November is National Life Writing Month. While many writers are participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), you can start writing your own life stories and/or those of your family’s. Thanksgiving is a time for family gatherings, but this year those gatherings will either be a lot smaller or done online, thanks to the rampant COVID-19. Whenever or however you are with family, that’s a good time to share stories. Maybe you’re lucky to have an elder grandparent or two to go way back in time – they are reservoirs of lived history and the culture of the times.
My dad and stepmom downsized this month from a big home to a little senior community apartment—thanks to hours of exhausting and dusty help from my sister and stepbrother. I was there a summer ago to at least start them off, seeing how things would have to (literally) go sooner or later. The trauma of dealing with a homestead jammed full of stuff got my sister and I to start to downsize ourselves, to avoid leaving our kids with a mess. Ha! That’s going slowly but surely, though.
My older daughter and her husband are flying in the week of Thanksgiving to visit his and then our family. We haven’t seen them in over a year but I will try not to get too close to them and will have disinfectant wipes on hand. I will, however, get my two girls together to point out some of my things that have stories attached to them, so those stories don’t get lost and so my girls can let me know which things they would like to inherit. Their great-grandma Grace’s beautiful rose china or some of her miscellaneous pretty cups and saucers? Antique furniture and kitchen items from when we lived in the UK? Can I sell any Japanese items at the next Japanese Festival?
Don’t wait until too late to pass down the stories—of your things as well as life. Life is difficult now, but we have many blessings and stories to appreciate.
While looking at some of the blogs I follow, I discovered Sharon Lippincott wrote about saving the stories of things! Check out what you can do: Stories Instead of Stuff
Avoid writing one-dimensional characters. That is an important piece of advice for writers. No one is all good—or all bad. One-dimensional characters are unrealistic and shallow. You want complex characters to make the story interesting. For memoir writers, don’t write yourself or others as perfect and therefore unrelatable, predictable, boring. At the other end of the spectrum, painting someone who wronged you as all bad can backfire—revenge writing can make you look bad yourself. Complaining relentlessly about some completely terrible person makes for tedious reading, and we know there are two sides, two perspectives to every story. We don’t want caricatures, we want to read about real people who have been affected by their past experiences, who have learned thought and behavior patterns, who are complicit in relationships. What is the whole story?
During this turbulent and stressful year of COVID-19, protests and rioting, divisive leadership, and contentious elections, many of us have discovered some shockingly unpleasant truths about our friends and acquaintances. This year has brought out the worst in people. How can they believe that?! How can they think like that?! How rude, how disgusting! We had no idea that some of our friends were such awful people. But are they? We thought most of them were just fine before, or we would not be friends with them in the first place.
While we are an extremely divided people these days, we have to remember that the characters of our friends, our family members—and most everyone, including ourselves—are neither all good nor all bad. I hope we can still see the goodness that resides even in people we strongly disagree with, even if we have discovered they have “evil” within. I hope we don’t put friends or family members into their own little boxes and check them off. If we do not see the humanity in each other, we will surely destroy our country. No amount of flag waving will save us.
Last week I learned the Battlefield Doc had passed away. I had been unable to reach him at the Veteran’s Home and my fear had come true. Fortunately, his longtime friend and Power of Attorney was able to be with Doc during his last breaths as he faded gently away from being worn out after 90 years, and being locked into the care home with no visitors allowed had been difficult and lonely for him.
Doc and I worked together for three years turning his notes into a readable memoir, capturing combat and stealth missions and frontline lifesaving experiences from this old “forgotten war.” Even though he was just a few years older than my dad, Doc became my adopted grandfather. Working on that memoir and going on book signings was the highlight of his last years. He felt proud that people—strangers even—wanted to read his stories and then were amazed by them, and he loved reading his Amazon reviews.
Doc got no honors, no medals for his bravery under fire and lifesaving skills thanks to the gruff sergeant at his exit interview who stated “medics don’t deserve any medals, you were doing your job.” Doc himself denied any heroics and had previously kept his military experiences hidden, but he was pleased to finally have his combat service recognized and honored by other than a letter from the president of South Korea. I was the one upset he had not been given any kind of award or medal. Even his records had been destroyed in a big fire at the local military records center.
Working with someone else to help them write their stories is a beautiful way to honor their life. Someone cares enough to ask them questions, someone wants to hear their stories and thinks they are important—important enough that they want to help write them down to save. While they may distrust that the experiences of “common people” are important, you are saving lived history and culture in a way that textbooks cannot do. Not only is that valuable history, it is a gift to the family so they will always know their ancestors and will know their roots and the experiences that helped form them and in turn helped form the next generation.
Taking the time to ask about an older person’s early life—priceless! For both of you.
Rest in well-deserved peace for a life lived well, Doc. We have your stories.