by Barbara L. Sherf
Tears welled in my eyes as I watched my father tell his rich stories of life on the farm picking tomatoes for Campbell’s Soup Company and riding in local rodeos over and over in a rambling way while filming him at a stable where we used to ride horses.
What was I thinking when I decided to attempt to do a video of his life for his 85th birthday? I felt guilt and shame for not filming him five years ago, when we had written a book of our stories together for his 80th birthday. His memories and the stories were much fresher then. The Alzheimer’s was early stage. Clearly it had progressed. The camera does not lie.
“How did it go?” my sister asked after the interview.
“He was animated and talkative on the car ride, but sitting in front of the camera with the little red light blinking, well, he struggled. With some photos and creative editing, I’ll be able to put something together,” I responded. “He wasn’t even interested in riding. It was sad.”
Now, looking at the computer screen of images of this former cowboy who has shrunk both physically and mentally, I wondered again if I could pull it off. Knowing it might be the last party we threw with family and friends from his hometown of Maple Shade, New Jersey, I wanted to make it all come together in one nice, neat package. But the package was unraveling before my eyes.
Looking into the camera, he talked of the lovely rides he had with his daughter, Barbie, in the Wissahickon Valley. I finally stepped in, reminding him of the fact that I was “Barbie,” his riding partner, and that we had written a book together titled “Cowboy Mission: The Best Sermons are Lived…Not Preached.”
The irony slapped me in the face. I had not practiced what I had been preaching.
Here I was starting a new business to help other families capture the stories of their loved ones in both print and DVD, and I had not done the critical video with my own father when his memories were still fresh.
I remember sitting with my first paying customer, Lula Pidcock Mohr, after her son, Bob, had seen an article about what I had done with my father and our book. He contacted me wanting to capture his 92-year-old mother’s story before it was too late.
After sitting with Lula for two painful hours, I wondered if I could capture her story as her memories were clearly fading. As I was about to leave, her granddaughter offered me a set of Lula’s journals that had been written a decade before. Taking the diaries, I sat in a corner booth of a nearby diner for two hours developing a series of questions based on her earlier recollections. From there I was able to put together a booklet and an oversized article for her 93rd birthday party, where her grandchildren came up to her after reading the piece, saying things like “I didn’t know that about you, gammy.”
But the story gets better. Six months later, when Lula’s stepbrother, who was 20 years younger, was flying in from California to visit, Bob called me again to ask, “Is there any value to having the two of them sit for an interview and videotaping some of the family history?”
“Absolutely,” I said, knowing that her ancestors were the first white settlers of Bucks County and had come over on a boat with William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania.
And so the three of us and a two-man camera crew drove to the vacant family homestead and set up on the lawn to interview them. We then went to a restored old barn that had burned to the ground, killing four horses, when Lula was a little girl. She cried remembering the devastating episode. We journeyed to the home where she and her husband had raised their four children, then on to Pidcock Creek in Washington Crossing Historic Park, and finally to the family cemetery, where her father was buried after dying during the influenza epidemic when Lula was a toddler.
It was a rich, powerful testament to all that this woman had endured, and I received two lovely thank you cards from her telling me how the project, especially the video, had changed her life.
Within six months I was in a hospital room where she was dying of cancer. While a bit confused about what was going on, she looked up, said my full name and held my hand. We did not say much for it had already been said and done.
Her son called me about a month later to say that his mother had died but that it had been a meaningful transition.
“I took a big screen TV and a looped version of the video into her hospice room 48 hours before she died. Family members and staff watched her story over and over, and she would not let anyone turn it off or even turn it down,” he said. “I believe it was a confirmation of her life and closure for her.”
Goosebumps stood on my arms, and tears came streaming down as I stood by Lula’s father’s grave, where her ashes were being interred and where we had previously filmed her story. The minister told the audience that he had not known Lula but that he and his wife watched her half-hour video on the Internet the previous night.
He spoke of her life and her rich history and commitment to family, noting that he was only able to deliver a proper eulogy based on hearing the family stories and seeing the video. He spoke of the value of capturing our loved one’s stories before it is too late. The camera in my mind captured the testimonial, and I replay it nearly every day.
And so that was my motivation for capturing my father on video; to give him and all of us closure and a confirmation of the things he had done and the people (and horses) that surrounded him in this life.
Barbara Sherf is an author, motivational speaker, and founder of Capture Life Stories. She did manage to put together a video about her father, which can be viewed at www.CaptureLifeStories.com. She lives in Flourtown with her husband and golden retriever.