Over the past several years, I've found myself, camera in hand, sitting with the family of an African-American general on the eve of his 80th birthday; a well-born Bostonian who drove an ambulance in World War II and then moved out West to ride in rodeos and raise cattle; an aeronautical engineer and senior executive in the Apollo program who was among the first to propose a moon landing to President John F. Kennedy; even Manfred Rommel, former longtime mayor of Stuttgart and son of the famed "Desert Fox" of World War II. I found a career as a producer and film educator, much of which I devote to recording personal histories.
After a long struggle with Parkinson's disease, my father passed away in the summer of 2004. He was 80 years old and had lived as full a life as anyone could. I'd like to think that, were he still here, he would respect what I'm doing and understand why I'm doing it. In fact, many of my film projects involve working with veterans. Things have kind of circled back.
Every family has a story, and every member's story is worth preserving—certainly for the living family, but even more so for future generations. Experiencing history through the lens of another person's life can offer unexpected insight into your own. It gets you to think: What sort of mark will I make? How will I be remembered?
The key is to start now, whether with a tape recorder or video camera. In her wonderful book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard tells of a note found in Michelangelo's studio after he died. I have a copy pinned up in my office. Scribbled by the elderly artist to an apprentice, it reads: "Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time."
Benjamin W. Patton, a filmmaker based in New York City, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.