Capturing Signature Stories

Tony St. John

Tony St. John

We all have signature stories: those stories that come from the core of us, and that we tell over and over and over. My mother-in-law, for example, was a World War II war bride. While my father-in-law was stationed in Vienna, they met in the opera house. It was her romantic story that she loved to tell to waiters, sales clerks, to everyone. Sad to say, she told the story so often that none of her children or grandchildren bothered to record it—and now we’ll never hear it again.

Those signature stories deserve to be chronicled with care, by a personal historian or a family member. They may not be pretty. Or happy. But their tentacles are wound into that person’s DNA.

Recently I recorded childhood stories, and battle in the Pacific stories of a World War II vet named Tony St. John. His family wanted the audio CD in time for Tony’s 90th birthday. Two signature stories surfaced in our interview that had to be included. One was how Tony met his wife Betty. In Pueblo, Colorado, where he lived and worked after the war, the newspaper published pictures of the new schoolteachers each year. He saw Betty’s photo, called her with a trumped-up reason for a date, and the rest is history. His final sentence to me was the clincher. “She was always pretty,” Anton said, pausing for affect, “but now she’s beautiful.”

The other of Anton’s signature stories was grossly wonderful. When he was in a hospital in Allied-occupied Tokyo, recovering from a wound, he had malaria and threw up six-inch worms. The nurses caring for him go sick and threw up at the sight of them. Betty thought this was perhaps not appropriate for Anton’s legacy CD. But on the other hand, I could—and I think Tony could—imagine a great-grandson thinking it was the coolest—and sharing it over and over again.

The goal of an interview is to gather those essential signature stories.

Copyright © 2013 by Mary Beth Lagerborg