I watched as an old woman entered the room, leaning heavily on her cane. Although each step seemed to be a huge effort, her sagging figure was elegantly dressed, and her face, a road map of wrinkles, tastefully made up. She sat heavily in a seat near the door, in the front row, not far from where I stood, waiting to present a book talk about The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing.
I begin these programs by asking everyone why they are interested in writing their lifestories. I get a variety of predictable responses: “I have a few memories I want to write down for my kids” ... “I do genealogy and want to write about my family” ... “My children are on my case to write things down” ... “I’ve had some experiences I learned a lot from that may help other people.” These are all good reasons to write.
This woman had a new one, and it brought down the house. “I want my grandchildren to know I wasn’t always old!”
Her comment resonated with us all and led to an animated discussion of the way children think of anyone who isn’t free to roam around and play all day as old. How hard for them to imagine that we once saw shapes in clouds and marveled at bugs crawling across a dandelion bloom. Or that we played tag with our friends and told secrets on sleepovers or agonized over dropping the ball at second base. Or that we could ride our bikes across town when we were twelve or hang out in the woods with our friends with no adult around.
What can we do to remedy this?
WRITE ABOUT IT!
Write about those clouds and agonies and all the fun things we did. You don’t have to write long, involved stories. Write random memory paragraphs for now. Use these tips to get started:
- Make a story idea list specifically for childhood memories. Include sensory elements like the feel of the wind on your face, the way your dark hair felt scorchingly hot to the touch on a sunny day, the scent of lilacs or pine sap on warm days, how your fingers went numb building snow forts.
Or just start writing and let it all flow out as it will. Then go back and fill in the blanks. There is no “right” way to write this stuff.
- List both friends and foes. All kids have both friends and people who irritate them. These people may be other kids or adults – teachers for example. Write short stories about these people.
- Include elements of daily life. How did you get to school? Did you really walk three miles through three feet of snow, uphill both ways? Did you walk alone or with friends or siblings? Did you ride a bus for an hour?
- What did you eat and wear? The average American diet has changed dramatically over the last fifty or seventy years. Do your grandchildren know about canned Spam? And wearing suspenders with flannel lined jeans that had matching flannel shirts?
- Tell about your toys. Yoyos, jacks and jump ropes may seem exotic today. What about soapbox derby cars? Clamp-on roller skates with keys? Your favorite dolls or toy cars or cowboy guns?
- Include a mix of triumphs and disappointments. It’s okay to brag, especially about childhood exploits. Especially if you balance this with remembering when you didn’t get the part in the play, that cute girl turned you down for prom, or your third-grade teacher unfairly kept you after school for passing notes when it was really someone else.
- Take them to school with you. Don’t just tell about school. Show them the school. Use dialogue. Show them what the room looked like. Let them tag along to art class or assembly. And definitely take them along to recess!
- Write about your own grandparents. Tell how you thought they were old and all the things you did with the.
This list could include at least 100 more items. I hope it gets your imagination flowing and your fingers moving. If you need help with details about toys, games, or anything else, Google is your friend.
It’s fine to make an anthology of random loose pieces. And, after you have a couple of hundred short-short flash memoir stories, you may find a way to string them together into a cohesive memoir. Either way, your descendants will love this legacy.
Write now: Get those fingers moving and let your grandchildren know you weren’t always old!