Telling our grandmothers’ stories to seniors

Well we did it. Lisa Petrides and I (Judy Shintani) did our “Honoring Grandmothers from Far Lands” performance at the Ted Adcock Senior Center in Half Moon Bay.

Though we have done it 2 times before, this was a bit different. 1) we did not have a lot of time to practice 2) we were performing for an audience of over 80 people! 3) The audience was 65 – 85+!

grandmother in america

While the seniors were enjoying their mother’s day luncheon of crab, lobster, and shrimp frittata, we spoke about our grandmother’s journeys to America, life in America, questions we had for them, and the gifts of their lives. We both tried really hard to project and speak slowly since we knew some of these elders had hearing problems.

We wondered how this much older audience was going to relate to the stories of our family members who were probably in their own age range. Would they relate to the stories themselves? Would they see their own life moments?

After the event we did get some feedback. A Japanese woman came up to us immediately and related her own story of a stranger approaching her in a Japanese American History Museum and finding out that their parents had both been in the same internment camp. Another woman told me about her mother getting dressed up in her best white starched blouse to wear as she stepped off the ship on to Ellis Island, only to be immediately sprayed with delousing chemicals. Another woman told us why her parents did not want them to speak their native German – it was too dangerous and not American. My dear friend Charlene, came up to me in tears, saying that the part about my grandmother’s internment experience was very moving, and that she was now thinking about her own grandmother.

The experience was very powerful for me. This performance stuff is challenging – I was raised to be one of those “be seen and not heard” kids. I guess I’m not that kind of adult. It is good to get out of the box once in a while and see how much I can stretch.

Telling an Ancestor’s Story

Telling a story about an ancestor can be a gift to oneself and to one’s family. It is powerful to have your stories heard. Here is how Lisa and I did it.

Capturing the memories
We did a meditation to ask our grandmothers what they wanted conveyed in our storytelling. Then we both took some individual time to write down some of the things we remembered about our grandmothers. We thought about their history, things we liked about them, some hardships, our relationship with these women.

Collaborating – the similarities and contrasts
We got together and shared these stories and discovered that there were similar veins, for example, both our grandmothers had arranged marriages. It was through these marriages that they came to America. We also began to notice how different their lives were in America. Lisa’s grandmother lived in a city and my grandmother lived in a houseboat. Culturally their temperaments and styles were also a contrast we worked with.

Following the flow
We used the time line as the flow of the story. We started in their native countries and traveled over the ocean to America. We walked, following the shape of an infinity sign, to tell about the long ship journey. We brought in props which anchored their stories and clued viewers into where they were and what they were doing. As we took turns speaking, the other person swept the floor behind them. Lisa spoke in her grandmother’s voice as she washed dishes, and I was my grandmother as she washed the rice.

Practicing in the space
If at all possible practice in the space you will be performing in. This allows you to be more familiar with the sound level, lighting, seating, etc. If that isn’t possible, envision the space as you practice elsewhere.

Invite critiques
Before two shows we invited some folks in to critique our performance. We got some great feedback about background music and adding movement. We were able to make some changes which improved the show.

We did some advertising and promotion through the local newspapers, email, postcards, and posters. After doing all that preparation, it is nice to have an audience! Of course that all took some advance planning since the pr had to be out almost a month ahead of time.

Performing it
On the day of the performance try to take it easy so you will be at your best. We passed out brief programs so the audience could have something to read and follow what we were doing. We did a little introduction and then went into the 15 minute performance. At the end we invited the audience to participate by standing and speaking their own grandmother’s name and many did so.


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