Create Your Own Family Memoir

by Donne Davis on December 27, 2010

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Today is my mom’s 88th birthday. I sent her an e-card from Jacquie Lawson and she was able to open it. She just got her first computer this year and I marvel whenever she reads an email and responds. When she called to thank me, she said she could hardly read the card because of the tears in her eyes. I signed the card “You mean the world to me!” She does mean the world to me. I call her every night to check in and feel blessed that we’ve shared this nightly ritual since my dad died 14 years ago.

Recently, I read an article by Leslie Gilbert-Lurie that reminded me I need to gather some more of my mother’s early history. Gilbert-Lurie, author of Bending Toward the Sun: A Mother and Daughter Memoir, writes that there is no greater gift you can give yourself and your children than to know more about your parents’ early years. Sometimes the opportunity to ask questions simply presents itself, perhaps at a family reunion, or in a relaxed setting on vacation. But for many, it will not. People have told her that they wish they had asked their parents more questions about their pasts. We often have to pro-actively initiate these probing, more intimate conversations, which are not always in our comfort zones.

I’ve interviewed my mom about her history but I found Gilbert-Lurie’s questions more compelling. Here are her suggestions to help open up these important discussions among family members:

  • Create a family tree with your mother, father, or both. Ask them to tell you everything they know about your ancestors, including birthplaces and important dates in their lives.
  • Ask your mother or father to describe his or her primary childhood home. Perhaps he or she can go on to tell you about a particularly happy memory of an event that took place there, and a painful memory as well.
  • Ask your parent what books, movies, and music were his or her favorite as a child. You can then move from there to ask about current favorite books or movies.
  • Childhood heroes provide a rich topic of conversation. Ask your parents who their childhood heroes were. Again, you can move from childhood to present day and explore whom they most admire and why.
  • Explore the family vacations your parents took as a child. Ask about where they particularly liked to go, and whether there were any trips they disliked.
  • Try and discover what the rules were in your mother’s or father’s family, and which of these rules, if any, they felt were unfair. Also use this opportunity to learn what responsibilities your parents had as children, and how these contributed to the people your parents evolved into.
  • Inquire about the things your parents wanted to do as children but could not because your grandparents wouldn’t allow them to, they were unaffordable, or your parents did not possess the talent or skills to do them.
  • Ask your parents what questions they wish they had asked their own parents but never did.
  • Ask your mother or father what he or she was afraid of as a child and about what he or she fears most today. It is not always easy to ask parents about their own fears, but it provides a good opportunity for mutual understanding.
  • Ask your father or mother to describe a crush he or she had, or a special teenage romance.
  • Explore how your parents perceived themselves as children. Ask them how they thought adults and peers viewed them, and which aspects of these perceptions were accurate or inaccurate.
  • Ask your parents what first attracted them to each other, and what they most respect or respected in the other. If they are no longer married to one another, see if they will discuss what drove them apart and why.
  • Probe into the highs and lows of your parents’ lives. Ask about their proudest accomplishments and greatest disappointments. If they had one thing to do over in life up to this point, what would it be and why?
  • While they are reflecting, ask your mother or father what they would most want to be famous for, if they were destined to be famous for something.
  • Don’t miss the opportunity to explore how your parents view you. Ask your parents what about you reminds them of themselves at the same age. Ask what they are proudest of in you. And, if you are feeling particularly comfortable by that point in the conversation, ask if they have any questions to for you.

Most people don’t have the time or the desire to spend a decade writing a memoir about a parent or close family member, as Gilbert-Lurie and her mother did. But even a couple hours spent exploring the past with a parent could provide new and deeper appreciation and understanding. Moreover, a few pages of heart-felt answers could be very satisfying and useful to future generations.

{ 2 comments }

Susan Adcox December 28, 2010 at 11:29 am

I’m very fortunate that my father wrote a couple of autobiographical books, so a lot of his history is already recorded. My mom was not a writer, and she died in 2002, so much of her history is irretrievably gone.

Incidentally, my dad is 95, and he checks his email daily.

Diane Levinson December 27, 2010 at 10:50 pm

You make a very good point here Donne. My mom did write some of her history and we did a biography of my parents. But I realize now that we just scratched the surface. After my mom passed away I immediately thought of things that I should have and wanted to ask her about her life and other family members who are no longer with us. There really are no ways to get those personal answers. I do really treasure a little book she filled in that’s specifically for grandparents to tell about their childhood. And the best part is that it’s in Mom’s handwriting.
Thanks for encouraging all the GaGas.

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