Anna Clark with former Dallas Cowboy Bob Breunig
In September 2019, an unusual offer showed up at a time when I was considering my next move. Launching a service for personal history preservation wasn’t the logical next step in my career path, but a colleague’s need for it and willingness to fund it helped me see its potential. While it occurred to me that starting a small business was the professional equivalent of swallowing the red pill—full of potential, yet fraught with risk—the opportunity to create a new brand and company with an investor’s support was too exciting to pass up.
Speaking as one who was once devoid of nostalgia, I’ll admit that I had little interest at the time in preserving the past; my modus operandi is thinking about the future. But my ambivalence over memory-keeping proved weaker than my desire to pursue a creative challenge and novel outlet for my storytelling skills. As an added benefit, the two-year contract gave me the flexibility to spend time with my mother, whose dementia was worsening by the day.
After spending six months developing our system, I decided to do a trial run with my family. Together with my parents, we unearthed forgotten memories from old albums, archiving important pictures and capturing tidbits of family lore while sharing some of the most meaningful conversations I can remember with them. What began as a way to help my mom combat memory loss ended as a last-chance recording of the intimate details of her early years—and mine by extension. Only when she died on July 15, 2020 did I truly begin to appreciate the significance of this work.
I’ve since come to see every person’s life story as a window, both unique and universal, into the experiences, hardships, sacrifices, and relationships that characterize a life well-lived.
In financial terms, the clients I’m privileged to work with are more fortunate than most, but they’re still human. Some have endured divorces. All have suffered disappointments and the death of loved ones. Yet, none of them allows their worst moments to define them. Rather, they’ve made it through the emotional gauntlet that comes with confronting The Past and are willing to invest in recording the journeys their lives have taken. In general, they tend to be in their mid-50s or older, accomplished, conscientious, generous, family-oriented, and appreciative of the spiritual side of life.
Bob Breunig is one such person. The former Dallas Cowboy and member of the Doomsday Defense under the legendary Coach Tom Landry went on to become successful in commercial real estate, a father of four, and a grandfather to eight. His wife, Mary, hired my company to preserve his pro-football history, with some fascinating ramifications. Seeing so many pictures of Bob ended up dislodging a memory of my own, which nagged at me until I went searching through my old collection of albums stored in the upstairs closet. There, in an album that my mother had created, was a picture of me at a community event with an unnamed Dallas Cowboy who I now call my client.
Was this early snapshot of Bob and me a harbinger of our future meeting?
The inevitable question sent me down the rabbit hole in search of some truth to take away from this odd discovery. Consulting the philosophers, this quote from Friedrich Schiller, in particular, resonates with me: “There is no such thing as chance; and what seems to us merest accident springs from the deepest source of destiny.”
As with any existential question, determining what is true comes down to one’s beliefs and worldview. Here is a truth I draw from this coincidence:
Here are 10 other truths I’ve gleaned during my trip into personal history preservation:
- Facing the past with a fresh perspective enables you to see the hidden moments that shaped your life. Finding Bob’s picture in my family album reminded me how far my mother would stretch herself to expose her shy daughter to new people and experiences, and the love she had for me in spite of how much I used to resist her efforts. What details might you remember or see anew in looking at old pictures through the lens of more life experience? Try it and see.
- An uncomfortable past has positive value if we allow it to guide us, not define us. Hardships in life are inevitable. Looking at pictures taken during rough periods can turn a walk down memory lane into an ennobling, soul-building event. Oftentimes going back gives you the best vantage point for seeing how far you’ve come.
- Most memories do not rise to the level of history, but all of them matter. At a minimum, every photo taken of you is evidence that someone cared that you existed and wanted to remember an experience you both shared. Keeping your photos organized is a way to honor those experiences and people who are part of your life story. If you have not already done so, start by grouping the pictures saved in your phone into digital albums and/or use other organizing features available in apps such as Google Photos. As an Apple user, I prefer to keep it simple and use the iCloud Photo Library, which makes photos accessible across all Apple devices. You can choose between automatic or manual syncing. (For pros and cons, read this article. For more information on this and other photo organizers, here’s a rundown of five popular cloud storage solutions for families.)
- Taking a picture is only the first step to preservation. Two important factors of preservation are access and usability. If a picture isn’t easily accessed, it is at risk of being lost or forgotten. Digital photos stored somewhere accessible and backed up in the cloud are secure. Unorganized pictures stored in closets and attics are not. Rather, this increases the likelihood that they will be damaged over time or thrown away by the next generation. To ensure your favorite memories stand the test of time, digitize important pictures, videos and documents and save them in folders in your computer where you can easily find them. If you haven’t set up your archives, start with one folder or one life chapter and grow from there.
- Going back to the past is like time travel. Embrace it. Don’t be scared of what’s in your attic. Take a day and dig into those dusty boxes to see what you might find. Look at it as an adventure and invite the family to join you!
- Revisiting old memories can be an incredible bonding opportunity. Not only has this work enabled me to make peace with my past, it has brought me closer to my family in the present. The morning my mother died, I went over to my parents’ house to help my father write her obituary. He recounted memories from their lives going back to their first date, a remarkable morning in which they saw President John F. Kennedy speak in Fort Worth before he traveled to Dallas on that fateful day, November 22, 1963. My father shared many other memories from their 53 years together, which brought us both a little happiness on an otherwise tragic day. Fortunately, you don’t have to wait for a sad occasion like a death to have an extraordinary conversation about life.
- History lives in our elders. My company had the opportunity to work on a biographical film project with civil rights pioneers of Fort Worth whose advocacy and leadership impacted national laws and led to the establishment of Juneteenth as a national holiday. Hearing the stories of their lives was an incredible experience for me and a reminder that every elder has acquired wisdom worth hearing. You can watch them share parts of their stories in this PSA my company created for the project. After that, call your parents or grandparents if they are still living and ask them to share a story from their past with you.
- Every life story has the power to heal someone. Before this work found me in a formal sense, I had a crash course in it when a friend’s husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The morning I visited Barry in the hospital, I happened to have my laptop with me. I asked him if he would like me to capture his story. What came next was a series of conversations during chemotherapy in which Barry recounted his life, warts and all – past mistakes and old wounds along with hopes, dreams and plans for the future. After he died, the book became a source of healing and comfort for his wife, daughter and many others. Never underestimate the positive impact you can make on your loved ones by capturing your story in your own words.
- The meaning of life is whatever you decide to make of it. Finding the picture of Bob Breunig and me in an old family album took me by such surprise that I asked my 16-year old, a budding artist, what she thought about it. She said, “I’ve given up on finding meaning. I’m focused on creating it. When I make art, I create my own meaning.” The artist’s perspective helped me see this work as more than an opportunity to make sense of the past. Memory-keeping is also an act of creating the foundation for a better future. While the content of our memories may not change, our relationship to the people, events and things that have happened in our lives can improve at any point when we choose to see them in a new light, which enables us to reduce any baggage we may carry into the next chapter of our lives.
- Memory-keeping is a labor of love that few working people have time for. Some of these truths may seem obvious, but many people have yet to act on them because they are too busy managing their daily lives to think about preparing for the future. If you are among them, don’t be ashamed. Get help! Several hours of archival consulting from Heirloom Digital can turn a collection in disarray into a project you can enjoy building on for a lifetime.
For me, preservation, like conservation, is a pursuit that transcends career. My years of helping people make meaning out of their past have also brought fresh meaning to my own life. If you get started on this journey, I guarantee new meaning will find you as well.