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Each of us has a story to tell. Where we’ve been, what we’ve learned, what we’ve become, our values, our manners, our actions, our beliefs, our faults, and our strengths are all part of our legacy.
How much do we really know about our own parents or children and their lives? Sure, we grew up together, but was there time and energy for others to share more? Did they not think their stories worth telling? Were they afraid to do so? Did they know how to? Were they more comfortable speaking to you in a language other than English and therefore more reticent to share of themselves? Maybe they only need some prodding or interest from you to get started.
The Importance of Sharing Our Lives
Ruth Manning, editor of “American Mother” magazine, asked 50 mothers what they really knew about their own mothers and fathers. After moments of thoughtful silence, most said, “In truth, not very much.” Now is the time to share our lives before our stories are lost.
In all honesty, I never sat down with my own parents to record their lives, and now, it’s too late as their stories are lost forever. I’m saddened that all I have are snippets of oft-repeated, isolated memories, but I so wished I had asked my mother how she met my father, if she had a difficult pregnancy and birth with me, if I was breastfed, how long I took to be potty-trained, if I was a difficult child to raise, how I adjusted to kindergarten, how I got along with my siblings and peers, what I most valued, my habits, my likes, and my early beliefs.
I could have asked my mother about her early memories on the farm, her family, her engagement, her wedding, her first car, her faith, her spirituality, her desire for a career, her hopes and dreams for the future, and the lessons she learned from living almost 80 years. One could be asking one’s own children what they remember of their youth, lessons you taught them, moments they still recall with joy, or memories they will carry with them about you.
Years ago, when I was a secondary English teacher, I required students to write a dedication piece to their parents and, in turn, I asked parents to write an appreciation piece to their children. On the last day of school each year, the written pieces were exchanged, and always, there was not a dry eye in my classroom. Overwhelmingly, the reaction would be, “I never knew my parents felt that way about me,” and the parents would respond in kind.
In addition, one of the most powerful intergenerational writing projects we completed during the year was for the parent and the child to write their autobiographies together. Interestingly, some of the students’ works added up to be over 100 pages long even though they had only lived 15 years. But they included awards, photos, letters and souvenirs from their school lives.
Years later, I hear from both former students and their parents that this is the one school project they not only saved but passed down to their own children and grandchildren. Once a comfortable format was established, the parents too shared parts of their lives that their own children never knew or thought to ask about.
Another noteworthy project is that I took teenagers into area nursing homes where we recorded the lives of many residents and gave that record, both written and videotaped, to the residents’ families, many of whom lived far away and had neither the time nor any motivation to sit with their family members and record their lives, secrets, dreams, desires and moments of pain and pleasure. When we presented the stories to the children, they were most appreciative that they now had some record of their parents’ lives to hold on to and pass to their own children.
You may ask why all this is so important. Let me share with you a true, personal story. When I taught, I would assign students to write a tribute with a personal story and letter of thanks to one or both of their parents. The completed paper was boxed and wrapped. Then, I asked parents to do likewise about their child and they sent it to me in a sealed envelope to be read by the student on the final day of class. One year, the unexpected happened. I received this letter from a student’s father upon my return from winter recess:
Dear Mrs. Megyeri,
Christopher’s mother passed away unexpectedly in her sleep on Christmas Eve. Chris and I are obviously devastated by the loss of his mother and my wife of 27 years. I would like to thank you in advance for taking into account his feelings during this most difficult time. The tribute that Chris wrote to his mom as your class assignment on December 21, almost four days before her death, so moved her that she wrote a tribute back to him.
At her funeral service this past Tuesday, the minister read both Chris’ tribute to his mom and her tribute back to him. This was a very moving moment for me, and I thank you for assigning this. Little did I know it would be needed so soon.
The point I’m trying to make is that not only must we pay tribute to our loved ones, but each of us needs to create a memory book for our children. In order to preserve your ethnic heritage, your love for perhaps your second language, special moments, remembered recipes, oft-repeated phrases, treasured folk songs, family traditions, wedding customs, burial sites, insight into your personality and religious beliefs, you need to share it with your family now. If not, much will be lost, and as I’ve learned from my own father, time clouds even the most vivid of recollections.
If you desire guide questions that promote recall, discussion and elicit memories, moments and details that could be written down and given to your children for a lasting gift that will be treasured in years to come, consider the following:
- What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest?
- Who was the most important person in your life? Can you tell me about him or her?
- Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did that person teach you?
- Who has been the kindest to you in your life?
- What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?
- What are you proudest of in your life?
- Are there any words of wisdom you’d like to pass along?
- How has your life been different than what you’d imagined?
- How would you like to be remembered?
- Do you have any regrets?
- Is there something you’ve never told others but would want to share now?
- Is there something about me that you’ve always wanted to know but have never asked?
Then, in your own handwriting, perhaps in a journal or in a letter, written in English or in a second language, you could comfortably address topics about your early life and background, your own home and family, your friends, your education, your values and beliefs, your hopes and dreams for the future, and even offer advice or share lessons you have learned about life.
You needn’t worry about grammar or historical accuracy or input from others….it’s the real YOU that other loved ones want to remember. I assure you that this record of your life would be the most valued gift you could bestow on your family members. The story of your life is indeed your finest legacy.