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 unreliable memory, 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, traveled, 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 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 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 whoever 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. Ancestry.com 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 the 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.

The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer’s by Jeanne Murray Walker | A Review

Award-winning poet Jeanne Murray Walker tells an extraordinarily wise, witty, and quietly wrenching tale of her mother’s long passage into dementia. This powerful story explores parental love, profound grief, and the unexpected consolation of memory. While Walker does not flinch from the horrors of “the ugly twins, aging and death,” her eye for the apt image provides a window into unexpected joy and humor even during the darkest days.

This is a multi-layered narrative of generations, faith, and friendship. As Walker leans in to the task of caring for her mother, their relationship unexpectedly deepens and becomes life-giving. Her mother’s memory, which more and more dwells in the distant past, illuminates Walker’s own childhood. She rediscovers and begins to understand her own past, as well as to enter more fully into her mother’s final years.

THE GEOGRAPHY OF MEMORY is not only a personal journey made public in the most engaging, funny, and revealing way possible, here is a story of redemption for anyone who is caring for or expecting to care for ill and aging parents-and for all the rest of us as well.

(Synopsis and image via Goodreads)

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My Thoughts:

The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage through Alzheimer’shas been in my to be read stack for far too long. Personal family matters perhaps caused me to keep shoving it to the lower depths of the book pile. For some reason, a few days ago I decided it was time to dig in and read this memoir by Jeanne Murray Walker.

Despite the heaviness of the subject — dementia and Alzheimer’s — Walker has woven family experiences, stories and the deterioration of her mother’s memory with a thread of humor and wit that is not disparaging to anyone in her memoir and which lightens many moments for her readers. These diseases are difficult ones to read about, but here the author has used the differing opinions of two generations on current issues to recreate memories that have long since slipped away.

To say I loved this book is easy despite having just lost a family member to a vicious and rarely heard of form of dementia. Jeanne Murray Walker has taken the gradual slipping away of her mother and created a dance between the two women and Walker’s sister that transforms the role of caregiver into something almost magical. She reminds us that we’re all going to travel this road, if not specifically, tangentially. Each of us will lose something with the passing years and waging a battle against whatever that loss is, we will become defiant, at times irrational, and most of all, angry.

Walker has mastered her story so well that her reader is swept up into the action, characters, and momentum immediately. I had a constant battle with putting this book down to get something else done.

Kudos to Jeanne Murray Walker on a stellar depiction of life in the changing roles of generations in order for the usually cared for child to become the one caring for a parent and vice versa.

My Recommendation:

I highly recommend this book for anyone caring for someone else, whether it is a parent, other family member, or a friend. Walker’s snapshots of the difficult times will make you see that despite these, there will also be moments of sunshine and laughter, and most importantly, the regeneration of memories shared with this person years and years ago.

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Meet Jeanne Murray Walker:

Jeanne Murray Walker’s poems and essays have appeared in seven books as well as many periodicals, including Poetry, The Georgia Review, American Poetry Review, Image, The Atlantic Monthly, and Best American Poetry. Among her awards are an NEA Fellowship, eight Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowships, and a Pew Fellowship in The Arts. She is Professor of English at The University of Delaware as well as a mentor in the Seattle Pacific University Low Residency MFA Program. In her spare time Jeanne gardens, cooks, and travels.

Check out Jeanne’s website at http://www.jeannemurraywalker.com/.

(Image and bio via Goodreads)

Book Details:
Publisher: Center Street
Published: September 3rd 2013
Kindle Edition: 368 pages
ASIN: B00FOW9SWA

Disclaimer:

I received a copy of The Geography of Memory from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. The opinions expressed here are solely my own.