Mankind has told stories to pass the wisdom of one generation to the next since we first gathered around our primeval campfires. But what if there’s no “next generation” around the fire? Do the stories still matter if there’s no one there to hear them?
Association of Personal Historians Member Tom Cormier, whose business is Legacy Stories in Knoxville, Tennessee, posted to our members’ Listserv recently asking why individuals without descendants or close family ties might place value on preserving their life story. As one of that “clan of the unclaimed” myself, I found the discussion particularly relevant.
Let’s start with the most frequently cited reasons people share their stories:
- To preserve a family’s memories
- To pass on lessons learned
- To reflect on the influences that shaped a life
Which of these might apply to an “end of the line” person like me? When I teach memoir-writing classes, I usually start the first session by asking why we write, and for whom. The answer to “for whom” is the main thing that differentiates those of us in the “clan of the unclaimed” from those whose families include children and grandchildren.
Instead of the family that will follow me, I think of my audience as other people who have shared similar life experiences to mine. I write for people who grew up in the same community I did; people who share similar passions; people who passed through similar generational markers and might enjoy reflecting on how we were shaped by them. (I came of age in that brief window between the introduction of the birth control pill and the onset of AIDS. Need I say more?)
If you replace “family” with “community” in that first bullet point, the reasons remain compelling. And as to who would be the audience for those memories—we needn’t share a close genetic link to share an interest in each other.
One of my most prized possessions is a manuscript by my great-grandfather’s sister telling the story of the family’s journey from rural Scotland to the wilds of Wisconsin in the 1840s. She was a widow, never had any children of her own. She thought no one cared any more. But, bless her heart, she typed it up anyway. Auntie Isabella didn’t know that I would be born 14 years after her death, and that I would take an active interest in her stories. You just never know who might come along later to appreciate the history that you have preserved!
Personally, I think the most compelling reason is the transformation experienced in the process. Whether you tell your story to a personal historian or compose it yourself, you will be affected by the work of finding meaning in your memories. You might find yourself healing old wounds, or unearthing happy memories buried too long.
Phil Sherwood, owner of Lifewriters.ca in the Vancouver, British Columbia area, responded:
There can be a real value from revisiting one’s life. [A client’s] husband had died of Alzheimer’s, and all she remembered of her marriage was the last few years—very painful in many ways. However, in revisiting her diaries for the project, she “rediscovered” the first six or seven years of marriage— extremely happy years. That was a big plus for her.
Edna Groves, a member from the Chicago area whose business is Words That Endure, responded in a similar vein:
Looking in our own rear-view mirror lets us see our lives differently. It promotes understanding, forgiveness, perspective, and gives new meaning to old events. To me that’s the priceless aspect, worth every penny paid to a personal historian. We don’t have to pass our stories on to make it beneficial to get them down on paper.
Not everyone is interested in self-exploration, and for those “end of the line” individuals of a more pragmatic bent, I offered the listserv a view of a very tangible benefit you might experience from preserving your life story:
Why? To be seen as a full person when we are elderly, reduced in our capabilities, and cared for by strangers. An investment in getting our story on paper may indeed be an investment in our own more humane end-of-life care. Do you want to be a person or a meatsack to your nursing home staff?
Eloise Lewis, who owns Life Tales in Toronto, Ontario, echoed that thought:
My 96-year-old mother requires 24-hour care. My mother’s caregivers love looking at Mom’s book “My Wonderful Life.” It not only provides them with a window into her life but it’s also good therapy for her brain and her speech when they look at it together and have her talk to them about it.
A personal history might take the form of an oral history, a book, a video or audio recording, a tribute, or some other unique and artful expression. It might be shared with a large circle of family and friends, or simply rest on a bedside in a hospice, acknowledging the span of a life as it comes to its close.
When you think about who would value your story, don’t draw the circle too tightly. Someone in the future is waiting to hear from you—and at this moment, you have no way of knowing who that person will be.
Whose life will you affect, simply by leaving a record of your own? Toss that bottle in the ocean and trust the story will find a grateful heart.
~APH: Life, Stories, People~
About today’s contributor: Sarah White is President of the Association of Personal Historians. A longtime freelance writer and past-owner of a marketing communications firm, Sarah provides memoir coaching services with her business, First Person Productions in Madison, Wisconsin. She has been a member of APH since 2002.
Photo credit: Campfire photo by Dirk Beyer (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), via Wikimedia Commons; Hands photo courtesy bbc.co.uk.