In this piece, current OHMA student Rebecca Kiil reflects on her role as oral historian in relationship to her narrators, after attending Maria Cotera’s recent talk, “Pan Dulce”— the first in Columbia University Oral History Master of Arts (OHMA’s) Fall 2018 workshop series: Oral History and the Future: Archives and Embodied Memory.
Over the past five years, I have found purpose, passion, generosity, authenticity, and answers to questions I didn’t know I even had while listening to and recording the stories of my 101-year-old grandmother and other men and women who fled from their homeland of Estonia during World War II. Always, ALWAYS, there is food involved: from a simple package of store-bought cookies and water; to homemade Estonian dishes or lunches in cherished restaurants; to tea, coffee, and ever-present desserts. Little did I realize, until listening to Maria Cotera’s presentation, that I have been creating an archive—an archive of encuentro.
Cotera created the Chicana por mi Raza Digital Memory Project and Archive to collect the histories of Chicana feminists, including her mother, who were active in the 1960s and 1970s. I have also been recording the stories of men and women of an older generation—in my case, the generation who fled Stalin’s Red Army in the 1940s. Like Cotera, I feel a sense of urgency: to hear, record, and preserve these stories because no one else has; and to do it quickly before they are no longer able, or around, to tell their stories. My sense of urgency also extends to helping my grandmother find peace with her past, which, almost exactly 74 years later, still haunts her.
“We go into women’s homes. We listen to them, we have coffee with them, we stay up late with them, we scan their archives … We spend up to 12 hours in some of these homes … that sort of deep engagement is what I have called the archive of encuentro.”
— Maria Cotera
Yes, the stories are important. Of course! And so this process is about collecting the stories—for the sake of preserving them and educating others about the events that occurred. But it should also be about valuing a life—the life seated across from us, at that moment of collection.
How do we demonstrate that we value a life?
Rather than running in, doing the interview, getting what we want for our purposes, and then running out to get to our next appointment, we need to spend TIME. Time is all my grandmother has these days. Isn’t she worth a little of mine? Isn’t the 100-year-old gentleman—the one who hid my grandfather in the baptismal font in his church before my grandfather was able to escape, but who was surprised when my father asked if I could interview him because no one had ever asked him his story before—worth some of my time? As a culture, we so often dismiss the elderly as we rush around. I do it all the time, I’m sad to admit. But what happens when we pause, turn off our phones, step outside of our agendas, and turn toward—rather than looking past—them?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I will create from these interviews, or what I hope to get out of this project, or in which direction I hope it takes me and my career. But what if ...
What if the purpose of this project were simply about:
· my being a witness—to one person’s life at a time
· my grandmother’s feeling a momentary sense of peace after telling a part of her story that she hadn’t told before
· one person’s feeling a little freer, a little more seen and understood
· another person’s having a sense, even for just a few hours or one afternoon, that “as old as I am, as much as I feel I’ve lost in this life, someone else sees me and is interested in what I have to say”
What if that is all this project was ever supposed to be about?
What if this project weren’t going to launch me into a new career, or transform my life, or be about me or saving me in any way? Would that still be enough for me to continue doing this work?
After reflecting on Maria Cotera’s powerful presentation, which reminded me where this project all started for me, my answer to that last question is a resounding “Yes.”
“The archive is not a site, but a relationship.” — Maria Cotera
I walk into the assisted living facility that my grandmother has called home since January. Outside her door the mood feels sterile, more like a hospital than a home. But inside, her apartment is an oasis of quiet and comfort—lush carpets, fine art by Estonian artists on all of the walls, a coffee table set with a full pot of hot tea and several kinds of sweets, awaiting my visit. I enter after knocking and find her waiting for me in her lounge chair, “dressed to the nines”—unlike me who strolls in wearing jeans and flip flops with my hair pinned up, much to my uber-classy grandmother’s dismay. I walk over and kiss her on the cheek. After I drop my bags by the door, we both move to sit on the chairs she’s arranged around the coffee table. She smiles at me, takes my hand, bows her head, and says grace, giving thanks that I’ve come to share a meal and spend some time with her. Today there is no recorder, but nonetheless, time slows down and our encuentro begins.
Rebecca Kiil is a part-time OHMA student, documenting the stories of her family members who fled their homeland of Estonia during World War II to escape Stalin’s regime, and interested in the generational effects of communal trauma. She is also working to collect as many stories as possible of that generation of Estonians, inside and outside of her family, as part of her RAHU Peace Through Storytelling Project.