No matter how old you are, it’s time to tell your story, not only for your children and grandchildren, but for the historians of the future. Here are some tips to help you get started (and if you have an elderly relative, I’ve included advice about how to preserve their memories as well.)
Whenever I do a book signing, I am approached by people who say regretfully: “If only I had asked my parents (or grandparents) more questions. Now it’s too late.”
Well, it’s not too late for some people, although the clock is ticking. For that reason, I urge EVERYONE to tell their story.
If you don’t, your own child will be asking someday: “Why didn’t I ask Mum about that when she was still alive?”
Here’s my best piece of advice: DO IT NOW. A stroke, a fall, or a sudden illness can end any possibility of recording your loved one’s memories, or your own.
Tell Your Story: Age Doesn’t Matter
I had lunch recently with an indigenous man who is planning to write his memoir. He’s only forty-three, but he has had a wealth of interesting experience: growing up on a reserve, and working for his tribal council. He has a perspective that many people would find fascinating (including his own ten-year-old son –– maybe not now, but someday for sure).
Even people in their forties and fifties have a very different life than their children – growing up without cell phones or internet, for example.
And anyone over sixty has experienced some major global events. For example, my 74-year-old husband was only twelve years old when the Berlin Wall went up – one block away from his home! Millions of people are still alive who remember that day, but his perspective is unique. That’s why I interviewed him here: In the Shadow of the Wall.
Tell Your Story: Where to Begin
For most people, it’s easier to start with your childhood.
Start a clean page by recording when and where you were born, and the names of your parents and grandparents. Just assembling the bare facts can get the first few paragraphs down on paper. Even that much is useful for future genealogists, since many people don’t even know the full names and birthdates of their own grandparents. If you have more information about them, so much the better!
Tell Your Story: Bird by Bird
If writing your whole life story is intimidating, do it a few paragraphs at a time.
I love the writing manual called Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. The title comes from her childhood, when she had to do a school project on birds, and didn’t know where to start. Her father said: “Annie, just write it bird by bird.”
Tell Your Story: The Big Events
Now skip ahead to the big events of your life.
For example, what was your first job? How did you meet your spouse? When was your first child born? You can write about the big moments of your life separately, and string them together later.
Tell Your Story: Eye on History
Recall your unique perspective on historical events. Remember, you are a part of living history.
Sure, millions of people were alive when Kennedy was shot, but where were you? Do you remember seeing The Beatles for the first time?
My husband’s story is a good example, but you don’t need to have been present at the big global events of history. You have your own perspective.
Local events, too, are part of history. Old-timers around here still talk about the time a transport truck ended up in Radium Hot Springs swimming pool!
Tell Your Story: Up Close and Personal
Even the most mundane events (to us) will take on significance after we are gone.
Do you remember getting your first vaccination at school? What about your first airplane ride? Your first computer? When you begin to ponder the past, you will remember some of those moments that were meaningful when they happened.
Tell Your Story: Family Anecdotes
Preserve your family anecdotes – and every family has them!
What was the best advice your father ever gave you? What was the funniest thing your child ever said? What was your most embarrassing moment? Here’s your chance to record the most amusing or most interesting things that happened to your parents or your grandparents.
I have used this newsletter to record some of my own family stories, and you can read them by visiting the index on the right side of the page or click here: Stories About My Family.
Tell Your Story: Short and Sweet
Don’t worry yet about length.
If you write one chapter of your life a week, or even once a month, you will have a sizeable collection of memories after one year. You can bridge them together later with text, or just preserve them as a collection.
Tell Your Story: Have a Plan
If you are a plotter (like I am), it’s best to stick to a schedule.
My honest opinion is that writing talent is not a rare commodity and most people possess it to some degree. What tells the tale, as it were, is self-discipline.
Set aside two hours a week (the length of one movie) for this project. You’ll be amazed at how the volume of written material builds up over a few months!
Tell Your Story: On the Fly
If you are a pantster (one who flies by the seat of his pants), don’t worry about a timetable.
Not everyone can stick to a schedule. Keep a notebook handy or run to your computer and start writing whenever something springs to mind. The important thing is to get those memories recorded!
Tell Your Story: Talk, Don’t Write
If you absolutely CANNOT write to save your soul:
Use your tape recorder or smart phone to record your stories. There are programs around that will easily convert your spoken word into text.
