I’m a contemporary romance author, but at one point I considered trying a story set during WWII. My 85 year old mother-in-law is the only remaining family member from that generation so I called and asked her to write down things she could recall from living through the war.Somewhere in our conversation she either misunderstood or simply changed her mind because instead of telling me about the 40s she started writing her life story. It turned out to be one of the sweetest blessings of my life.
My mother-in-law has always talked freely about her life growing up in small rural town in Ohio, one of eight children from parents of Hungarian descent. This memoir however was full of new insights into her life that surprised and delighted us all. When I got her forty pages, handwritten on spiral notebook paper, I called her and she explained that she was unable to sleep one night and just started writing about her life. The more she wrote the more she enjoyed remembering. I told her I would type it up, edit it, then send her several copies. But as I typed a wonderful thing happened. The words were so true to her, so typical of how she would speak that I couldn’t bring myself to make it all pretty and proper. Reading it in her words was like sitting beside her and listening to her tell the story. I did correct spelling, double check street names, and names of friends, but basically I printed it as she wrote it. We designed a cover – a picture of our gazebo which is her favorite place to sit – then placed the pages in a small three ring notebook and sent them to her.
What a treasure those few pages turned out to be. Our family will forever have her story at our finger tips. A glimpse into another era, to the person she was beyond Mom, Grandma and Great Grandma.
Mom’s mother was colorful Hungarian woman who told wonderful stories about growing up as an immigrant. Over the years various family members promised to write down her stories, or get her to tell them into a recorder, but sadly no one ever did. Now she’s gone and so are the stories. My parents are both gone and I can no longer go to them and ask questions about relatives or about their childhood. Fortunately, we have diaries and journals that my mother kept but nothing from my dad.
As writers we need to find time to capture these pieces of family history before it’s too late and encourage our older relatives to write down their past. A few things I’ve learned about getting relatives to participate - don’t give them a fancy journal to write in. They’ll be reluctant to mess it up and the pretty pages can be intimidating, making them feel they need to write a proper book. Better to give them a small spiral notebook and a pen. Start on a holiday and ask them to write down special memories from that day. No need to worry about nice sentences, or starting at the beginning of their life. That too can be daunting.
Once you start collecting those precious moments of their lives you’ll have a family treasure you will cherish for generations. Don’t put it off. Time is rushing away. I’m starting my own personal remembrance file today.
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