Earlier this month, my partner and I began organizing our garage, a task that for us is part interior design and part archaeological dig. While she and I know for the most part what we’ll find when we sort, unpack and arrange our belongings, every once in awhile we uncover a delightful surprise and it’s like Christmas in July … Or October.
During our last move, I discovered a sheaf of photocopies that appeared to be a handwritten autobiography of Pat’s beloved Grammy Elizabeth. Pat had no idea her grandmother had penned these stories, nor that she had a copy of them. The papers had lain quietly in our file cabinet for years, waiting to be unearthed.
Often, we may take dramatic steps to increase our knowledge of our self and to engage in self-empowerment: hiring a life coach, attending a retreat in an exotic location, or entering into therapy. And all of those things can be beneficial and increase our well-being. However, as a personal historian, I’m amazed at the level of personal transformation that can be experienced when an individual learns something new about his or her family history that casts their own life story in an entirely different light.
In the past couple of years, I’ve discovered a couple of examples of this phenomenon that I’d like to share with you.
Connecting with a pioneer of aviation
Nova Hall was cleaning out the garage at his family’s house in 1999 when he stumbled upon a World War I era steamer trunk. It belonged to his grandfather, Donald Hall Sr., who had died several years before Nova was born. The contents of the trunk provided proof that Donald was Charles Lindbergh’s engineer – the man who helped Lucky Lindy design the pioneering aircraft the Spirit of St. Louis.
Nova Hall. Photo courtesy of Nova Hall.
In an interview I conducted with Nova for the ASU Alumni Association’s career blog, he described the moment of discovery and what it meant for his career.
“The collection held more than 900 never-before-seen photographs, personal correspondence between my grandfather and Charles Lindbergh, design instruments, models, negatives, blueprints of the Spirit of St. Louis and original film footage. This discovery would become a foundational moment in my career. …It [opened] up a whole new chapter in understanding who my grandfather was, since I had never met him, and who my family became as a result. It continues to open my eyes because what he decided to save had a purpose, but he didn’t leave any directions for what should be done with the collection.”
After the discovery of the trunk, Nova, who had been working for his father’s tea business in Sedona, Arizona, became the curator and promoter of his grandfather’s legacy. He returned to school, earned his bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary arts and performance and launched Flying Over Time, an educational nonprofit charity focused on teaching history, art, and the engineering sciences in relation to transportation and commerce, using the materials in the trunk that Nova found, as well as his visual and performance-based artworks.
Nova told me that his grandfather’s trunk not only helped him better understand his family, it also gave him a vocation and a purpose.
“The story of the Spirit of St. Louis is a compilation of drama, engineering, leadership, teamwork and science. As an organization we use this “history” as the glue that brings together STEM plus the aesthetics concept of form following function. …
“There is a great need to inspire the next generation of applied engineering and that cannot be limited to those who are highly talented in math, but must include the creative mind. STEM careers are the future and students of humanities must realize that they have a critical role in that future.”
Here is a podcast I conducted with Nova that discusses the discovery of his grandfather’s trunk and how it has reshaped his career – and his life. He’s the first guest on this episode.
A grandmother’s heroic past as a freedom fighter
In the beginning, Artemis Joukowsky just wanted to get a good grade in his ninth-grade history class. The teacher had given the students an unusual assignment: Interview someone who had shown moral courage. Artemis asked his mother for suggestions, and she suggested he speak with her mother, Martha Sharp-Cogen. “She did some cool things during World War II,” his mother said.
Artemis Joukowsky discovered the heroic story of his grandparents’ actions in WWII and eventually brought the tale to life as a documentary co-produced with Ken Burns. (Photo courtesy PBS/Rahoul Ghose.)
As it turned out, Grandma Martha and her first husband, the Unitarian Rev. Waitstill Sharp, were recruited by the American Unitarian Association on the eve of America’s entry into World War II to assist Jews in Nazi-occupied countries to escape certain death in the concentration camps. They saved a total of about 125 people including many children and the Jewish German author Lion Feuchtwanger. Neither of the Sharps was trained as a spy or undercover agent – they simply went and did what they could to relieve suffering in a dark time.
Artemis got an A on that history paper, but learning about what his grandparents did during the war impacted in him on a far deeper level. It helped him cope when, later that same year, he was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy. (His grandmother’s advice on how to persevere when he became ill, unsurprisingly, was, “Focus on yourself helping others.”) It also planted a seed to share his family’s story with the wider world, since the Sharps, forever changed by their wartime experiences, had divorced in 1954 and rarely spoken about their humanitarian heroics after that.
The process of bringing the story of the Sharps’ bravery took many years, according to a Washington Post article. But a key breakthrough occurred shortly after his grandmother’s’ death in 1999.
“He (Artemis) discovered a trove of documents in her basement — letters, photos, hotel bills, ticket stubs and more. The papers included hundreds of names of people the Sharps had sought to help. Using these sources and consulting with the Holocaust Museum and other experts, Joukowsky and his research team, including private detectives, tracked down dozens of people who knew something of the tale.”
After many years of filming documentary footage, Artemis showed a rough cut of his movie to filmmaker Ken Burns. The master documentarian liked what he saw enough to sign on as co-director and executive producer, and in September 2016, Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War premiered on PBS.
In case you missed it, here’s the trailer to Artemis’ amazing film.
Digging up our own treasures
Nova’s and Artemis’ journeys provide a glimpse of the power of owning and understanding our family history. We may not have our career trajectory altered, as Nova did; and we may not have the chance to work with a legendary filmmaker, as Artemis did. But we may come to better understand a relative’s passion for politics or his or her hobby; the discovery of a previously unknown health history may cast new light on our own medical narrative; or we may simply come to better appreciate our clan’s strengths and see how they are playing out in our own generation.
How do we start such a journey? With curiosity. We come one step closer to finding the treasure of our family (however we define family in our own life) whenever we:
- Take the time to read and carefully examine someone’s “boxes of stuff” in the attic, garage or file cabinet.
- Ask our living relatives and friends detailed questions about the life and times of those who are no longer with us.
- Ask living relatives about the highlights of their lives.
- Review family trees, genealogical research or previously assembled family histories.
Knowing the ups and downs of our family story can connect us to something far larger than ourselves. It can give context to our journey, and remind us that we,too, have personal life stories worth recording and sharing.