Tell Your Story: On Camera
If you can get comfortable in front of a camera:
Use the video function on your phone and simply record any little stories that you remember. Ultimately you can splice them all into a longer video, or ask someone else to do it for you.
Tell Your Story: Take a Class
Memoir is a very popular genre.
There is a wealth of expert advice around. I’m aware of three or four friends who are writing their own stories. Check your local college or look online for courses in memoir writing, if you need more guidance and support.
Tell Your Story: Preserve it in Print
You might wish to publish your memories in print form.
A book or even a sheaf of typed paper is more meaningful for the elderly (and indeed, many of us) than having something appear in digital form. Leo Richer of Windermere, B.C., now deceased, had the foresight to write his own memoir and have it printed, for the benefit of family and friends, way back in 1998. You can order a copy yourself, from Amazon.
I published an excerpt from his book here: A Rookie Pilot’s Nightmare.
These days it is unbelievably cheap and easy to produce a printed book. Ten years ago, I helped my mother write her own memoir, which she titled Silver Linings. (That was my mother. She had more than her share of troubles, but preferred to focus on the funny and the sunny). It’s your choice, too!
The photo on the cover doesn’t mean anything to anyone else, but it is the driveway leading up to our family farm near North Battleford, Saskatchewan.
When June wrote her memoir, her great-granddaughter wasn’t even alive. Now Nora is ten years old, and it won’t be long before she will cherish her copy of Silver Linings. This was taken on June’s ninetieth birthday with daughter Elinor Florence, granddaughter Katie Niddrie, and great-granddaughter Nora Niddrie.
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HELP THE ELDERLY PRESERVE THEIR MEMORIES
Over the decades I interviewed hundreds of people in my job as a journalist, including eight years as a regular contributor to Reader’s Digest. If you have an elderly friend or relative and want to help them preserve their own memories, here’s my advice.
1. Tell Their Story: Visit at Home
An elderly person will be more comfortable in her own surroundings. A quiet room with good lighting and no interruptions is best for optimum vision and hearing. The photo above shows Royal Canadian Air Force veteran Yvonne Wildman, still living in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She has a wonderful scrapbook and a razor-sharp memory.
Her one hundredth birthday is coming up on August 1, 2023!
You may read her story here: Yvonne Wildman, RCAF Photographer.
2. Tell Their Story: Take Your Time
If possible, plan two or more visits. Memories rise to the surface slowly. After the initial visit, she will be thinking about the old days, possibly lying awake during the night as the memories come flooding back. It is on the second or third visit that you might unearth the most interesting material.
After I interviewed Tony Cashman of Edmonton, a Royal Canadian Air Force veteran who served as a navigator on a Halifax bomber, he phoned me several times over the next few weeks, because he was still remembering things he wanted to tell me!
And here’s wishing Tony a Very Happy Birthday. He turned 100 years old on April 29, 2023.
This photo shows him with his son Paul at his birthday celebration, admiring a photo of his former aircraft. You may read his story here: Life as a Halifax Navigator.
3. Tell Their Story: Be Discreet
If you record the interview, do it unobtrusively. My iPhone makes a perfect tape recorder. First ask the person’s permission. Turn it on, ensure it is working, set it on the table between you, and forget about it. If you don’t look at it or touch it, she will forget about it, too. The same goes for a video camera. Set it up, and then try not to look at it again.
Tell Their Story: Be Enthusiastic
Many people have spent years thinking nobody was interested and it might take some encouragement to convince them that you really ARE fascinated by their stories. Elderly people, especially women, are so modest that they have to be drawn out of their shell. Remind her that she is contributing to history, and that her grandchildren will thank her. People often tell me: “My grandfather never spoke about the war.” Maybe it’s because nobody asked him!
Iris Porter of Calgary had never been interviewed about her days serving as a Women’s Auxiliary Air Force officer in the Egyptian desert until I was contacted by a family member. Meeting her and poring over her photos was an absolute delight!
Iris will turn 103 years old on September 19, 2023.
Read her story here: Iris Porter Served in Egyptian Desert.
Tell Their Story: Be Patient
Some (but certainly not all) elderly people speak slowly. Don’t interrupt or ask another question. It’s best if you sit quietly and make murmuring sounds of encouragement while they dredge up the memories. You must adapt yourself to their pace of thinking and speaking.
