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Mary Mitchell
Gerontologist and Oral Historian
Simsbury, Connecticut and Vero Beach, Florida

Encouraging Families to Record Life Stories for Future Generations

Mary Mitchell

Preserving the history of my own family has always been a priority, My Dad was a Scottish immigrant who came to America with little in his pocket but hope in his heart, He settled in the Town of Simsbury, Connecticut where he began my family's automobile business in a cow shed. From that humble beginning in 1922, the business has grown to become a large company that spans three generations.

Several years ago I decided to go back to college after having worked many years in the family business and it was a major decision that changed my life in many ways. I received my BA degree in 1990 and my MA in Human Development/Gerontology in 1994 at the age of 70. My studies and personal experiences made me particularly interested in the process of life review and in encouraging others to record their life stories. Oral history, family stories, reminiscences, and genealogy intertwine and retell the story of a person's life. Everyone has a story, a biography, or a family history worth telling, and the recording of them benefits not only the "teller" (by way of reflecting on his/her life), but also future generations who can learn from the shared personal and social history that comes out of reminiscences.

My own memoirs include My Life Is Like a River, which looks back on my life that has been like the river that winds through the Town of Simsbury in Connecticut’s Farmington Valley, and a more recent book called Shifting Gears. I've also penned my husband's family's history of life on an Illinois farm, published as The Tales of My Life.

My desire to encourage others to tell their stories has taken the form of many projects and activities. I produced and hosted a community television program called "The Prime of Your Life" in which I interviewed many interesting older residents of Simsbury. I've also conducted workshops at numerous senior centers and for various gerontology organizations in California, Maryland, Louisiana, Florida, and Tennessee. Many people who attended my workshops suggested I write a workbook on the subject of oral history, and the result was my book entitled Life Is Like a Patchwork Quilt: The Art of Recording Life Stories.

As some institutions of higher education now teach courses that deal with assessing and chronicling life journeys, I've had the good fortune to lecture at St. Joseph College, the University of Connecticut, Trinity College, the University of Hartford, and Capital Community College.

Over the years I’ve been affiliated with and served on the boards of many nonprofit organizations, including the Association of Personal Historians. In 1995 my work took me to Beijing to attend the United National Women’s Conference as a representative of the American Society on Aging. While in China I visited many hospitals and nursing homes and saw, due to the fact that many villagers can’t write, the value of oral history as the means people used to communicate family stories. Other related trips have taken me to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Peru, where I’ve produced television programs based on interviews I conducted in each country. I was recently informed I have been chosen as a 2012 Distinguished Alumni by St. Joseph College.

I encourage young people everywhere to interview the elders in their families and communities. This intergenerational exchange will encourage reminiscences and will keep stories alive for future generations to cherish. I believe you have to live your life in the present, but that the past has a tremendous effect on how you think and react to the present.

I don't know what I'd do without the Internet, and it is how my grandchildren and friends keep in contact with me. I think that people of my age group who are not computer literate are missing so much. The Internet has made the generations closer. It is vitally important for people of all ages to share through this technology.

As positive as some things are in today's culture, I feel there are subjects that need to be addressed. I've been fortunate to have seen a lot of changes in America and I think we all need to take a close look at ourselves, as some changes in our society have not been positive. Perhaps some of my experiences best illustrate my concerns.

I grew up in a rural community west of Hartford, Connecticut with a population of approximately 2,000. We were all recovering from the depression . . . everyone was in the same boat. What we didnít have, we didnít miss.

It wasnít until after World War ll came to an end that things financially started to improve for my family. The automobile plants were all producing equipment for the war. There were no cars manufactured, nor could you get parts for them. My Dad, who founded the Mitchell family automobile business, used to say he kept the customers' cars together by the grace of God, Elmerís glue, and baling wire.

When the automobile companies started manufacturing cars again after the War, people had to go on a waiting list, and they didnít care what color or style they got -- as long as they had a new car. Businesses didn't have to spend a cent on advertising either. You just got on the list for everything. I remember how thrilled I was to get my first toaster and, then when I finally got it, I burned the toast.

We didn't have much, nor did we expect much. Today they say people my age have the depression mentality and that we are old-fashioned in our mindset of saving for a rainy day. I feel that is a good thing. Credit cards are so easy to get now, and it's doubly easy to max out. Customers who came to our showroom to buy cars in those early days appeared with shoe boxes filled with money they saved. The old Italians used to say, " We only pay with cash money." Not so today.

Another big change in the way things were different from the old days involves the matter of respect. No way would any of us young people dare challenge our parents or our school teachers, which seems prevalent today. We treated them with courtesy and respect. I also find so many people today feel they are entitled to start where the older folks are now. They donít know about the blood, sweat, and tears it took to get us to where we are today.

My grandkids often ask me how my life was different than their lives. There are too many differences to list. Even going to Hartford to the department store, G Fox, was a special treat for me. I was also thrilled to go, once a week, to the movies at Eno Hall in Simsbury and paid 25 cents for my ticket. I rode my bike to get there. The War and the sacrifice of so many put everything in perspective. I remember the days of rationing, air raid wardens, and victory gardens. My husband spent four years of his life in the U.S. Navy fighting for our country. Everyone was so patriotic.

After doing the genealogy of my family, I feel my Dad and Momís generation was the greatest. We need to remember immigrants coming to America during that period in history with no money in their pockets, but hope in their hearts. This generation did what it had to do to survive . . . a good lesson for today's society.

One of my favorite quotes, from an unknown author, sums up much of what guides me to document life stories and work in the area of gerontology, "There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots and, the other, wings."

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