Short Nonfiction Essay with Bonus | 7 Tips for Preserving Family Memories

Today I am sharing with you a recent experience which started my husband and me thinking. Thinking about family, memories, storytelling, and how to share that history with the next generation. On the Meyer side of our family, the work is somewhat up-to-date. But who will carry the torch after our generation is gone? Our generation is slipping away slowly one by one. What about your family history?

“She isn’t the sister I knew,” my husband says when he returns from driving his sister, Mary Ellen, home after lunch.

I don’t know what to say. I understand what his words mean. I still don’t know what to say.

This is the second sibling I have heard him make this comment about, the other a brother who died almost two years ago.

“As long as you can remember the good times, the days in Outlook, Mary Ellen seems to have good recall.” Words I use to encourage him.

In fact it happened over lunch.

When Bob arrived to pick Mary Ellen up and bring her to our home, she asked her now routine question, “Have you been here before?”

And the answer is always yes as one of us visits weekly, if not more. Since her assisted living community is only eight blocks away, we often make it our daily walk to visit.

But her short-term memory has lost its bearings.

We visit for a time, and then lunch calls us. It is our first time to sit with only the three of us around the table. Mary Ellen’s husband died a couple of months ago, and her move near us and a nephew is relatively recent.

We join hands for grace. Her skin has the feel of thin paper, and her hands are cold. It’s in the upper 80s outside.

We chat amiably while eating. Mary Ellen jokes about her memory being unreliable, and we commiserate that our collective memories aren’t much better some days.

Bob recalls receiving an invitation recently from their grade school in Outlook, WA, a tiny space in the road in the Yakima Valley. He mentions the name of the woman who sent it and with whom he has talked. He asks Mary Ellen if she remembers Dorothy Cullen from their grade school days.

She looks up and furrows her brow. Finally she says she doesn’t, her now nearly gone eyesight trying to focus on him.

And then she says, “Oh, there was a Dorothy Ross in Outlook.”

Yes, this was the woman Bob was talking about but he had used her married name since he couldn’t think of her maiden name.

That recalled memory is from decades ago, but our visits with Mary Ellen recently have only been in the last two months. She doesn’t remember us visiting or others calling or coming by. She doesn’t remember her husband is dead.

We sit later that day talking about family and memories. Bob and I know with certainty that we too are growing older daily, and our memories aren’t always as sharp as they used to be.

Mary Ellen is the oldest of the six Meyer siblings and the genealogist in the family. She has researched, travelled, and visited with family members all over New England and the Midwest. Her travels include trips to cemeteries, old schools and churches, and the family history we have is amazing.

Not only that, Mary Ellen, a retired school teacher, is among the best storytellers in the family. Up until her now, her mind was never faulty on a single detail about farm life, grade school teachers, preachers in the country church, music lessons, and life in tiny Outlook, WA.

But this record keeper and researcher is nearly blind, her mind is failing, and she turns 90 in a few weeks. Who will take up the torch and tread the course in keeping the family history and the stories moving generation to generation?

We haven’t been the best stewards of the Meyer history. At least the record of the Meyer clan is in many hands now, thanks to the Internet. But will it continue to spread as our family continues to grow?

We encourage our children to slow down, make treasured memories, memories that will last, and to write them down for future generations to read and share on and on. And we ask them to make sure they label photos on their Smartphones and computers with names, dates, places so someone will know a bit of the story held in the images decades from now.

Otherwise, a family’s legacy can be lost in time and age.

A few tips readily came to mind in keeping the family history alive as Bob and I talked:

  1. Take advantage of every family gathering by encouraging a time for storytelling and sharing experiences and have someone take notes.
  2. Make sure you keep up a family record of births, deaths, and weddings. This information will be helpful to whomever is in charge of maintaining the family genealogy.
  3. Mark photos with names, dates, places, occasions, and any other information benefit recall. Stories can be written from photos as the images are great triggers for recall and memory.
  4. Take advantage of state and county records in researching family records.
  5. Sites now exist that are also helpful in researching family records. recently helped me uncover information on my father’s family; with three children tragically ending up in an orphanage in the early 1900s, I had almost given up hope of finding anything. Other genealogical sites include: US GenWeb Project, US National Archives, Genealogy Today, US Census Records, Ellis Island Records, and Family Search (large database sponsored by the Mormon Church).
  6. When a family member passes on, and if you are able to do so, hang on to every slip of paper you might find among the individual’s effects. Recently, a search of the unemployment records in Nashville, TN for the years 1944-45 helped me confirm some information about my parents. I had found discharge slips issued to my parents from the same employer on the same date among my mother’s effects. But something just didn’t seem right. I checked and found I could get access to certain information about their unemployment. And I was right — my father’s service terminated a month after my mother’s.
  7. And lastly, I know that Mary Ellen was not shy about writing letters to people who had a similar last name and lived in an area where other family members had once lived, or who might have arrived at Ellis Island with ancestors, and these contacts provided information she might not have uncovered otherwise.

It is never too late to begin tracking your family’s history. Whether you think you are a writer or not, you can write stories in a journal, on your computer, in a notebook, or by any method you choose.

