Monday, November 30, 2015

Family History Gifts: Oral History

I've been giving a lot of thought to how to give thoughtful, budget-conscious Christmas gifts to the 52 members of my maternal family this year. With a family like that (and a budget like mine), it can be quite the conundrum. I had aspirations of using the products of my garden to make everyone something homemade and herbal-y, but my experiments in making herbal vinegars turned out a little lackluster.

Finally, just before Thanksgiving, I realized that my best bet, as usual, was family history.

I have recordings of several interviews with my late grandparents, and my idea is to burn them onto CDs and slap a bow on the jewel case. Awesome present, reasonable price!

Despite having 50 blank CDs in my living room, my plan is currently more aspirational than anything else.

The Plan
1. Edit the interviews
2. Burn the CDs
3. Design an attractive and informative insert
4. Bows

1. The Interviews
Interview 1, with Grandma, is actually fully complete, edited and ready to be shared. Because I e-mailed it to everyone several years ago. So Interview 1, on its own, does not a present make.

The recording of Interview 2, with Grandpa, begins with several minutes of unrelated conversation in the background. While I don't think any of my relatives has entirely forgotten how drunk my cousin was at that wedding in 2009, I'd like to edit out the gentle scolding she got from cutting, if only as a courtesy. I am confident that this simple cutting is something I can manage, I just haven't exactly learned how to do it yet. (The cousin in question will get the unedited version. I think she'd love to hear herself taking with Grandma again, no matter the subject matter.)

Interview 3, with both of my grandparents, was recorded close to a decade ago, on my college laptop. That laptop was so loud that everyone from my roommate to my professors commented on it sounding like "a rocket." What I did not realize at the time was that the dull roar of that exceptionally loud fan would become part of the recording. (Duh!) I am not at all confident that I (or anytime) can fix the sound quality on this one. If I can't, I have to figure out whether it's worth sharing anyway. (I think the answer is yes, but will have to listen to it again to make sure it's not more frustratingly to listen to than rewarding.) A sample track is currently with my musician cousins, who will hopefully tell me if there's anything that can be done.

2. The CDs
I purchased these Verbatim CDs from Amazon. (Archival Gold CDs for everyone were unfortunately not in the budget, although they're the gold standard of CD preservation.) I had to do some investigating to remind myself what the CD specs referred to. They are labeled as "700 MB 52x 80 minute." But what on Earth does that mean?

  • 52x refers to the speed at which the CDs can be written.
  • 700 MB refers to the amount of data that they can hold.
  • 80 minutes refers to the length of recorded audio that they can play. 

Since the recordings that I have take up far less than 700 MB of space, but run far longer than 80 minutes, I was a little confused. Would one CD hold all three of the interviews I want to burn, or would I need 3 or more CDs for each gift? I had to do a little more research to find out, and eventually learned that it depends on the format in which the tracks are burned. Audio files are much larger, and will take up more space. The CDs can hold 80 minutes worth of audio files. Data files (e.g. MP3s) are much smaller, and so 700 MB of data may hold far more audio. However, data files may be incompatible with some CD players, especially older ones. They will play on computers but some people may not be able to play them on their home or car stereo systems.

I chose to keep these gifts compact and burn the files as MP3s, so that I only needed to use one CD per recipient. All of my relatives have computers, so even if some of them cannot listen to the CD elsewhere, they will still have access to the files.

3. The Insert
I have a brand new printer, but it doesn't print in color. Even though I really wanted to get the color printer so I could print nice color inserts for these CDs, I don't usually have any need to print in color. I knew that this one project couldn't justify spending the extra hundred dollars or so that it would cost. I'm googling "attractive black and white design" to try to figure out how to make these inserts a little more eye-catching than just black text on white, but graphic design is not where my skills lie. If it happens that I am able to put together something that I'm proud of, I will post a follow up.

4. The Bows
I'm just going to buy some bows.

How are you incorporating your family history into your gift-giving this holiday season?

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. This means that if you choose to make a purchase from Amazon after clicking one of these links, I will receive a small portion of your purchase price as a commission. The price you pay doesn't change! I personally make a point of starting my Amazon shopping through the affiliate links of bloggers and friends whenever possible, so that large corporations are not the only beneficiaries of my purchases, and encourage others to do the same, regardless of whether they use my affiliate links or another blogger's. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Labeling Photographs: Memory and Mourning

Have you ever wondered why some of your inherited family photographs are impeccably labelled, and others are unfortunate blank canvases?

