Mrs. Paula Hartman passed away this past summer, on July 9, at age 88.
When you are involved in an oral history project that aims to capture and preserve personal memories from WWII, you expect to get sad news like this more and more frequently. But I find myself watching her video one more time, despite having seen it so many times I almost know it frame by frame. More than ever I wish to share it over and over, at public screenings as we’ve been doing for the past year, and now with you, online (with her family’s permission).
It is a good story. Watch it. It has a strong story arch, the simple and touching story of falling in love and starting a life during the war and in the face of a flood.
It has memorable quotes (“I was 19 one day and married the next” is a favorite at all screenings), a lovable character with a contagious laughter, and, through the poetic details of her wedding gown saved from the flood, it answers a question we can all relate to: what truly matters in life?
But what makes it a "Good" story, as opposed to simply a "good" one, is more than the fact that it follows the basic rules of storytelling.
To tell a Good story it matters who ask the questions. Mrs. Hartman was interviewed by her grandson Christopher and her daughter-in-law Nancy, with the support of oral historian Lena Rebecca Richardson. They participated in one of the free workshops I lead last year for the NPMTC/Vanport Multimedia Project. As a team of historians, artists, media makers, educators, and facilitators, we explored why telling the Vanport story matters today, after almost 70 years. We asked each other honest questions about Portland’s racial history and its current legacy. We supported each other in the tortuous journey towards authentic understanding across differences. We accepted the risk of making mistakes, and embraced our responsibility to honor each narrator's experience by listening with an open heart, recognizing that different perspectives can co-exist, and that our goal was NOT to establish the truth, but rather to preserve and honor memories. We embarked on a mission to unearth forgotten memories and to honor them for what they are: individual narratives, all true, all valid, and all precious.
Christopher and Nancy overcame their initial worries of telling the Vanport story from a white perspective, and how it would be received. As much as it matters who asks the questions, for a Good story to remain such, it also matters who receives it. Our invitation is very intentional: come to explore a forgotten chapter of history, to celebrate the experience of those who witnessed it, and to honor community resilience. Nancy told me her mother-in-law felt very special to be included, and to have so many people come up to her after the screening to talk about her story.
As I watch again Mrs. Hartman’s video, I find myself once again smiling and moved to tears by this story and I am filled with gratitude to her, to Nancy and to Christopher for sharing this gift with us, and to all of you now who can cherish this Good story and keep it alive.
Update: Nancy Hartman kindly shared her experience in interviewing her mother-in-law as part of our participatory oral history program, and what it mean for Mrs. Paula to attend the screening and feeling honored and celebrated: