Friday, May 27, 2011

In Docu-Memory: John, Frances, and Harold Reedy

There are so many interrelated and complex facets to the process of recognizing and documenting the lives and music of Frances and John Reedy.  Since its humble beginning over a year-and-a-half ago, our vision and its multitudinous components have become so much more intricate, intriguing, and interwoven than we first anticipated.  There are many logistical pieces of the project that embody several forms of media, include multiple outlets for dissemination to various audiences, and ultimately transcend any narrow notion of genre. 

But beyond the practical development of what we originally conceived when we began, there is an important process of reflection on a very personal subject from within as well as from an expanded academic and investigative perspective.  Even the significance of something so seemingly commonplace and clichéd as “memory” was not quite apparent when we created the working title “Remembering the Reedys: Appalachian Music, Migration and Memory.” 

A while back, I was trying to think of an adequate terminology to describe the project in a more specific way than just “documentary.”  While it will someday be an edited video documentary, it meanwhile also comprises individual oral history videos, raw audio files, digital photos, and ongoing written summaries and commentary through the project blog, all of which are whole unto themselves.  My mind kept returning to the concept of “docu-memory” because we are archiving, creating, and organizing so many forms of documentation that explore the memories and music of Frances and John Reedy.

I later suspected and confirmed that the term “documemory” also refers to a video production and marketing niche that specializes in creating family history DVD photo slideshows with musical soundtracks.  For our purposes, I include the hyphen in “docu-memory” to distinguish our project’s deeper exploration and documentation of various people’s memories and our long-term goal of quilting them together in a cohesive and colorful collection.  Yet the word’s relevance has now come full circle…

Most funeral homes now offer “documemory” type video memorials as a way to honor deceased loved ones and share memories of the past, and we are twice personally acquainted with this particular media genre.  We have a copy of such a memorial DVD of Frances Reedy from her funeral service in 2006.  But most recently we watched a video slideshow of Timi’s father Harold William Reedy I who passed away on March 20, 2011.  Timi, her younger brother, and her step-mother gathered photos together; and later she and her brother burned CD mixes of songs that Harold loved to listen to.  The result was a heartwarming and charming slideshow and soundtrack amidst the real loss and grief shared by the family and community who loved him.

Timi and I were fortunate to have a special experience of helping care-take for Harold for an extended period last year, so there is new layer of the Reedy docu-memory to unfold as we reflect on that time together.  Memory was both a unique gift and challenge for Harold for the last decade-and-a-half of his life because he suffered from severe short-term memory loss.  He was technically diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but his condition was precipitated by insufficient oxygen during a heart surgery when he was in his fifties. 

After her mamaw passed away and her dad became unable to drive, Timi began visiting with Harold in Corbin almost every week.  She would drive him around, listen to his favorite music, visit the lake, chew gum, and basically do all of the things that he still loved.  She even brought him to our house to visit occasionally.  He got to where he would remember their weekly outings and look forward to her arrival and an adventure together.  This new ritual also allowed Timi and Harold to share memories and emotions during his more lucid moments that were very healing and personal.

Then last February, Harold’s health declined significantly when his medications had been adjusted.  He was ridden to a wheel-chair and communicated less coherently than usual.  At that time, Timi’s step-mother was still working full-time and trying to manage his in-home care.  So we kept him at our house for almost a full week to help share the load and then weekly for 2-3 days a week until August.  Doctors adjusted his medication again, and there was significant improvement as he regained energy, strength, and awareness of his surroundings.

Whenever Harold was at our house, he was almost constantly commenting on how much he enjoyed being here.  He became more engaged and communicative, and he expressed the importance of his family’s history and music in interesting ways.  Over the course of Timi and Harold’s weekly visits, we randomly recorded video footage of some of our time spent with him.  Most of the footage was taken during times when he seemed to be particularly social and/or reminiscent.  Some of it was recorded during more sedate circumstances that still convey his deep comfort and relaxation.

Throughout our time with Harold, he regularly strove to express his memories of his parents and their music, his continued enjoyment and need for music in general, and his love of nature.  All of these themes are well-represented in the video footage we gathered across a year-long timespan.*  The fact that most of his short-term memory was eclipsed by his intensely vivid memories of the past meant that sometimes his parents were still alive to him.  He also frequently associated our land with farms in Harlan and Knox Counties where they had lived when he and his brother were kids.  Despite varying levels of functionality, Harold’s ability to express complex emotions and memories was astounding if one was patient and simply paid attention.

When Timi’s step-mother retired, we took a hiatus from bringing Harold up to our house.  Timi struggled to get to Corbin to see him as often because we had several simultaneous transportation snafus, but she still managed to visit him a few times before and after the blizzardous winter that further complicated travel.  His spirit seemed to improve with consistent full-time care at home, but at the same time, his overall physical health and ability to communicate clearly continued to decline.

A week before Harold passed away, Timi and I attended the 2011 Appalachian Studies Association (ASA) conference, which was held at Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) in neighboring Richmond.  This was Timi’s second year and my fifth year in a row, and we both received another scholarship for conference registration.  We only got to attend sessions on Friday because we were involved in planning a special meeting on Saturday, but the very first session we attended was intriguingly entitled, “Performing Autoethnography: Radical Methodology, Radical Pedagogy.” 

Of course this session title appealed to me as a writer, artist, educator, and activist.  The presenters, Donna Corriher and Shannon Perry, prepared a thoughtful applied exercise and supplied a useful resource pamphlet with a selected bibliography.  In their abstract, they define autoethnography as “a radical, interdisciplinary fusion of autobiographical and ethnographic writing that uses personal experience as a basis for understanding cultural patterns and phenomena.”  Later they go on to state that it “challeng[es] the existence of the disembodied, disinterested researcher and advocat[es] for ways of knowing that encompass the emotional and experiential in pursuit of a more true history.”

We both resonated immensely with the presentation content, format, and audience that it seemed a natural nomenclature for so much of the work that we do.  Beyond its personal relevance to my academic history and future, autoethnography seemed to capture the multiple aspects of our docu-memory project and the legacy of conscious self-documentation among the Reedy family.  This continuous creation and collection of audio and video recordings originated with Frances and John’s first commercial recording in the late 1940’s through their custom and audio home- recordings from the 1960’s—70’s; Harold’s home video of Frances and John performing on Christmas 1980; Timi’s oral history documentation of her grandmother in 1996; and now our ongoing gathering of existing media and own documentation of Harold, our project, and their intricate relationship.

Timi has her own memories of her grandparents and her dad, and we have shared memories of her Mamaw and now Harold.  Timi has also had her own migration experiences, spending summers with her mom in Dayton or Harlan, going to school in Richmond, and temporarily moving back to Corbin to live with Frances when John died.  Music is also fundamental to our quality of life, and we seek its pleasures and its wisdom whenever and however it’s available.  While we aren’t formal musicians ourselves, we are deeply committed to illuminating and sustaining the Reedys’ musical history and influence.

We had such a gift in spending substantial time with Harold while he was still able to enjoy life and express his joy with his family.  His memory and his memories are now truly integrated into the fabric of the overall documentary-in-progress and the process of “Remembering the Reedys.”  In docu-memory, we fondly pay homage to Harold in the house.  We miss you, buddy.

Harold William Reedy I (August 25, 1940--March 20, 2011)
* Actual video footage will be uploaded and posted in the near future.

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