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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

Joan's Recipes

Joan, my mom’s cousin and a close family friend, was a great cook, and the sweet treats she made were ahhh-mazing. I remember from my childhood giant sweet rolls and braided pastries, and the aroma of cinnamon swirling about the small kitchen of her farmhouse. She was an arms-wide-open kind of woman, and one way she showed her love was through the foods she made. When Joan found out how much one of my friends loved a certain kind of dumpling, for example, she invited us to su

His Excuse Was Amnesia. What's Yours?

My Friday morning Life Stories classes meet in the library of the local senior center. During a class last week, a gentleman came in to drop off some books while one of the women in class was telling about an experience she had during a driving trip out West. When the woman finished talking, the man turned toward us from the stacks to share his own car story — about the time he proved his 1961 Ford could go 145 mph! I asked the man if he had ever written down any of his tales

Laughing While You Write

Writing your life story is an opportunity like no other to look back on and share funny moments. A 90-year-old client and I shared many laughs over this memory of hers: “Ever since I can remember, my mother raised chickens. I used to play with them when I was a girl. When I got tired of my brothers when we lived at the Lisman Place, I’d go out and sit on the roost and talk to Mom’s speckled Dominickers and Rhode Island Reds. “Sometimes I’d sit in a chicken nest — a tub with s

Bridging Generation Gaps

I’ve helped seniors write their life stories through which the writers’ grandchildren have learned that depression, heart disease and even green thumbs have run in their respective families for generations. A 95-year-old woman who wrote her story shared it with her son, a retired doctor. He loved it but asked her to please include one sentence about his grandfather dying of Hodgkin’s disease. He said that his mother mentioning it in her written story would be the surest way t

Don't Give In to Feeling Overwhelmed

These dreary winter days provide the perfect time to start writing your life stories. That is how I think of them, a succession of short accounts rather than one lonnnng story. Setting out to write multiple stories about different, even random, aspects of my life seems less overwhelming than planning to write my singular, definitive LIFE STORY. People who have heard me talk on this subject shared these suggestions for making the process even less daunting: 1. When sending a b

Making History Real

Life stories bring history home. They make history REAL. A couple of guys who were in one of my classes last year served our country in Vietnam. I learned more about the Vietnam War from these military veterans than I had ever known before. A 90-year-old woman whom I worked with last year lost her mother to tuberculosis when the girl was 7 years old; penicillin, which likely could have saved the mother, had been invented by then, but it was not yet in widespread use. That sam

Sharing to Help Others

At one level, your life story is not about you at all – but about how your experiences can help others. When I was diagnosed with cancer last year, it helped me to read about what others had experienced with the disease. I especially appreciated what friends and even strangers wrote in cards and emails about what they had gone through, giving me hope that I, too, would overcome the illness. My life stories include not only my firsthand knowledge about non-Hodgkin lymphoma but

Intergenerational Connections

Writing your life story isn’t about vanity or being egotistical. Rather, it is a way of connecting to future generations and connecting them to you. What would YOU give to read what your grandparents or great-grandparents had to say about their own lives and their experiences? One thing I ask class participants to do is look back on their life and write about their greatest challenge, who had the most influence on them, what they would do differently if they could, what advic

Avoid the Telephone Game

Writing your life story allows you to share it in your own words, from your own perspective. Are you familiar with the telephone game? Where one person whispers something to the next person, and that person whispers it to the next, and so on and so on until the last person in the circle hears it? That person then says aloud what she heard. If you’ve ever played that game, you know that what the last person heard is often way different than what the first person said! Writing

Um, It's Later Than You Think

It’s officially fall, and school is back in session. My Life Stories classes are back in session also. Hard to believe we’re already three weeks in on two of the classes and a third class will begin in just a couple of weeks! Two of the people who signed up a month in advance for my current morning class didn’t show up on Day One and since have informed me that their lives are busy right now and they don’t have time to take a class or write. I understand. Really, I do. Each

My Parents' Courtship

Ernest Rasche and Mary Ann Beckman started dating in 1944, the year before Ernest went into the Army. They never dated anyone but each other, and their interest in each other built gradually. Ernest and Mary Ann had an aunt and uncle in common: Mary Ann’s father was Tony, and his brother Joe married Ernest’s mother’s sister. Joe and his wife, Mary, had only one child, and as too many children did in a time when tuberculosis, diphtheria and whooping cough abounded, the girl di

Remembering My Father

Today, the 20-year anniversary of my father's death, finds me contemplating that my niece and nephew who will graduate from high school during the upcoming weeks never met their grandfather. My five younger nieces never met him either. How will they remember someone they never met? Only two generations, and his story could be lost... In my dad's honor, I excerpt here a piece that I wrote for my high school alumnae newsletter earlier this year about my second career: The seed

Of nature, telephones and ice cream

On the last day of my nine-week Life Stories classes, I generally ask the participants to share with the group something of what they have written. Well, another session ended this week and one participant shared how as she has gotten older she has come to appreciate how "surprisingly, breathtakingly, heart-stoppingly" beautiful nature is. She went on to describe the seasons and ended by citing "the riotous blaze of fall, which fades to the serenity and austerity of winter."

Generation to Generation

We're halfway through this round of Life Stories classes. On Day 1, a 72-year-old father of two said his children didn't know much about him. "Not that they couldn't; they just don't," he said. A 68-year-old mother of four said her husband told her, "Your kids don't really know you." At another location, a 75-year-old mother of four said, "I never really did talk to my children about my life. They know very little." It's four weeks later, and the 72-year-old man has found out

Another Christmas Memory

This story also was written by a Life Stories participant, Laverne Schuck, and shared by her at the county museum's Festival of Trees opening last year: I remember one December when it had snowed for days. It was difficult to get to the barn to milk the cows and take care of feeding the livestock. Mother told us that Santa Claus wasn't coming because of the roads being in such bad shape. We didn't want to believe that he wouldn't be coming. On Christmas the sun came out and t

Christmas in the '20s

I love an old-fashioned Christmas story. This is part of one written in one of my classes by Anna Kern and shared by her at the opening of the Dubois County Museum’s Festival of Trees in 2014: When I was a young girl, I used to make divinity and fudge with my mom each year on a Sunday in December. Divinity is a light candy made of egg whites beat to perfection. With no electric mixer to help ease the job, my mom and I mixed by hand. We always wore aprons, made of feed sacks o

Stories Multiply

About four years ago, I started taking harmonica lessons from a local woman who is now 91 years old. She enjoys playing the nursing home circuit, so we generally do that a couple of times a year. (This fall we added a third member who plays not only the harmonica but also the banjo, guitar, accordion, violin, flute, clarinet, keyboard, percussion and much more — so our performances have gotten a lot more spirited!) This past Sunday, we played at a nursing home where I led Li

Another Mary

I've been helping Mary write her life story since last fall. She has done the writing; I have done the typing along with some rearranging and editing. This morning I delivered her story to her for final proofreading. Mary has had a number of jobs during her lifetime, and 1960 found her working in a local factory where women routinely were paid 25 cents an hour less than men for doing the same job. Mary, who had several children, let her boss know her husband was disabled (he

Telling Mary's Story

Sometimes I forget how much I love the writing part of telling people's life stories. After the interviews are substantially complete and transcribed, I generally study my notes and order them in some fashion. Then I sit down and have a wonderful time turning notes into story. That is what I've been doing the past couple of days, feeling all the more productive because I started the interviews in January, got waylaid by cancer in Februarey, resumed work in July and then got w