Tales to treasure: Amherst man’s passion is preserving family stories

Amherst man’s passion is preserving family stories

  • Ralph Lowen, a retired psychotherapist who has spent the last five years recording people’s family stories, is at his work station at his home in Amherst. JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lowen, who travels throughout Hampshire, Hampden and Franklin counties to make recordings, calls his nonprofit venture “I Wish I Had Asked,” after a remark a relative once made in reference to her deceased father. JERREY ROBERTS

  • Stan Ziomek at his home in Amherst, Wednesday. His audio history was recorded by Ralph Lowen, of Amherst. He is holding a baseball autographed by his grandson, Kevin Ziomek, who pitches for the Erie Seawolves, which is the Detroit Tigers' AA team in the Eastern League. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Stan Ziomek of Amherst recorded his family stories with Lowen and has given the CDs to his six sons. JERREY ROBERTS

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Ralph Lowen of Amherst was at his uncle’s funeral, standing at the casket, when the man’s daughter approached. “I wish I had asked,” she said.
She hadn’t pressed her father for family details, Lowen said, and she regretted it.

 Lowen, a retired psychotherapist, was moved. And then he had an idea: Why not help people get their memories recorded to preserve their family histories.

“Imagine someone 50 years from now being able to sit at the table, maybe with their own children, and hear their grandparents or great grandparents tell their stories,” he said.

As a Peace Corp volunteer decades ago, Lowen, 70, had worked in villages in Senegal, West Africa, and was intrigued by the way news, information and culture was passed along orally.

And so, naming his nonprofit venture “I Wish I Had Asked,” he invested between $5,000 and $10,000 to purchase digital audio recorders, wireless and shotgun microphone, editing equipment, speakers and CDs.

Once he was set up, he began collecting stories. Some of the people he recorded he met through his wife, Dr. Mary Ann Lowen, who is the head of radiation oncology at Mercy Medical Center in Springfield. Others he found through visits to senior centers, cancer support groups and YMCAs.

“I’d go to them, to their homes, hospital rooms, hospice –  I have recorded all over the place,” he said.

Sometimes he spends as little time as an hour with an individual, sometimes many hours spanning several days. 

 “I don’t edit out any of their story, I just take out other sounds and clean it up,” he said. Then he gives them the CDs.

In the five years since he began, Lowen says, he has made between 70 and 80 recordings, accepting donations from those who can and want to contribute.

“I just implemented a sliding scale,” he said, “but the end of the scale is still zero.”

Psychologists like Marshall Duke of Emory University, who has done extensive research on families and how children and adults think, remember and learn, says that those from families who share stories tend to feel connected to the important people in their lives, and have a strong “intergenerational self,” that helps them understand that they belong to something larger.

But while many of us may remember family stories recounted at the dinner table, told at gatherings or perhaps even woven into our bedtime rituals, many gems go untold. Or, as in the case of Melvin Edwards, 57, of Springfield, who sat down with Lowen and his recorder recently, we pay little attention to the narrative when we’re young and come to regret it later.

Wisdom and strength

Edwards, a member of the Springfield City Council since 2008, said that many of his recorded family stories came from his mother, who he refers to as “my first teacher and hero.”

“I didn’t bother to grow up and really become a man until I turned 40 and my mother’s messages didn’t really resonate with me until then,” he said.

Edwards has a blended family of six children, 12 grandchildren and one great grandchild.

“I found it a little unnerving to get started, but then I thought of the legacy that I want to leave my children,” he said.

In his recording sessions, Edwards talked of his experience growing up as a person of color, how racism and prejudice affected his family and how the strength and wisdom provided by family members helped him to overcome adversity and succeed. Edwards worked as a transportation and direct care supervisor at the Monson Developmental Center before entering public service. 

“My mother was very invested in me,” he said, recalling her advice that helped him avoid dangerous situations.

“I wanted to share what life has been like for me,” he said. “I also see this as a call to order for my children to continue to change things, and make things better.”

In spite of spending many hours with Lowen, Edwards says there are still many holes in his family story.

