and clock chimes. These can really disrupt an interview and the person’s train of thought.

4. Select your favorite spot to conduct the interview, such as a favorite chair. Have a glass of water available, as talking can lead to a dry mouth and a box of Kleenex for those emotional moments that are sure to come.

5. Organize any photos that you would like to be included in the final production.

6. Know that the recording process can be stopped and started as needed. You are in control.

Learn more here: www.peekofthepast.com and www.personalhistorians.org.