Mind To Paper
It starts in Polt’s basement studio, where the shelves are lined with albums of varying weights and colors. One is a heritage album, chronicling the life of her late father. Another, of similar design, tells the story of her late mother, who passed away when Polt was in her 20s. It took a lot of research to make that one.
On the table are many of her recent projects including a historical memoir for one client (two over-sized albums) her grandson Samuel Nathan’s album, in which she flips to a whole page about his namesake, Abraham Nathan Abramowitz.
She makes a new album each year for each of her two grandchildren.
“I know [Rich] doesn’t have time to look through it all now,” said Polt. “But I know one day he is going to read all of this.”
And while at first glance it may seem just like another scrapbooking project, Polt’s projects are very much the opposite.
“Audrey has a unique ability to facilitate the creation of these lasting albums. They are not only magnificent scrapbooks, which capture our stories for posterity, but they really help the individual or their loved ones focus on the essence of their life,” said sister-in-law Shelley Goldseker. “What could be a more treasured keepsake than that?”
Polt has assisted hundreds of people in transmitting their values and virtues from their minds to paper, through pictures and stories. She does so, explained Goldseker, “by asking probing questions,” to help guide people through the process.
And she listens.
Storyteller Donald Davis explains in his book “Writing As A Second Language: From Experience To Story To Prose” that a listener is like a magnet that pulls the story out.
“Whether you are talking about a traditional story, a crafted story, or just sharing personal memories,” said Baum, “you need that listener.”
And the medium.
Stories can be written, sung, danced, painted — or any combination. Polt works with photographs.
“People keep pictures in boxes and drawers and never do anything with them. A lot of people put pictures in albums. But pictures are nothing without the stories behind them,” said Lisa Billig, for whom Polt just completed a large family history project. “Why take pictures if you are not going to do anything with them?”
Writing one’s history can be daunting, Polt recognized, and said some see this as a deterrent to getting started. She said it shouldn’t be.
“History starts with you and me. I started this with me and my parents. You can’t give up just because you don’t have some information. You start with what you know,” she said. “You don’t have to be a good writer. You tell it from the heart.”
When a loved one passes away, one of Polt’s albums can serve as a treasure trove for the remaining relatives.
“When a person dies, it is like a library burns down,” said Polt. “The stories will all disappear. This [the albums] keeps the stories alive.”
“Memory is the greatest gift we have, and lots of memories get lost through the generations,” said Brenda Nudelman, who worked with Polt on her “Things I Learned About Life Along the Way/Messages from Mom” album. “It is not just a matter of date, time and place. It is a matter of interpreting what existed at the time. It is important for a child to know about his grandparents and great grandparents — not just where they arrived [as immigrants, for example], or where the ship docked, but what life was like for them as told through family stories.”
Just ask Rita Plaut. After her mother, a Holocaust survivor, passed away, Plaut asked Polt to help her create a legacy album. She said she still looks at it regularly and then feels a deep connection to her mom.
“There is this personal feeling of having my mother’s presence still with me, knowing her, reading it, sharing it with my family. It gives me a little bit of satisfaction,” said Plaut.
Plaut sees the album as a tribute to her mother. She said that through the album, the story can resonate into the future and touch anyone who will hear it — more distant family, friends.
The story of Plaut’s mother is representative of the story of many of the Jewish people during World War II.
Preserving memories becomes especially important when talking about Jewish families. According to family historian Lynn Weisberg, who entered the field as a second career after working on an album for her own family with Polt, it is very difficult to go back very far in history to understand and trace Jewish families.
“If you are from a Catholic family, they had Bibles that they were very diligent about writing in every time someone was born. Also, the church kept a birth record, recorded when a child was confirmed at 12 and added [his or her] marriage to that same sheet of paper,” said Weisberg. “It is a shame that synagogues don’t keep these records for our Jewish families.”
Weisberg noted that it is especially challenging because of the pogroms and other wars — “most records that did exist were burned.”
Through other’s personal stories, however, one can surmise a lot about his or her own Jewish life at a given period of time. And those stories can transmit Jewish values that might otherwise be lost to this mobile, independent generation.
“We used to celebrate Jewish holidays together — 70 or 80 of us — Passover, Chanukah, Rosh Hashanah,” recalled Billig. “When we document these holidays we spent together, it instills this wonderful Jewish sense of family. When the kids see that, and how nice it is to be passed down from generation to generation, maybe it instills in them [a desire to] marry within the religion, too, and to create a wonderful family environment with Jewish traditions and values.”
A shared sense of the past, said Polt, is one of the single most important factors in a child’s well-being. She said new research shows that understanding one’s past helps build confidence.
In fact, a recent article published in The New York Times referenced Dr. Constantine Sedikides study showing that “nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant to outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.”
The study also found that people tend to have a healthier sense of self-continuity if they “nostalgize” more frequently.
Likewise, in her book “Story Proof: The science behind the startling power of a story,” Kendall Haven writes that there is evidence to prove that “stories are more effective and powerful than any other narrative structure.”