Timelines are a great way to visualize a life. Tape a few sheets of paper together, use a pencil or colored pens, your choice, then draw a line down the middle lengthwise. Events you remember as positive go above the line, those that were difficult below the line. You can start anywhere and move forward and backward as you remember.
This technique of recalling life events even works in an oral format. Think about helping a friend with this, you can both record the storytelling and remembering as well as work on the paper outline while you talk. It’s especially good for folks who have difficulty writing. You do the writing, they do the talking.
Create a timeline of significant events in your life. Include the basics (birth, childhood, education, training, career highlights, love, marriage, children, faith and special interests). Highlight the turning points and special events that helped shape your life. What were your proudest moments, your toughest challenges, your greatest frustrations, your fondest memories?
Include the ordinary too. Describe a typical day: school, farm chores, Sundays, seasonal activities, a day with your best friend, your favorite way to spend a lazy summer afternoon as a child.
How were you affected by where you lived at different times in your life? Did you stay in one place or move around? What are your memories of each place you’ve lived?
Contact me if you’d like a copy of the questions and information packet I hand out at Life Legacy workshops. I’d love to send it to you to inspire and give you practical help to begin telling your story. (Packet + first class postage only $6)
Want to win some fudge? Sure you do! Answer one of these “Remember the time…?” questions to be entered into the drawing for 1 lb. of Mamie Eisenhower’s Famous Fudge (made by yours truly from an old family recipe) either mailed or delivered to you if you live here in Las Cruces. It’s the best!
What world event from the past 5 years would you want to tell your great grandkids about? How about something important that you have learned? It’s up to you to pass it on.
The first 10 people to comment with an answer within the next 7 days will be entered in the drawing.
I really want to know what life memory is important to you and can hardly wait to hear from you,
Your family’s history is important. This video from the Association of Personal Historians explains how it works and why personal historians like me are passionate about what we do. While the APH is no longer active, we historians are and are helping people tell their stories all over the world. I’d love to help you tell yours!
Thanksgiving is almost here—this year, when you’re gathered with family and friends around the table, plan for some intentional conversation. Many families have a tradition of sharing what they’re grateful for. This is a wonderful place to start. But you know you all sit around and reminisce over the 2nd or 3rd piece of pie too. Yes, you do!
Record those stories, ask some questions of the “Do Remember When…” variety. Ask your older relatives about their holiday memories and past customs. What did Grandma cook for her first Thanksgiving dinner? Did she burn the turkey; forget the sugar in the pie? Were Uncle Joe, Charlie or Manny the practical jokers in the family?
Tell the immigrant stories—most of us were immigrants at some point in our family history. What foods are traditional in your cultural background? Lefse? Posole? Latkes? Black beans and rice? Tamales?
Now—do you need a unique present idea? Your problem is solved! Turn those gathered memories into a short book, treasured legacy letter or photo memoir for your family. Long or short, it will always be remembered. There is nothing else like it—totally unique and you can give copies to everyone. Do you really think Grandpa needs another package of golf balls, or Grandma another set of slippers? Skip the awful dreaded Black Friday lines and give your family the gift of heart and soul instead.
Thank you to our veterans! To the men and women who have been willing to share part of their story with me, thank you, you have helped me to understand. To those whose sacrifice and role in history we honor while we are saddened that it is still often repeated, thank you. To those who struggle and are reluctant to share with their family–this is hard, but please share with us, we love you, your story is important.
Check out the History Channel’s short video below:
These words from General Douglas MacArthur sum up the thoughts I’ve heard repeated from the many veterans who have shared their story:
I want to share a brief conversation with an Iraq war veteran I’ve never forgotten. Years ago a family came to look at my old ranch horse, Shorty, for their young boys. A man, his wife and three year old son. They were stationed at Ft. Bliss down in El Paso, Texas. Danny said he had been in three combat tours. He said, “We are hoping to go live near some friends in Wyoming on a 2000 acre ranch when I get out of the army in 2013.” He got very quiet and said he needed wide-open spaces, “…I just don’t want to be in crowds anymore. I don’t want to shoot a gun anymore. I just want to go live and work on a ranch in Wyoming with my family.” He softly rubbed that old horse’s furry ears and got an odd look on his face. We stared at the long grass dying on the orchard floor on that cool fall day. I quietly said, “I bet there’s more behind that story.” He nodded and looked me straight in the eyes for a long second. I could not help the tears spilling down my face and said, “Thank you for everything you’ve done to keep us safe.” I never saw him again but have never forgotten this young man.
…As I look back over my life there were so many things left undone. Don’t let it happen to you. So many things I started and didn’t finish. For instance that carton of chocolate fudge ice cream in the freezer, I had better go finish that or I will regret it all afternoon.
Thus began the email from a friend whose memoir I worked on a couple years ago. He’s in his 80s and sent this essay (written by another author) out to a wide circle of friends and family with the comment:
READ THIS VERY SLOWLY… IT’S PRETTY PROFOUND.
Too many people put off something that brings them joy just because they haven’t thought about it, don’t have it on their schedule, didn’t know it was coming or are too rigid to depart from their routine.
I got to thinking one day about all those people on the Titanic who passed up dessert at dinner that fateful night in an effort to cut back. From then on, I’ve tried to be a little more flexible.
