Linda Duman
Linda Duman
If your life is an open book that’s a good thing — at least if that book preserves a personal history for future generations.

Such documentation passes along values, offers family members a deeper sense of self, gives history greater nuance, and puts current difficulties into context, said Linda Duman, a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Jordan and treasurer of the Oregon Catholic Historical Society.

“The present can seem tough, but when you talk to people about their past, you see that throughout history people have endured challenges,” said the 73-year-old. At the same time, “you can learn how much happiness there can be amid hardship.”

Both lessons have special relevance during the current pandemic, she said.

Duman recalled how when her kids were in high school, they interviewed their grandparents about World War II and the Great Depression.

Duman’s father was a former Marine who served at Iwo Jima, one of the bloodiest contests in the Pacific. Witnessing their grandfather’s emotions as he recalled details gave the teens a deeper understanding of the historical event and the contribution their grandfather made, said Duman. Listening to firsthand accounts of the Depression helped them grasp that “struggle doesn’t mean it’s all doomsday,” she said. “People were able to appreciate smaller things.”

Roots and guidance

When Judy Litchfield’s aunt and godmother Bernice Lorang mentioned that she had a diary from when she was training to be a nurse during the 1940s, Litchfield was eager to read it.

“I knew her as my aunt and godmother, but I didn’t know her as a person,” said Litchfield, a member at St. Ignatius Parish in Southeast Portland.

As Litchfield read the diary, she was introduced to the perceptions of that time and how people lived. She had long conversations with her aunt and eventually decided to publish the written reflections as a book, “Providence White Caps.”

Litchfield said her aunt’s story helps give her roots and guide her. She now is writing her own memoir to add one more tale to history.

Personal histories are important to write out, she added, otherwise they can be lost forever.

Bill Predeek’s family moved to Mount Angel in the 1890s and has lived there ever since. Some 20 years ago, Predeek made his family’s history a hobby. He’s talked to every family member, collecting pictures and stories.

“It’s those stories, beyond just the names and dates, that give you a feel for who you are,” said Predeek.

He recalls that his aunt, now 105 years old, told him a story from when she was 5 years old, in 1923. Her grandmother would tie up her horse and buggy at the church before she’d walk downtown. When Predeek asked why she didn’t just park downtown, his aunt said her grandmother didn’t like all the traffic. Predeek laughed recounting the tale.

A decade ago Predeek helped form the Mount Angel Historical Society. Members collect photos and stories from families. The accounts give a feel for the community, along with the ideas and the feelings of a time, said Predeek.

Other such documentations by Oregon individuals have become part of the Oregon Catholic Historical Society’s records. The society preserves the history of Catholic organizations and individuals in the state and publishes a newsletter on various topics twice yearly.

Beyond pen and ink

There are numerous ways to preserve a personal history — from keeping a diary or typing a memoir to recording videos or saving files of notes. Newer story-documenting programs are another option. They offer online templates, ideas for questions, and professional interviewers and transcribers.

LifeBio, for example, edits and prints books with a loved one’s history and photos. StoryWorth helps family members come up with questions that are emailed to a loved one weekly. The company compiles the answers and prints them in a keepsake book.

There’s a considerable cost range for these services. It’s about $18 for a list of questions through StoryWorth. Modern Heirloom Books will offer six hours of interviews and an editing session and produce a book for a hefty $15,000.

If a family member opts to document the history of a loved one, Duman suggests more than one interview session. “The first time you get them thinking, and then later they’ll have more to add as they reminisce,” she said.

‘Lessons to learn’

A pilot study led last year by the Ohio Department of Medicaid showed that reminiscing and storytelling can reduce older individuals’ loneliness and increase feelings of social connectedness and overall well-being.

Yet Duman notes sometimes people only want to talk about positive memories. “I don’t think we should hide the difficult parts,” she said, and with good humor shared a piece of her own family’s less-than perfect history.

The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 meant white male citizens were granted 320 acres of federal land to cultivate in the Oregon territory. If they were married, the couple received an additional 320 acres. As a scheme to accumulate more land, Duman’s great-great grandfather had three wives and thus “three times the 640 acres,” said Duman with a chuckle. “That’s why the Neals are so prolific.”

Not everyone “has a completely stellar past,” she said. “But it’s not healthy to mask over things, and maybe there are lessons to learn from it.”

Ultimately, said Duman, “everybody’s story is worth hearing and worth preserving.”