Then pass what you have on to the next generation by sharing it with them from time to time so questions can be asked and answered. Leave it somewhere so when you are no longer around, it will be easily found and handed off to a family member.

This post isn’t intended to be about doom and gloom, but last Thursday’s lunch brought out the importance of what would happen to the Meyer family history now that Mary Ellen is no longer able to be the keeper of the work she so lovingly provided for us.

The tips here are some used in my research and gathered in talking with Mary Ellen over the years. I wanted to share this personal time in our life to provide, I hope, a clear picture of the importance of storytelling in the present.

17 thoughts on “Short Nonfiction Essay with Bonus | 7 Tips for Preserving Family Memories

  1. Excellent post. I was checking continuously this blog and I am impressed!Very useful information specially the last part 🙂 I care for
    such information a lot. I was seeking this certain information for a very long time.
    Thank you and best of luck.

  2. Sherrey. This post was written in a very caring, helpful way. I would also suggest to new folks gathering family history, to make copies of everything that you can, and keep it with trusted family, or other separate location. By sharing your experiences, you remind us all of the treasures of family history that we may be missing.P

    1. Good point, Patti, on the extra copies in another location. Family history is as important as your most important financial/legal documents. 🙂

  3. Sherrey, I don’t see this reminder as gloom and doom. It’s realistic. Some find great pleasure and satisfaction in tracking down that info. I think some are called to do this, just as others are called to write. My family is full of geneaolgy sleuths in each generation, so I hand off whatever I find to my daughter-in-law, cousin and old cousins of my mom. They keep the different strands organized and current. Hooray for them!

    1. Sharon, thanks for the comment on my “doom and gloom” comment. Some people have a way of thinking about these topics as such and I should have remembered this is my blog and therefore I don’t have to apologize for my topics. 🙂 I like that you are able to hand off information and someone else keeps the “different strands organized and current.”

  4. Excellent tips. I have joined a memoir writing group, where many of the participants are over 80. Amazing lives they have lead. I find that my children, despite my explanation, do not really understand why I talk about preserving memories of their days. But, I know that I was not thinking that way either earlier in life. One day, when I am gone, they will appreciate all the effort it took to preserve their lives, and our heritage, in as many ways as possible. And, they will be so glad I did.

    1. Wendy, you speak volumes in your comments. The aging seniors around us have so much to share, and encouraging our children to share becomes a bit of hard work. It seems we are sandwiched between those who fear not sharing their stories and those who fear that it will mean extra work for them in their busy lives. Did we teach our children to be this way, or has it just happened? I don’t know. I do know that I hope your children appreciate the work you are doing to preserve your heritage in so many ways. Kudos to you!

  5. Sherrey, I love this post. Since I started writing a family history blog, I have had so many people share information and photos about/of my family and it has enriched the way I think of my background, my family. But I still think there is so much from my own parents I don’t know. Then I realize I don’t even know how my grandparents met, things like that.

    1. Luanne, I’m so glad you liked this post, I mean loved it! That was stunning in fact. I truly believe our parents were a generation of very private people for some reason. I don’t know if it was the impact of WWII and the Korean War plus the Depression or not, but my parents were the same. I have one set of grandparents I can’t find all the information about, my dad’s parents. Feels like a piece of the puzzle is missing and may never be found. I’d forgotten about your interest in family history. Glad you came by!

      1. Well, I have become much less of a private person because of social media (including blogging!). Our world has changed a great deal.

  6. My family was lucky—my mother decided in the 1990s to create a thorough genealogy of her family, and she spent close to 10 years pouring through online records, genealogy sites on the Internet, and contacting people who might be related to create a family tree that goes back to the 1700s (at least for a few branches). When she died, she left boxes of photos for me to sort through one day, but sadly, there is no one left to tell the stories that go with them.

    1. The family history Mary Ellen compiled for the Meyer family goes back to Germany in the 1600s. Amazing! We are currently, with the help of the nephew, sorting through others things like photos. We too don’t know the stories that should accompany those photos. Here’s to doing a better job before we’re too old to pass it on.

  7. Our family’s Mary Ellen is my Aunt Ruthie, about whom I have written many blog posts. She can’t be cared for at home any more (her and our preference) and she is confused about the here and now, but she is still sharp in many ways. Last month I took a photo of 2 entries in her journal (imagine that!) in which she wrote in a faltering hand: “Home and Fritzie [her dog] would be the best medicine for me.”
    Thanks for the links to family ancestry. You are always a fount of knowledge, Sherrey.

    1. Marian, it is so hard when our loved ones need to be cared elsewhere rather than at home. In our family, it is home we all cling to for those last years, months, days, but it isn’t always intended to be so. I teared up reading her journal entry.
      I hope the links will prove productive; I intend to use some myself!

  8. O my, Sherrey, we don’t realise do we, until it’s too late.This is very poignant … thank you. And a timely reminder how life slips by so fast it seems, and we realise the value of story telling. Such an ancient tradition .. and so valuable.
    I so loved the quotes of Doris Lessing and Ahmed Hosseini. Thank you.

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