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Remembering Mary

One of my first Life Stories clients, Mary, died last month. She was 94. Her father had been a sharecropper in Kentucky, and soon after I met Mary she recited with dizzying speed the names of the communities where she lived as a girl: Jenkins, White Oak, Lisman, Burnt Hill, Townsend, Dixon. She soon shared that her mother got sick with tuberculosis in 1932, only a few years before penicillin was in common use and might have saved her. A patch of goldenrods grew along Mary’s p

Details Make the Story

Alice and Edwin participated in my most recent Life Stories class. Alice had a career as a beautician. In her beauty shop, she had a Coke machine; a soda cost 10 cents. As she planned her wedding in 1967, she saved the dimes from the machine to buy her $210 wedding dress. Edwin is a lifetime farmer. For a few months before he married in 1958, he also worked in a factory to help pay for his wedding. He doesn’t remember how much the wedding cost, but he earned 90 cents an hour

2 Very Short Stories

Six weeks before Judy was born, her father died in a car accident. So Judy and her mother moved in with her mother’s parents, Judy’s grandparents. Grandpa was the sheriff, and their home was the official sheriff’s residence. One of Judy’s household chores growing up was to serve meals to the inmates. As a young boy, John’s grandfather had both legs amputated. His family wanted to put him on the street corner to sell pencils for the rest of his life. Grandfather had another pl

Go Fly a Kite. Literally.

His days of making and flying kites with the neighborhood boys took place more than 70 years ago, but to hear Paul describe it during a group “Remember When…” discussion at a local nursing home last week, he could have been talking about yesterday. Light-weight but sturdy weeds tied together form the frame and the “t.” Cover the structure with newspaper, attached with paste. You might have some old bits of string around the house, but if you want it to hold up, use “store str

A Quote

"Children rarely want to know who their parents were before they were parents, and when age finally stirs their curiosity there is no parent left to tell them." — Russell Baker, "Growing Up" #writing

Shared Experiences Lead to Shared Stories

This past Saturday I ran into a client whose life stories I completed writing early last year. Bernice, who became a widow during the time we worked together and included a chapter in her book about that adjustment, had dozens of copies of her stories made at the local print shop. That was enough to give to her children, grandchildren and siblings and have a few copies remaining. She no longer has a single copy for herself! Furthermore, one of her sisters asked if the book is

Remembering Their Mothers

Mary was 7 when her mother died. Don was 8 when his died. Wilma was 12. Katharine was 17 when her mom died of lung cancer and leukemia and immediately she became the surrogate parent of her four younger siblings. The deaths of their mothers and how it affected them in their young lives was among the topics these individuals — now in their 70s, 80s and 90s — reflected on and included in their written life stories. Mary recalled that the songs sung at her mother’s funeral inclu

If Not Now, When?

Lou died last week. I am still in disbelief. After I wrote about her in a blog on Oct. 16 and linked it to my Facebook page, she commented: “Thanks for the story.” Her real name was Pat. She died at age 78 on the eve of Thanksgiving. I will be forever grateful that I got to work with her and that she affirmed for me the value of writing one’s stories — to the extent that she continued writing hers as long as she was physically able. She is my latest motivation for encouraging

Chemotherapy with A Side of Life Stories

In February, a woman from a neighboring town learned about my Life Stories classes and immediately expressed a strong interest in taking my next class. I was in the middle of two eight-week sessions at the time and didn’t know when I’d offer the next one. Sometime over the summer that woman — I’ll call her Lou — called to let me know she definitely wanted to take my class and didn’t want to fall through the cracks. “Writing my life story is on my bucket list,” she said. I alr

I Want to Know More

I am gearing up for fall Life Stories classes. This means I have times and locations set, and now I go through my list of prospective participants and start calling them to fill the seats. Yesterday I spoke with an 82-year-old man who lives in the same house he was born in (literally). I want to know more about his growing up there in the 1940s and later raising his six children there. He has "played music" for 60-some years. In the 1940s, before he was even a teenager, he ha

A Quote

“Your heartache is someone else’s hope. If you make it through, somebody else is going to make it through. Tell your story.” — Kim McManus #writing

Opportunities Lost

In early spring I committed to working on writing the life stories of an 89-year-old Indianapolis man. His relatives who were hiring me to do the work considered various ways to make it happen — including my making the 6-hour round trip to his home several times this summer to talk with him, his daughter-in-law asking him questions and videotaping his answers for me to work with, and his daughter-in-law and her mother writing down what they knew about him as a place for me

Days of Moonshine

My “Remember When…?” discussion group at a local nursing home wanted to talk about moonshine last month. Bootlegging in the middle of the last century also has been the topic of compelling conversation in some of my Life Stories classes. Knowing that their stills and unlawful production could be raided by excise police at any time, moonshiners in our rural county put some thought into concealing their work. But hiding jugs of corn liquor under floorboards in the barn or even

A Quote

“Like a friend said, it feels like a library burns down every time an elder dies.” — Jim Northrup, “Anishinaabe Syndicated” #writing

The Payoff

A few weeks ago I met one of my Life Stories participants at a local printer and handed over a stick drive with her stories on it. The employee quickly went over the binding options with Betty, who is 82, and then printed and bound the first copy. As Betty leafed through the pages, I commented that it always feels like Christmas to me when one of my clients is able to hold her completed stories in her hands. "My stomach is in my throat," Betty replied. After nine months of ha

Our Stories Best Survive Us in Writing

“I wish I’d have listened more,” my co-worker said, referring to her father’s oral stories about his military service during World War II. She knows he was married and had a 6-month-old son at the time he was drafted. He served for several — three? four? — years. She wishes she knew more. My father, too, served in World War II. Four months before he died (I didn’t know that at the time, of course), I asked him about his service and wrote down what he said: When he went to tak

What I Wore

These days find me sorting donations at the local St. Vincent de Paul store, and one day last week I came upon a large grocery bag filled with old clothing patterns. Butterick, Simplicity, McCall’s. Immediately, images surfaced of homemade clothing from my childhood, along with the memories surrounding them. For a special day of Head Start, Mom made for me what I always considered my “Cheerios” outfit — it was a pair of shorts and a sleeveless top made of bright yellow fabric

A Quote

“The greatest asset any old person has is his or her life experience. When you have the opportunity to interact with an old person, you should. Exploit that knowledge, hear their stories, learn by proxy the lessons they learned.” — Brian Sack, “In the Event of My Untimely Demise” #writing

Beatle Mania

After taking a nine-week Life Stories class, my groups continue meeting for six monthly follow-ups to share stories they have newly written and to be motivated to go home and write some more. In one of last week's follow-up groups, Nancy brought a scrapbook of Grand Canyon vacation photos to go with a recently written story. She carried the scrapbook in a Beatles tote, prompting a classmate to mention that her family had gotten a new color TV shortly before that February nigh

Living, and Dying, in Nursing Homes

A woman who enrolled in a Life Stories class in January 2016 enrolled for a second time last fall. She is serious about her writing and makes a point to send me her latest piece in the mail a few days in advance of our monthly follow-up sessions so I have time to edit it before we meet. The first time around, she wrote about her life in somewhat chronological fashion. This time around, she has been sharing her observations on a variety of topics — modern technology, flower ga