What Huell Howser Taught Me

by Memoir Mentor on January 10, 2013

I’ve been touched and saddened by the passing of Huell Howser, the folksy, ebullient host of the popular PBS series California’s Gold. At 67, he was simply too young to leave us–and what a void he has left in his wake! My husband and I used to make fun of his oh-my-gosh!-delight in everything he saw. He was this big, hulking ex-Marine, but he was like a kid in a candy store in his exuberance about everything that caught his attention. His television show took us all over California, introducing us to quirky people, unusual places, and tiny, intriguing stories that would never have seen the light of day had Huell not turned his camera in their direction.

I visited two places because of Huell. My mother spent a couple of years in Taft, California, during her early grade school years when her father got a job with Standard Oil not long after the family had emigrated from Scotland. The job and the California sunshine improved the family’s spirits and belief that they had done the right thing by coming to America. The family left Taft when Mom was seven and she had no memory of the place. Then Huell Howser shined a light on Taft one Sunday evening, showing off some of the central California town’s attractions. Intrigued, I just had to take Mom to visit that place. And, so we went…. Well, let’s just say we both thought the town probably hadn’t changed much since she lived there, which was probably a good thing–for us, anyway.

Some years ago, Huell introduced me to a hole-in-the-wall cafe called The Apple Pan. Located on Pico Blvd. in West Los Angeles, the restaurant is about as unassuming as one can get. Walk through the screen door, and it’s like stepping back into the fifties or early sixties. Customers sit on stools at a u-shaped formica counter and are served by male waiters wearing soda-jerk hats and dressed head to toe in white. You quickly realize that these waiters are a no-nonsense breed. You don’t ask questions, you pay with cash, and you don’t make changes to the menu, which consists of two or three kinds of hamburgers and a slice of apple pie. Their surliness (think Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi”) is part of the deal. You get used to it after the first brush with brusqueness. Cokes come in a can. Wait a second and the waiter will pour it into one of those old-fashioned cone-shaped paper liners set in a silver holder. French fries come hot and heaped on a paper plate. The waiter then squirts a mound of ketchup on another paper plate. The main attraction is the hamburger of course, loaded with a thick slice of tomato and an even thicker wedge of lettuce. A white paper wrapping holds all this together, and the waiter presents the tantalizing package to you by propping it on its side on the formica counter. No plates. It doesn’t matter.

My husband and I have visited The Apple Pan on numerous occasions. We have a tradition of staying in Los Angeles for a few days between Christmas and New Year’s. Our hotel is a half-block from a movie theater that shows the kind of movies we like, and so we try to see as many movies as we can during the few days we’re there. The theater–and The Apple Pan–are within walking distance of the hotel. We visited The Apple Pan just two weeks ago–at 11:00 at night. We felt like teenagers again eating hamburgers and fries at that late hour. We talked about Huell Howser. We always talk about Huell Howser when we’re there…and I suspect we always will.

So why would I put this post on a blog about personal history? Because Huell Howser was the quintessential story teller. He knew what made a story good. It didn’t matter how seemingly common the subject matter, Huell’s formula was this: Find the heart of the story and focus on the details that will make it resonate with the audience. A good lesson for all of us.

Other lessons I learned from Huell? The Apple Pan is “AMAYYZING!” Forget Taft.



Tinkering with Thanksgiving Traditions

by Memoir Mentor on November 24, 2012

This year I decided to break with Thanksgiving tradition. People who know me might find this surprising. I’m generally not a risk taker. I’m an eldest-daughter type–always the responsible one. But I’ve been stepping over some serious lines lately, like taking up with the Democrats after a life-long allegiance to the Republican Party. Maybe I’m going through a way-late mid-life crisis of some sort, who knows?

My rupture with Thanksgiving tradition had its beginnings some weeks ago with my decision to celebrate Thanksgiving on Wednesday this year instead of Thursday. It was my eldest son’s year to gather with the in-laws, and Number Two Son said he’d prefer to come when his brother’s family was there. I got it. I, too, wanted everyone together, so we adjusted, an easy fix.

I figure I’ve hosted more than three-dozen Thanksgiving dinners during my marriage. I’ve mastered the basics and haven’t deviated much from the tried and true. Like your family, we’ve loved it just the way it is.

But changing the day suddenly gave me license to look at other Thanksgiving traditions with a critical eye. I grew up learning that once you put one toe over the line, you were looking at all the way. Afraid of risk, I never tested the theory…until now.

“When did the tradionally baked turkey become so sacrosanct?” the “new me” asked herself after viewing Ina Garten’s “Barefoot Contessa” a few weeks ago. I had just watched Ina create what she called a Turkey Roulade made from a five-pound, boneless turkey breast rolled jelly-roll-style with turkey stuffing. It looked good…and it looked soooo easy the way she did it. Why not? Who says I needed to do things the same old way? So, I ordered my turkey breast from the butcher, and followed Ina’s instructions to the letter, watching the online video of the roulade-roll-up several times to make sure that I did.