“I really wish that I had taken the opportunity to get more information from my mother,” he said.

Still, what Edwards has preserved is valuable to other family members, Lowen notes. And having a vast knowledge of family history is not necessary for an individual to begin relating his or her story.

“I like to tell people that even if they don’t have the stories from their grandparents, that’s all right, because they are now the family experts,” Lowen said.

Faith and humor

Patricia Tessier, 71, an antiques dealer of Wilbraham has two daughters, one son, a niece and nephew and five grandchildren. She said she met Lowen while he was doing a program on recording stories at the Wilbraham Senior Center.

In her sessions with him, Tessier, who was born in Three Rivers, discussed her strong Irish roots, and her travels through Ireland to visit numerous family members.

For her, it also was an opportunity to pass along her strong belief in God and the lessons that she has learned from her faith.

“I was raised Catholic and my grandchildren are being raised in different religions,” she said. “What is important to me is that they know that there is a higher power, whatever their religion or denomination is.”

Tessier, who loves to tap dance, said she tried to add humor to her recordings, which she has already given to her children. One of her daughters keeps the CDs readily at hand.

“She listens to them in the car and I think she gets a big kick out of it,” Tessier said.

Storytellers benefit

Passing down tales of family adventures, historical events, moral philosophies or amusing anecdotes can enhance the experience of children of all ages and future generations, sociologists say. For the storytellers, particularly family elders, there is also great benefit in sharing their stories, says Lowen. For older adults, passing down lessons and values through their stories can be uplifting. For those of an advanced age, telling their stories can improve cognition and combat isolation, he says.

“One of the amazing things is to see how impassioned people get when telling their stories,” he said.

Stan Ziomek, 91, an Amherst native who has lived and worked in town for all of his life, except for a stint in the Marines in the 1940s, says Lowen approached him to record him memories.

Ziomek, who has six sons, is the former director of recreation in town and the founder of the Amherst Little League program over which he presided for decades. He also served as highway superintendent, and assistant town manager.

At first he was reluctant.

“When we first started, I thought it was kind of a drag, but once we got into it and the memories all came back, then I really got into it,” Ziomek said. “It was like reliving my life all over again and I enjoyed it.”

He said has given the CDs Lowen made for him to his sons.

“I think they really appreciated it. Some of the history they knew and some of it was completely new to them,” he said.

Beverly Boyken, 63, of South Deerfield, who attended one of Lowen’s workshops in 2013 at the Cancer Connection in Northampton as a caregiver for her mother who had lung cancer, said she has seen firsthand the positive effect storytelling has on the narrators.

“People loved talking about their stories. What Ralph offers is a wonderful gift. He is very compassionate, intuitive and a good listener,” said Boyken, who has two children, 30 and 39 years old,

“Since I was very young, I was the type who always asked questions about the family. Now I have two children who don’t want to know anything,” she said with a hearty laugh. 

But just as in Edwards’s case, that may change.

Boyken said she believes there is a renewed interest in sharing family stories particularly in light of television shows like “Who Do You Think You Are,” the “Genealogy Roadshow” and “Finding Your Roots,” all of which focus on family genealogy.

Lowen agrees and says that he likes to think of what he does “as putting the meat on the bones of genealogy.”

Lowen, who when he is not recording enjoys making paintings, also with an historical bent, has recruited a few volunteers to help him.

He is accepting donations so that he can supply digital recording equipment to and train more volunteers for the service he now offers throughout Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties.

“I Wish I had Asked” is operated through Fractured Atlas, a New York-based non-profit arts service organization that provides artists and arts organizations tools and services to help them run their businesses more efficiently. Contributions made payable to Fractured Atlas are tax-deductible.

“I consider myself blessed to be able to do this,” Lowen said. “It is a lot of work, but I really get much more out of it than I put in. I don’t want anybody to lose their stories. Without our stories we would have nothing.”

For more information about “I Wish I Had Asked” go to: iwishihadasked.com.

Fran Ryan can be reached at fryan.gazette@gmail.com.