Confessions of a Video Biographer – Chapter 1: The Awakening

I have a major jones for family stories. There, I’ve said it for the world to see. And you know what? I’m glad.

Looking back, I remember being drawn to personal history at an early age. My dad’s side of the family was pretty humongous, and throughout the years we’d attend picnics or holiday get-togethers at the homes of various aunts and uncles. I loved the food, and hanging out with my cousins. But my favorite time was always after we’d polished off the baked ziti and inhaled the pies, cakes and fruit salad. That was the time when the adults would settle down with brimming cups of coffee and reminisce about their lives and times and those of family members separated from us by mileage or the grim reaper.

The easy banter, the laughter, the rise and ebb of volume and energy as many voices gave way to one and then joined in again to relate other stories triggered by something just said; listening to my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles during these late afternoon and early evening gab fests was just so – comforting. And there was also something about the relish with which my elders told their stories that made hearing their tales just plain fun. Yeah, I was hooked on family stories as a young ‘un.

Flashing forward, my undergraduate communications degree, plus a recommendation from a former college buddy, landed me a job in a New York City public relations firm specializing in the budding realm of video. I spent the next eight years and change learning to tell clients’ stories on video, first as a production assistant on shoots, and then as a video editor, writer, and producer/director. And when I got tired of sitting for hours on end in my company’s dark and cool edit suite, I launched a freelance career. I still spent lots of hours in editing suites, but at least there was variety, I got paid more, and I did get out into the sun more often.

But even though I enjoyed what I was doing, I felt, in my heart, that there should be something more that I could be doing with my skills. I even asked a psychic once if I would ever discover a higher purpose to which I could apply my video abilities. She said I would – although she wouldn’t or couldn’t tell me what form that higher purpose would take.

Enter my paternal grandmother, Alice Rita Morrissey Pender. Actually, Gram was part of my story all along. But in 1995 she would play a central role in helping me chart a new course for my life and career.

Gram was born on Staten Island, New York in 1911. She was blessed with a great memory and a gift for gab, and as I was growing up she shared oodles of stories about her life and our family. I learned how her grandparents emigrated from Ireland but didn’t meet until they were both living in New York City; about how her dad earned a ton of money in the storage battery business, only to lose it during the Great Depression and how he still managed to keep a roof over the family’s heads; there were stories about her grandfather, a police lieutenant stationed at New York City Hall, taking her into the city to witness ticker tape parades; the stories went on and on. And in addition to my enjoyment at hearing her tell them, I realize now that those life stories also grounded me. They gave me an insight into my family’s character (and characters), showed me where my family came from, where they fit into the world and how I fit into my family. Knowing those stories has given me an invaluable sense of identity that’s stayed with me throughout my life. Oh, by the way, I was her first grandchild, so I think we had a special bond because of that.

In 1995, I realized that Gram wouldn’t be around forever. I decided to try and capture her, and some of her stories, on video. Now, these were still the tape-to-tape days, when video editing was done in very expensive editing bays, so there was no way I could shoot and edit the project without a little help. Luckily, one of my corporate clients lent me the use of their video gear and editing suite and one of my colleagues kindly ran camera for me. And so it was that in 1995, I sat down with Gram in my Clifton, NJ, apartment and captured her on-camera, telling me those same wonderful stories I’d heard from her over the years.

Long story short: Due to procrastination and work demands, I didn’t tackle the editing until 1998. But that summer, I made a concerted push and finished what will always be one of my proudest achievements: a documentary featuring my grandmother telling the story of her life. Unfortunately, she died without seeing the video. I will always regret not hustling over to her the moment I wrapped work on her video to “premiere” it for her. But I also know that I’d never have been able to forgive myself if I hadn’t captured her, and her stories, for posterity.

So the first time the majority of my family saw Gram’s video biography was at the repast following her funeral. As you can imagine, my emotions took a roller coaster ride that day. But the video truly transformed a day of mourning into a celebration of life. After seeing the impact Gram’s legacy video had on my family that day and during the days that followed, the higher purpose I spoke of earlier began to reveal itself. More on that in another post. Thanks for reading.

Oh, and by the way: What’s your story?

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