Storytelling Seniors: Oral History in Elliot Park
Concealed between the pages of haphazard scrawls in my notebook is card from a woman I have never officially met. It is a piece of printer paper folded neatly into quarters, with a festive “2017” drawn on the front in magic marker. Inside is a note is written in shaky yet elegant cursive, wishing happiness and blessings upon the reader. This card was slipped to me by one of the residents at Augustana Care, a senior housing facility, during a social in which the residents shared objects that represented their personal history. This resident had a bag full of duplicates of the card, and enthusiastically insisted upon handing them out.
As with any large group of people from varying backgrounds, there were multiple personalities evident at the event; some sweetly earnest, others a bit more grumbly. However, there was no shortage of items to be shared with the group. Some of them were odd trinkets that, while collected seemingly by accident, stuck around for a lifetime or so simply due to the personal memories they symbolized. Many of the items, however, were symbols of long, carefully traced heritages. In the absence of precise scientific tools for ancestry research, these particular histories were carried on the shoulders of meticulous handwritten notes, passed down from a great grandmother here or a thoughtful mother there. Most of them had their root in the immigration of their ancestors, perhaps wanting to remember what tied them to their home as they built livelihoods somewhere completely foreign.
Such was the case with Amy, who shared an old photo of a farmstead in Norway that had been passed down to her from the Norwegian side of her family. The photo is frank in its weathered display of a few simple, tidy buildings and sprawling greenery. This single photograph is one of the only tangible things that represents Amy’s connection to Norway. The rest lies in her memory. As a student, she traveled to Norway and along with the piercing beauty of the mountains, she remembers the destruction still evident from World War II. During the war, the Nazis destroyed countless historical documents while they occupied Scandinavia, so no official record of the homestead exists. The entire heritage of that homestead’s narrative relies on what stories she decides to tell.
In this way, it is the gifting of someone’s narrative that brings meaning to these objects. It is strung together by scribbled handwriting, fickle recollections, and generations long epics told around a campfire just as they are whispered at bedtime. The same can be said about handmade cards slipped to strangers in passing. Where memories lapse or official histories are wrecked, a kindness in magic marker will do.
Shannon Hill recently graduated from North Central University with an English Creative Writing degree. She is completing a summer internship with the Elliot Park Neighborhood Inc and the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, focused on writing, storytelling, and community engagement. She hopes to continue working within the Elliot Park neighborhood in the fall and continue her education.