Today I stopped by Buddy Day at a nearby park, sponsored by Down Syndrome Families of Las Cruces. I saw super heroes, without capes, doing many amazing and wonderful things. The early spring grounds were packed with kids and their families having a blast in the jumping balloons, eating hot dogs and nachos and cuddling the animals in the petting zoo. Horses pulled trolleys loaded with grinning kids around the park. Local first responders provided thrills, patient explanations and boosts to look inside their fire trucks and ambulances.
What a Good Day!
Spiderman and Mickey Mouse were also making the rounds, kneeling down to hug children, high fiving them and it started me thinking. Here’s a great little game to play with your kids that will encourage them to think about what makes them unique. It also gives you a chance to help them see their extended family and others through a different lens.
Here’s the 4 step easy plan:
Collect some basic art supplies, paper, crayons, pencils, etc. maybe even some modeling clay.
1–Ask your kids what their super power is. Have them describe themselves and their super power. If they’re able to write it have them tell you and then you, as the superhero’s administrative assistant (trust me, they’ll love this), can write it down for them. Check out this blog from Linda Hunter of Pretend City Children’s Museum:
2–Have the kids draw, paint, make a sculpture or otherwise use some of those art materials to create a visual model of themselves as a superhero or otherwise showing their superhero awesomeness.
3–Talk about parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers—someone older than them. Ask your kids “What’s Grandma’s superpower?” “How do you think Uncle Jim is a superhero?” Write the description, draw the picture. Maybe you’ve got Grandma in a red cape, wielding a rolling pin and making the best pie ever, maybe Uncle Jim’s superpower is being a fireman and helping people, or fixing cars. Maybe Aunt Tina’s cape has dog bones on it and she’s the best puppy trainer you’ve ever seen.
4–Share the superhero goodness with the people you’ve honored. Ask some more questions about their super power and how they use it to help people. You might even take your collection of family super hero pictures and descriptions and put them together into a simple photocopied book. Make extras and share them with each other.
As promised, let’s talk about how to use the objects in your life to weave the threads of a story. The Sewing Machine, by Natalie Fergie is currently on Amazon’s best seller list. This fascinating novel uses a common household tool as the common element tying together lives and families across generations. I’ve decided not to give you too many details as I don’t want to spoil a good read. If you think you’ve seen this plot before let me challenge you—you have never seen it quite like this!
You will never look at the mundane objects in your life the same way after reading this book. It will open your eyes to nuances of story and coincidences that have affected your own life. It will make you think. Any maybe dismiss the whole notion of coincidence.
Some themes to consider as you think about any objects in your life that might serve as generational connectors or story starters:
Trace the history of an object through your family tree. You can use the history of an object to both anchor and tell your own family history. This popular technique is used by fiction writers and works beautifully in writing your memoir too.
Is there something that has been passed down through the generations? Trace its origins, who held it for a time and why. Who has it now? Why? Where do you think it will go next? Can you imagine a few generations down the road who might cherish it? Why?
There is value in castoffs– people and things—why is this particular object valued?
One of my clients has a rolling pin that is very special to her. She is a great natural story teller and loves to pass on the history of this object. And her grown children and their children love to hear it. Grandma’s rolling pin has a legacy all its own.
It started as a wedding gift many generations ago, prior to the Civil War. It was lovingly passed down and is part of a tradition of pie making and biscuit rolling that touches the heartstrings of all in the family. It connects them. It isn’t just a chunk of hardwood; it is the memoirs of family gatherings, of joyful times celebrated, of grief shared. It is the connecting piece, witnessing future hopes as little hands are coached in how to roll out the pastry evenly and as new grandchildren are bounced on knees over a piece of after-dinner pie. It sits in testimony to the love and resilience of family as friendly bantering bounces around the kitchen about which kinds of pies to bake this year.
You will probably see one or two rise to the top with a feeling of emotion and poignancy that shouts out “Tell my story!” Now, get that thing and hold it, look at it, really see it in all the details. Let your mind wander over everything you know about it and the people who have cherished it before you. See how many points of connection you can make with that object(s). !
When you’re done with this little exercise you will probably have enough material for several chapters or your own little mini-memoir using this object as the thread.
