D-Day and More: Keeping the Memories Alive

The 75th anniversary of D-Day brings up an important point: with the survivors of this heroic but tragic history disappearing every day, who will be left to tell their stories? The history books will give basic information, but it’s the personal stories that give life in blood-red color as to what really happened. The stories are what give us pause—to be astonished, horrified, angry, but also to be inspired by strength, persistence, and courage. They show us the best – and worst – of humanity. Stories are more interesting than timelines and strategy and they teach us lessons and an appreciation for what others sacrificed for us. They make an impression and stick in our minds. In history classes, teachers would do well to require students to read memoirs, to drive home the reality and effects of what they are studying.

I hope you are writing the stories of your own family members—or even yourself. This honors those who have lived—or died—through difficult times, or even just through interesting times. These are your people, so if you don’t write who they were and what they lived through, in a couple generations it will be as though they never existed—just a name, perhaps with rumors attached. Worse, as for the Holocaust, once the survivors are gone from this earth, then the deniers can more easily run rampant, trying to change history, losing any lessons learned while desecrating the lives lost. Perhaps you’ve heard that saying that when a person dies, a library is lost. And that a person dies twice: once in physical death, and again when his stories are no longer remembered.

Normandy American Cemetery

Normandy American Cemetery


Remembering D-Day and Memorial Day

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Memoir: Your Journey, an Inheritance

Now what? Last week I attended our county library’s author event with Dani Shapiro, whose latest book is Inheritance: A memoir of genealogy, paternity, and love. The room was packed, all to hear her fascinating story of shocking discovery through DNA testing, and how that affected her concept of who she was. Dani is a blonde, raised by dark-haired Jewish parents and steeped in Jewish traditions. Yes, now what?

Dani Shapiro’s story is a whole ‘nother perspective from that of adoptees who feel a deep need to find their biological parents, to help them make sense of themselves by where they came from and what happened (and to know their medical histories). What if your father was a sperm donor, as Dani discovered hers was? (No one has mentioned the issue of egg donors yet.) These donors were promised anonymity, as were parents who gave their children up for adoption, but for them there likely will never be an “opt in” box to check if they want to know who they fathered. And now there is that DNA testing by Ancestry.com, 23andMe, and other companies that will reveal the unknown, and secrets that possibly may ruin lives if told.

What if you discover, like a Chicago woman in the news today, that you have 15 half siblings thanks to your sperm donor father? Do you expect to have relationships with relatives whose only connection is having a father who did not want to know about them? Maybe they don’t even know and you will shock them. With DNA testing, even if you did not submit a test yourself, you can be found, like it or not, if any of your relatives have done the testing. Crime labs are using these genetic databases to solve murders sometimes decades old (recently, Myoung Hwa Cho and son Robert Whitt). Dani found her biological father within 36 hours, with some help from social media, too.

Dani’s memoir promises to be a fascinating one. She already was a memoir writer, and suddenly she had a really good reason to write another. Despite all her memoirs, Dani said she doesn’t have a good memory! But, some experiences she remembers with sharp clarity, like when her mother casually mentioning to a stranger that Dani was conceived in a Philadelphia institute. Dani had her life narrative crushed, and she had to analyze it and make adjustments. Her advice to other memoir writers:

“Don’t write what happened. Write the journey.”


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War Stories: They Shall Not Grow Old

What is the message of the documentary They Shall Not Grow Old? There is no plot, no storyline, no main character, no moral to the story. Instead, filmmaker Peter Jackson, of Lord of the Rings fame, champions the importance of storytelling. Real-life storytelling.

They Shall Not Grow Old is not your usual documentary explaining the history of something or someone with some quotes and commentary added in. It goes beyond a Ken Burns documentary that has a lot of quotes and commentary along with history. Peter Jackson chose to make this film all about personal experiences. Human nature dooms us to fight repeated wars, and violent shows make for popular entertainment, but let’s understand the reality of what goes on at the front lines—and afterwards for those who survive.

Kudos to the BBC for conducting interviews with WWI veterans—the last one died in 2012. Only their families are left to repeat the stories, if they even know them. At the end of the film is a long list of the elder British veterans whose interview clips basically narrate the documentary. They told intimate details about their training, what they wore, what they ate, what the trenches were like, how they went to the “bathroom,” what being surrounded by death was like, how they reacted to the end of the war, and what happened when they went home. What they thought and felt.

The film clips are amazing, not just for what they show but for how they have been restored to better than they ever were. The men have become real! It is worth staying after the credits to hear Peter Jackson explain the challenges in making the film and show some before and after clips. At the very end he asks us to ask the questions. That is our responsibility to save lived history by asking the questions. Pass it on. Maybe write it down for safekeeping, or make a recording. Thank goodness for all the life writers and oral historians out there.

Related post: Memorial Day – All Quiet on the Western Front



Posted in capturing memories, history, honoring veterans, war stories | Tagged | 1 Comment