Tell Their Story: Use Props
When you set up the interview, make sure to ask if they have photo albums or scrapbooks. Often these are put away somewhere and it might take a few days to unearth them. Sit down beside the subject and page through the album together – this is a great way to spark her memories. Once again, I use my trusty iPhone to photograph any desired clippings or photographs in the collection.
Look around the room. Often people have their most important mementos on display. Ask about their framed certificates and old photographs. In the case of Royal Canadian Air Force veterans, they have often kept their log books. This is Bud Abbott of Cranbrook, British Columbia, now deceased, who flew with the Fleet Air Arm. Read his story here: Bud Abbott Bombed the Tirpitz.
Tell Their Story: Don’t Be Shy
One thing I learned in my career is that people WANT to talk about themselves and that includes the most traumatic events of their lives. Be prepared to shed a few tears yourself, but do not shy away from asking the hard questions. This isn’t about you!
Tell Their Story: Take Breaks
After a couple of hours, the person may begin to flag. At that point, you could suggest a cup of tea (or a shot of something stronger) before returning to the interview. Three hours seems like a natural length of time to chat. However, my experience has been that most people are invigorated by the unusual experience of talking about themselves, and their energy may surprise you. The fatigue will come later, after you leave.
Tell Their Story: Have Company
There are pros and cons to conducting interviews with other family members in the room. The drawback is that the elderly person might be more forthcoming if she were alone with you. You want to take her back to the heady days of her youth, and that’s a more difficult when her granddaughter is sitting there.
On the other hand, family members can help to remind the person of buried memories, and can also be helpful looking for old letters or photographs, or making the aforementioned tea.
Tell Their Story: Ask for Help
Some local museums will send out an expert to interview your loved one and preserve her memories for their own collection. Call around and see if that’s available in your area.
Tell Their Story: Hire Someone
Finally, consider hiring a professional. I have been asked many times to interview someone’s father or grandparent. I can’t accommodate all these requests, but there are people who do interviews for a living – either in print, audio or video. What a fantastic Christmas gift for the whole family, not only those who are living but the children and grandchildren to come!
Tell Their Story: Put it in Print
Once again, it means much more to have a book in the hand than a digital website somewhere that might disappear. That’s why I preserved twenty-eight of my best veteran memories in a printed book titled My Favourite Veterans. It was my pleasure to present a copy to all the living veterans who were featured, including RCAF pilot Jim Ashworth and Women’s Militia veteran Joy Bond, both of Invermere, B.C.
And here’s wishing Jim Ashworth a Very Happy Birthday. He turned 104 years old on April 19, 2023!
Read his story here: Boat-Busting in Burma.
Joy Bond has since passed away, but you may read her story here: Girls Primed to Defend the Home Front.
My Favourite Veterans is now out of print, but I have a few copies left if anyone is interested.
Tell Their Story: Photos and Letters
I am wrestling with this issue, like so many others. I hate throwing anything away, and I have boxes of my family albums and letters.
However, I have two suggestions.
Sort through your old photos and be ruthless about tossing duplicates, photos of scenery, and photos showing people that no living person recognizes. That will cut your collection by 30 to 50 percent.
Then buy a digital scanner and scan the rest. It’s amazing how much better those old photos look when projected onto your television or computer screen! (Yes, it does take time, but not as much time as you fear. It could certainly be completed in one month).
You can also digitize those old documents and publish them into a book and make copies for family members. My friend Anne Gafiuk in Calgary came across a scrapbook kept by a woman named Alice Spackman during the Second World War. She hosted dozens of airmen who trained in Alberta through the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Anne compiled all her letters and newspaper clippings into a book titled She Made Them Family, which is still available for sale from the Bomber Command Museum in Nanton, Alberta.
Mrs. Spackman, and Anne Gafiuk, have made a wonderful contribution to our wartime history. Read more here: She Made Them Family.
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Friends, I always conclude my interviews feeling blessed and privileged to have shared in someone else’s fascinating life. I’m sure you will, too.
Please consider sharing these tips with anyone who might find it useful. Forward the email you received as a subscriber, OR copy this link (www.elinorflorence.com/blog/tell-your-story) into a new email, OR post it on your Facebook page.
I would love to hear your feedback. Was this advice helpful? Are you encouraged to preserve your own story? Are you eager to sit down with an elderly person and listen to their memories? Do you have any further advice to add? Post your comments below.
Onwards and upwards!