Who isn’t transported back to a childhood of summer nights when you light up a sparkler? How about when you smell a new box of crayons? Fresh grass, saddle soap and leather? What things bring on the memories for you?
What emotions and memories are called up when you see or hold that object? This is a great tool to use with people of all ages. Holding a tangible object often helps our brains call up vivid memories. Working with someone with a fading memory? Try this technique to realize a breakthrough and delight the one you love. Working with children? Many of their memories involve things they can touch and feel, mine the wealth of concrete images to help them remember.
I recently read a sample of The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha. If you’re looking for some inspiration to prompt your memory trips or visits with others pick this up. Some of the Awesome-ness Pasricha writes about lie in things, others in experiences.
My father passed away a few days ago. He would have loved this book and I wish I’d had a chance to share it with him. We often talked about the beauty of the ordinary. The small mother of pearl pocketknife he gave me when I was a teenager brings back many memories. Those thoughts springboard my mind further into the past to childhood fishing and camping trips when he took the time to teach me the proper way to use one. My first successful smoothly peeled white pine stick, the coppery taste of a nicked thumb when I didn’t pay attention, the gleaming trout caught with his help, cleaned with a pocketknife and cooked in the heavy cast iron skillet.
An old blue flannel shirt that he wore on outdoor adventures is precious to me. Touching it calls up memories of campfire smoke, horses and the clean warm smell of pine and leather.
A copy of The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. He encouraged me to read it and said how much he had enjoyed it. I did and cried over the beauty and sadness of the story. He listened and understood. Understood all that was unspoken in my full heart. And hugged me.
Another book, The Trees Stand Shining: Poetry of the North American Indians. The first book of poetry I’d ever read. The copyright is 1971. My childish signature is scrawled carefully inside the front cover. A precious object.
At the edge of the world
It is growing light.
The trees stand shining.
I like it.
It is growing light.
These objects are just things. Their priceless value is not monetary but in their ability to take me to people, places and times that have places of honor in my heart.
May you rightly hold the objects in your life as connections to the people you love. What objects can you put your hands on today that take you back? Going to visit an elderly friend or relative this weekend? Take along something to prompt their memories. We love to read books about the things that connect the threads of our lives. In fact, next week I’ll bring you a review of a recent read that beautifully shows how this is done.
O’Tay Spanky! Want the story but hate to write? I can help with that–you talk, I’ll write about your gang. Whether you’re planning a family reunion this year and want to capture those family stories, or Aunt Mabel and Uncle Jim just crack you up with their memories and life view, don’t wait till yet another year has gone by.
Poll your family and find out what kinds of stories they most want to know.
Don’t edit them, just write ‘em down. The recollections that rise to the top are the natural place to start. Then we can have a fun, focused conversation where I help you flesh out the events, drawing out the details and the who, what, where, when and why.
I like to think of it as gold mining. And boy can I help you get to the precious stuff. I’ll do all the heavy lifting and you will have the joy of accomplishment as you hold that book in your hands or listen to the recording of the person you love telling their story.
Here’s some inspiration:
In The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Memoir, author Victoria Costello prompts the reader:
“Like reliable old friends, these familiar faces, lines of conversations, favorite songs, and images of pivotal events are always there…these memories will give you some starting places from which to begin brainstorming.”
We’ll work together to pick a theme or focus, then I’ll customize your personal history project to your needs. There’s no reason why this can’t be the year you tell your story. Or — you can gang up, in a friendly way of course, on your much loved relatives. Everybody pitch in make it happen as a gift for your parents’ anniversary or Grandma or Grandpa’s important birthday.
Can you believe it? We’re already through January! We are booking for family reunions now, working in partnership with a talented local photographer to get those photos of your family’s one-of-a-kind precious faces. Need a workshop or speaker for your civic group? Add your event to our calendar today.
A big steaming cup of UGH! Can you think of a mistake that changed the direction of your life? That made you grow? C.S. Lewis said “Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.”
Let’s keep it real here—that you thought would mortify you to death but that you just laugh about now?
