The six Lorenz children always loved the tales their father Ralph told them. He enthralled them with accounts of his immigration from Austria, his war experiences as a naval officer, his exploits in the hotel business. A special favorite was the one about the origins of the family's dining-room table. Ralph told how during his tour of duty in the South Pacific, he and some of his men rescued a fallen teak tree from an island, sawed it into smaller pieces and had it shipped to Detroit, where it was eventually made into the table the kids grew up around.
Ralph died 10 years ago, but his adult children continue to enjoy his stories. About a year before his death, they commissioned a writer to transcribe all his cherished narratives and assemble his personal history. Says son Scott, 47, of Plymouth, Mich.: "In this book--actually a three-ring binder--he lives on."
The Lorenzes were in the forefront of what is a growing trend for families: gathering--or hiring someone else to gather--the history, anecdotes and reflections of an aging relative before it is too late. The practice has given rise to the Association of Personal Historians, made up of people who specialize in creating such accounts. In its seven years of existence, the APH has gone from seven members to 310, across the U.S. Many have journalism backgrounds; others are service-oriented professionals with applicable skills--a nurse, for example, who had studied stenography. According to Lettice Stuart, president of the APH, business is thriving, especially with baby boomers. Stuart, 56, a former stringer for the New York Times in Houston, finds that most of her clients are adult children, 50 to 60, who want their parents' stories preserved. Many of her colleagues report that the average age of their clients is 70-plus; they are parents who want to pass on a legacy to their kids and grandkids.
Though telling family stories is hardly novel, the increased interest (and willingness to pay someone $500 to $30,000 to put them in writing) is a sign of the times. "Besides being a generation that is used to paying others to do almost anything for them, baby boomers were also the first truly mobile generation," says Stuart. "We grew up, left home for college, rejected our parents' traditions and values and communicated by phone, not letters. Now as we age, we feel a sense of urgency to record family stories before our parents die. We realize success and achievement aren't as important as 'real' things--like family and close connections."