My maternal grandfather recently passed away, and I inherited a handful of photographs. Not the real old kind, just a few pictures from my parents' wedding through approximately my 8th grade graduation. Almost all were unlabeled, and the ones my grandmother had labeled were vague or incomplete. "Gail's wedding" or "July 16, 1997."

Luckily, I was able to identify the people and places in almost all of them, and could give at least an educated guess as to approximate dates. So when I got home from my mom's house the other night, I set right to labeling the pictures.

I found myself being more specific than usual, with places in particular. I realized that the impending sale of my grandparents' home, the home where my mother grew up and where my cousins and I spent so much of our childhood, was driving me. Scribbling the street address, over and over, on the backs of 4x6 prints, somehow made me feel like I was doing my part to keep the memory of Grandma and Grandpa's house alive. (I was there only days earlier. The race to "keep memories alive" can be premature or even irrational.)

But this influenced my labeling throughout the collection. I added street addresses to pictures taken in my current house, in my parents' house, anywhere I recognized. I was aiming for consistency, yes, but I was also imagining a future where we've moved out of the home we love and have only pictures to remember it by. A future where I've passed away and my children struggle to remember the address of the apartment in NYC where we spent the first years of our marriage. Or where my kids - who will only ever know the apartment my in-laws downsized to - can't picture them living in the big house in the suburbs where my husband spent his happy childhood. Will addresses on the back of photographs change any of that? Not by much. They can't bring back a grandfather, unsell a house, or give my son any real memories of the apartment where he spent the first 10 weeks of his life. But they can make me feel like I tried.

I wonder what my kids, my descendants, the strangers who find my albums in a thrift store will think when they see how well-labelled some - but not all - of my pictures are. I can't imagine that they will even begin to follow my thought processes.

Have you ever though about what motivated the people creating the records you use?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Family History through Song: Abbatte i manine

My grandfather, Frank Gatto, passed away on October 7, 2015. He was 88. My son was 17 months old. I'll be forever grateful that they had the chance to know each other.

Grandpa was a bit of a one-trick pony when it came to babies. He sang the same Italian clapping song, to every baby, every time he saw them.

These days, whenever my son sees a picture of his "Pop," he starts clapping his hands. I love that there's such a physical way for my not-quite-verbal toddler to tell us he remembers. (Of course, I had to run out of the wake in tears the first time he did it at the funeral home.)

As far as we could tell, the song was mostly nonsense. After spending 8 years studying Italian and a semester abroad, I could pick out a few words here or there, but couldn't make sense of the whole thing. Neither could any of my other relatives, no matter how much Italian they'd studied. (Grandpa was the last native speaker in our family, but spoke a Brooklyn-ized dialect.) Grandpa translated the lyrics as "Clap your hands/Daddy's coming home/He's going to bring you candy."

As best I could pick out, Grandpa's song went like this:

Abbate i manine
Cadame ne tata
Annuzhe a lica bette
A do e da li da!

Clearly, that translates to:

Clap your little hands
Something Something [papa?]
Something Something Something
Something Something Something

But in the past month, as we've spent a lot of time clapping hands in memory of Grandpa, I finally googled, and learned that there are apparently dozens of variations on this song sung in Italy. They typically mean pretty much what Grandpa claimed: "Clap your hands/Daddy's coming home/He's bringing candy/And [Baby's name] is going to eat it all!"

The last line, where you sub in the child's name, appeared consistently in the versions I found online but is missing from Grandpa's. This may explain why the last line of Grandpa's song sounds so particularly nonsensical.

The online version that I liked the best came from Yahoo Answers user Antony96, who says that he is from Bari (as is my family) and gives the lyrics to the song he knows as:

abbatte i manine
ka vène papé
annushe i bonbon
è tutte è tutte è tutte ( u nome d'a menénne) l'ò mangé!!

It's the closest version I've found to my grandfather's version. The second line starts with "ka," which isn't, to my knowledge, an Italian word, but which is what I always heard when Grandpa sang. Same goes for "annushe," a word I'm not familiar with but which my grandfather clearly sang. It is, somehow, incredibly validating to know that all these years, we were wrong when we thought Grandpa was making up or mangling the words.

A few of my cousins have talked about trying to learn how the song "really" goes, but I will proudly sing it the way I always knew it, and I will teach it to any future kids and grandkids I have that way, too.

Grandpa wasn't singing nonsense, he was singing dialect.