I remember the time as a teenager that I was modeling some clothes in a local boutique. A very high end boutique. Clothing changes had to be quick and no one was there to double check the view before I stepped out onto the floor. After a too-quick check in the dressing room mirror out I sauntered in some fancy outfit. After a few minutes wander through the store I went back to change and caught a glimpse of the rear view. Caught a bit too much of the rear view actually. I had wandered elegantly around the floor with the back of the dress tucked up into my pantyhose. Pure mortification as only a 17 year old can feel it! I hid in the dressing room until the handful of shoppers left.
Many memories are of much greater significance than this goofy one. Some we’ll always look back on with tears. Things we’d do or say differently. There are times I wish I’d been kinder, more compassionate, more patient, more courageous. Yes, but there are times I got it right too, stood firm, went the extra mile, loved not perfectly but well. Can you turn around and take a good look at where you are now? Where you’re going?
Ask those you care for about the transformative moments in their lives. Try to hit these three main categories:
Give someone the gift of listening to their story and help them pull up memories and emotions that make them who they are today. You just might learn something!
Water cooler and dinner table talk around the country right now centers on this year’s pervasive flu season. Word has it our local hospitals are full of flu and bronchitis cases. Headlines are made with this week’s mortality figures. We are rightly concerned. I am usually running neck and neck with the healthy as a horse cliché but I too succumbed to bronchitis this week. So in between coughing fits and endless mugs of tea I’ve been thinking about past flu epidemics, measles and polio outbreaks and how we’ve handled them as individuals, families and communities.
I find walking through cemeteries intriguing–disease outbreaks are memorialized in stone in the frequency and proximity of death dates. You may find this gruesome; I view it with a sense of historical curiosity and a great compassion for these human lives that walked this rock before me. Each of these people were fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. They each left memories in those whose lives they touched and made an impact on their world.
Describes the nature of pandemics.
Describes the courage and resilience of the human experience when faced with these world changing pandemics and outbreaks.
Pandemics are of such historical importance that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) created a project called the Pandemic Influenza Storybook.
“The CDC’s Pandemic Flu Storybook provides readers with a look at the impact pandemic flu events have had on both survivors and the families and friends of non-survivors. These stories are not folklore, but personal recollections. This collection of stories was first released in 2008 to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the 1918 flu pandemic.”
You can read Sadie’s true story , here’s an excerpt:
This is the story of the 1918 flu pandemic as told by my 97–year–old grandmother, Sadie Afraid of His Horses–Janis.
In her desperation, my great–grandmother, Nancy, had applied the principals of quarantine, prevented cross–contamination, provided hydration and inhalation therapy, and used pharmacology to save her family. To this day, my grandmother Sadie has a medicine bag with flat cedar, sweet grass, bitter–root, and green tea. However, she says she′ll pass on the kerosene and sugar.
Olivia Huggins’ father was a newborn when the flu hit his family:
My dad, Manual Pacheco, was born on July 10, 1918 to Juan de Jesus and Amelia Pacheco in Rainsville, New Mexico. He was their sixth child. When Manual was only 2 months old, his mother, Amelia became ill with the flu. Because she was so sick, she was unable to produce breast milk for Manual. Therefore, Juan fed the baby coffee with sugar added to it until he was able to purchase a goat. The goat’s milk sustained Manual and he survived, and so did his mother. No one else in the family became ill.
Here’s another one from the CDC’s website, this one taking place in Wyoming and told by Margarita Pancake:
My father, Elmer “Bud” Pancake, grew up around Lusk, Wyoming. During the great flu pandemic of 1918, there was a county doctor who boasted that he had never lost a patient. His secret weapon was “rotgut” whiskey. He would pour the whiskey into a patient to get them to cough up the phlegm. During the pandemic, he ran out of whiskey and there was none to be had in the community. The only whiskey in Lusk was locked–up in the sheriff′s office as evidence for a bootlegger′s trial. The sheriff refused to release the liquor. So, the doctor got a few prominent citizens together for a kind of vigilante committee that promptly seized the whiskey, depriving the sheriff of his evidence.
