JACKSON, Miss. —
They survived The Great Depression and World War II, American families that found a way to make do during the toughest and saddest of times.
Documentaries have been produced about that era, but Tupelo native Steve Young knew something was missing.
"The documentaries never got down to the real heart of family during those times," he said. "You can hear that families had it rough back then, but why not hear it from the mouths of the people who experienced it firsthand? Only they can tell you what it was really like to live it day in and day out."
Young, a 50-year-old filmmaker who lives in Franklin, Tenn., started with his own family. The result is "American Family: The Youngs." It airs on Mississippi Public Broadcasting and other PBS markets across the country.
Through the words of Young's relatives, viewers are reminded of how basic life was for rural Americans between 1900 and 1950.
It was a world of outhouses and slop jars, clothes washed in large black pots and cleaned with homemade lye soap, siblings who not only shared a room but a bed as well, rainwater captured in barrels and saved for Saturday baths so family members were clean for church on Sunday.
It also was a time of heartbreaking stories such as one shared by Young's Aunt Ann. She was a young girl in 1943, and her mother arranged for her to take piano lessons.
Ann loved it and recalls the first song she ever learned, "Jesus, Lover of My Soul." But she mysteriously stopped attending the lessons and told her family she had lost interest. The truth was, as Ann reveals in the documentary, "I didn't think our family could afford it."
Young hopes his documentary is a shot to the heart of today's families that are scattered and live in a hurry-up world.
"My dad said near the end of the film that back then a person was never as much an individual as he or she was part of a family," Young said. "It was the 'we, not me' concept. Family first, self second. As my uncle said, families had to be close back then or they wouldn't have survived.
"And I do think some of the core values shown in this film can be applied today, if it's nothing more than a family taking at least one night a week to share a meal together. But it has to be an intentional choice."
Young's extended family live all over the U.S.
"But every Christmas, we all gather in Tupelo because that's what was drilled in our heads when we were growing up," he said.
Young believes Americans still yearn for the feeling of belonging.
"Why do you think Facebook is so popular? Because people have an inherent need to be connected, and it's a great way to connect with family and friends. I believe we're wired to be connected."
The idea for the film struck Young when his grandmother, Pauline Young, died in 1989.
"We were reeling from the grief, and then it really hit me: No one had ever asked her to talk about what it meant to be a family. We had little anecdotes here and there, but it really shook me when I realized her stories were gone forever.
"Then, in their birth order, some of my dad's seven siblings began dying. We lost Aunt Joyce and Uncle Joe, and that did it. I sat down with the rest of them with a simple tape recorder in 2005 and got them to tell their stories. The amazing thing was, half the stories each of them told, the other family members had never heard. It was amazing."
Later, with the help of Nashville's Bradford Van Demark of Blue Sky Film Works, Young asked them to share their memories in front of a camera.
"They were nervous about that at first," Young said, "but after two or three questions, they forgot about the lights, the camera and just went back in time and dug up these precious memories."
Young urges families to do the same thing. "It may not be a professionally produced film, but it will be something generations to come will have and can enjoy and reflect on."
MPB Executive Director Ronnie Agnew said Young's documentary hit home with him because he has long thought of the need to record his elderly relatives' memories.
"This documentary is an extraordinary story of one Mississippi family, their joys, their setbacks, their hard work and their perseverance," Agnew said.