The roll-up thing wasn’t quite as neat and easy as Ina made it look—natch—but my family raved. They rave no matter what, so it’s hard to get an accurate reading from that limited demographic. Frankly, I thought it tasted pretty great, but I’ve always been a white meat person. The most effusive praise came from my husband who proclaimed the Contessa’s stuffing recipe the best he ever tasted! “We should do turkey this way next year,” he said, “make it a new tradition!”

Upon reflection, I decided there was other “stuff” behind this stuffing accolade. I had effectively taken away his main Thanksgiving chore—carving the turkey. He always hated the spotlight being turned on him every year as he considered anew how to tackle the job. Things rarely went according to plan, the tension palpable as everyone looked on while the mashed potatoes and gravy cooled on the sideboard. His sons—now men—have increasingly been throwing in their two cents, adding to the strain. Then there was that dangling, dripping carcass to dispose of…. Well, Ina and I had eliminated all that in one fell swoop. All the pressure was gone. “Carving” was now as simple as slicing bread.

We all had a great day together, as good as any Thanksgiving ever was. Even though it was on Wednesday. Even though I’d messed with the tried-and-true. Change can be good.

On Thursday morning, my husband and I awoke to a quiet house. All the dishes and pots and pans from the day before had been washed and put away, the leftovers snugly stored in the refrigerator. I laid in bed thinking about the women all over America who were wrestling with their turkeys, peeling potatoes, rolling out pie dough. Been there done that. Whatever would we do with the long day ahead?

I rolled over in bed and put the question to my half-asleep husband. The day was ours to do with as we pleased. What a luxury. We decided to take in a movie—not one, but TWO. How fun would that be? Are theaters open on Thanksgiving? They are.  It felt a little like desecrating the Sabbath at first, but those thoughts soon left me as the theater darkened and I dipped into my tub of hot buttered popcorn. Yum! It was surely a day to feel grateful.



Tasting the Sweetness of Gratitude

by Memoir Mentor on October 23, 2012

I returned Sunday from the international conference of the Association of Personal Historians (APH), held in St. Louis this year. I’ve attended the APH conference on many occasions and have often spoken to their organization, as I did this year. I always return home full of ideas for expanding my personal historian’s repertoire and enough renewed motivation to carry me through until the next conference. I’ve never belonged to an organization with so many bright, generous, like-minded people. Strand us all on a deserted island and we’d probably spend our days scratching our stories on palm fronds and sailing them out with the tide to be found by people in another day.

I can’t tell you the number of times I heard people at the conference say “I love what I do,” or “I can’t believe I found this wonderful profession,” or “I see myself doing this for the rest of my life.” There’s something about helping people record their story for posterity that satisfies our primal need to commemorate the human story, to halt the march of time, to validate the best in all of us.

The process alone fills me with enough gratitude and satisfaction to keep me going. Occasionally, however, someone reaches out with a word of thanks for a service rendered that feels like icing on the cake. I tasted a bit of that sweetness when I returned from the conference and found that my husband had placed a letter on my desk. The letter was written to both of us by Shelly Airmet, who lives in Kamas, Utah. Not knowing our address, Shelly had sent it to our publisher, who forwarded it to us. I’ve transcribed it below in its entirety, with Shelly’s permission. Read on and you’ll surely understand how this letter made me feel, but more than that, its inspiring message will likely convince more of you to keep working on your own stories so you can taste the deep satisfaction Shelly so beautifully describes.


Dear Morrie and Dawn,
I never thought I could write my parents’ and my own life story, so it is with much gratitude for your expertise and knowledge that I write this letter. About three years ago my older brother (by twenty years) asked if I would write about my relationship and childhood with our parents as their daughter. You see, our parents had eight children, starting with five brothers and then three daughters who came later in life. I am the caboose of the family. So life with the boys first would prove to be a different experience for them. The challenge was that my brother would also write his feelings from a son’s point of view.

I like a challenge, but after several discouraging starts, I wasn’t sure if I was up for the task. That was until I walked into our family office and noticed your book, Breathe Life into Your Life Story, a book that I was meant to find! My husband had purchased your book some years earlier to help with his own writing. Well, I was hooked from the moment I turned the first page. I read a bit and then wrote a bit and took notes all along the way within the book. I laughed and I cried as your book helped me to be honest and record memories from my heart. I wrote a life story to honor my dear parents and one that I could be proud of for future generations.

Brad, my husband, surprised me by having my story bound like a real book, and I was able to present the book to all my brothers and sisters at our family reunion in June. So I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your taking the time to help me accomplish something that seemed way out of my league.

Grateful always,
Shelly Airmet


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