An excerpt from storyteller Jack D. Bell, who experienced the flu in Washington in 1958 as a kid:
And, I simply was too uncomfortable to sleep! At one point, I kept asking my poor momma if I was going to die and I told her if this kept up much longer that I didn’t care if I died! I can remember my parents discussing whether they should send me to the hospital, but our family doctor (who actually came to our house; remember when doctors did that?!) told us that my fever would break any time, and I would feel much better. He was right, on the third day I stopped vomiting and got a few hours of sleep. When I woke up, my wonderful mom fed me some chicken soup—my favorite, and I kept it down. I missed about a week of school, which I didn’t mind.
Photo–1918, France — Patients lie in Influenza Ward No. 1 in U.S. Army Camp Hospital No. 45 in Aix-les-Baines, France,during World War I. | Location: Aix-les-Baines, France. — Image by © CORBIS
Below are links to a couple fascinating books about the great flu epidemic of 1918 if you’d like to read more. May we learn and be inspired.
An excerpt from the editorial description:
“At the height of WWI, history’s most lethal influenza virus erupted in an army camp in Kansas, moved east with American troops, then exploded, killing as many as 100 million people worldwide…1918 marked the first collision of science and epidemic disease. Magisterial in its breadth of perspective and depth of research and now revised to reflect the growing danger of the avian flu, The Great Influenza is ultimately a tale of triumph amid tragedy, which provides us with a precise and sobering model as we confront the epidemics looming on our own horizon.“
Now, I’m going to get yet another cup of tea. May you stay healthy and well this flu season,
Writing prompts are great conversation starters. Exploring childhood memories is a great place to start, whether you’re working on your own story or helping a friend or family member. Don’t be satisfied with “Oh, I had a good childhood, or “My growing up years were rough.”
Kim Kautzer of WriteShop has a great list of questions to get those memories flowing, check out her blog on Childhood Memory Writing for inspiration. She says:
“As vivid as the moment seems at the time, memories fade. These prompts will help jog them. Invite your older children to participate. They’re in closer proximity to their memories, and can usually remember the details more vividly….”
Here’s an example using one of her prompts:
Before middle school hit like a freight train full of angst I’d spend hours at a time in my secret warm, dusty hideout. During these late childhood years I’d wrestle a few sweet smelling hay bales around so they made a little cave up in the top of the pole barn. Then, I’d climb down to collect whatever book I was reading that week, tuck a cat under one arm and clamber back up to my nest, being careful of my chronically skinned knees. Curling my long skinny frame onto an old coat spread out on the hay I’d settle into my secret sanctuary with a contented cat and book.
Safe, quiet, peaceful. Traveling to distant places, getting lost in story, daydreaming about winning the track meet, becoming a writer or just the sweet red headed boy who said “hi.” Kid stuff yes, but crucial deposits into a bank of memories to draw on through life.
Learning to communicate well is a skill you can nurture in anyone, whether 5 or 75. If you have kiddos who are “reluctant writers” take a look at the rest of the WriteShop website, you’ll find a wealth of practical help. Pass it along to your teacher friends too.
Grandma had a penchant for daydreaming and a vivid imagination and used these skills to liven up the duties and routine of caring for a large family. Rosie had discovered this one summer when she’d been sent to help Grandma on the farm, and, she suspected, get her out of her overworked mother’s hair for a few weeks. She’d promised that she would help and not sleep too late and do chores without being told, and wash the dishes and, the list went on.
When she arrived at the Big House however, that’s what her dad always called the old white Victorian, she discovered that Grandma was energetic and capable and didn’t feel overworked in the least. On the contrary, as she bustled about her morning routine with the sun shining in through the wavy glass of the old windows, Rosie had followed her around, trying to help and watching her. Grandma was quick to smile, her green eyes crinkling at the corners. She was patient to and Rosie did learn, but it took her three times as long to do a chore as it did Grandma who smoothly went through the motions of caring for her home and family just like she had for all the decades of her adult life.
Rosie shyly asked about what things were like when Grandma was a girl, then got lost in the stories she told as they hung up sheets in the grass scented breeze outside on the drying lines or picked sun warmed blackberries in the garden, licking the juice off their fingers and feeling the delicious pop when biting down on a ripe berry. They made cobbler in her big cast iron skillet with Grandma’s homemade sweet biscuit dough.