How many women out there will eat at home because their husbands didn’t suggest going out to dinner until after something had been thawed? Does the word ‘refrigeration’ mean nothing to you?
How often have your kids dropped in to talk and sat in silence while you watched ‘Jeopardy’ on television?
I cannot count the times I called my sister and said, “How about going to lunch in a half hour?” She would gasp and stammer, “I can’t. I have clothes on the line. My hair is dirty. I wish I had known yesterday, I had a late breakfast, it looks like rain.” And my personal favorite: “It’s Monday.”
Because Americans cram so much into their lives, we tend to schedule our headaches. We live on a sparse diet of promises we make to ourselves when all the conditions are perfect! We’ll go back and visit the grandparents when we get Steve toilet-trained. We’ll entertain when we replace the living-room carpet. We’ll go on a second honeymoon when we get two more kids out of college.
When anyone calls my ‘seize the moment’ friend, she is open to adventure and available for trips. She keeps an open mind on new ideas. Her enthusiasm for life is contagious. You talk with her for five minutes and you’re ready to trade your bad feet for a pair of Rollerblades and skip an elevator for a bungee cord.
My lips have not touched ice cream in 10 years. I love ice cream. It’s just that I might as well apply it directly to my stomach with a spatula and eliminate the digestive process. The other day, I stopped the car and bought a triple-decker. If my car had hit an iceberg on the way home, I would have died happy.
Now go on and have a nice day. Do something you WANT to not something on your SHOULD DO list. If you were going to die soon and had only one phone call you could make, who would you call and what would you say? And why are you waiting?
Guess what? You don’t have to be rich or awesomely daring to have a fulfilling bucket list–it is yours so make of it what you will.
Can’t see yourself “Running with the bulls in Pamplona?” How about visiting a working ranch or farm and feeding a calf?
Not able to afford “Relaxing in Tahiti for 2 weeks?” How about retreating for a weekend to a gorgeous late half a day’s drive away?
“Mushing a dogsled” a bit out of reach? Find a friend with a big dog and this winter go to the
park, tie that puppy to your kid’s plastic sled and hang on. Mush, baby!
Okay–back to my friend’s essay:
Have you ever watched kids playing on a merry-go-round or listened to the rain lapping on the ground? Ever followed a butterfly’s erratic flight or gazed at the sun into the fading night?
When the day is done, do you lie in your bed with the next hundred chores running through your head? Ever told your child, “We’ll do it tomorrow.” And in your haste, not see his sorrow? Ever lost touch? Let a good friendship die? Just call to say “Hi?”
When you worry and hurry through your day, it is like an unopened gift thrown away… Life is not a race. Take it slower. Hear the music before the song is over. Show your friends how much you care…
I’ll do a bit of confessing here. I’ve about wrapped up a memoir book for a couple here in southern New Mexico so, to celebrate, I bought a bottle of red wine and a big fat piece of tiramisu cake. I devoured the cake while reading this essay but will show some restraint with the wine and wait till tonight.
Living large my friends, love and blessings to you,
The dusty, faded shoe box was crammed under the workbench. In the midst of de-cluttering fervor my friend said, “Take it home, I didn’t know it was there and I haven’t missed it.” I felt like the Indiana Jones of Garage Archaeology! It was a small memoir encased in cardboard; inside were a number of small items tucked into old jewelry boxes. But they weren’t just objects, each has its own story and some will be sent on to a family member.
This forgotten collection started me thinking about ways you can use the “stuff” you’ve saved as prompts for some personal history work. It’s a great place to begin, especially if you’re stuck on a project that seems too big. Where to start? Problem solved! Whether it’s a box of photos, a collection of tools, buttons, coins, books, recipes, or just “stuff” use that eclectic collection as the basis of your personal history.
Get it out of the box and into your story
The story of these items and why they are/were important can be easily turned into a standalone chapter or even become the start to an entire personal history, you decide.
Gather the existing collection—the how, why, where and when of its existence is a great launching point for your story.
Delve into the details.
Get a medium sized box—begin placing things in it that prompt your memory, either about yourself or the person whose story you are writing. This is an extremely effective step as it helps you recall things you thought you’d forgotten. As you select items for your box keep a running note going about the memories associated with it.
Ask family members and friends to contribute to the memories surrounding the items in your stash. They may even have an object to contribute, like a photograph or old letter. Add to your notes as more memories come to you. If the stash belongs to someone else, interview them. Remember to look at the backgrounds in the photos, the postmark and paper of the letter, the gravy stains on the old recipe—the charm is in the details, take your time.
This is important—don’t skip this step.
Sit and mull the contents of your box with your notes and/or a recorder in hand. If you’re telling someone else’s story, interview them. Be specific and handle each item in the box, taking your time.
If you consider yourself a non-writer, record your thoughts or have a friend write or record while you sift through the objects.
Now, walk away from your box of goodies. Come back to it in a day or few and see what else your mind has recalled since you last spent time together. There will be more, I guarantee it!
Look for a theme—are the photos all of family events? Are they important historically? What was going on in the world at this time? Does a collection of letters tell a great love story? Does it chronicle the preciousness of an ordinary life? Is it a travelogue?
If you are having trouble seeing the theme, a rare occurrence, ask a close friend or family member to look through the box with you and tell you what they see. What stands out?
Takeaway—shorter is sweeter
You don’t need to write about everything to tell a great story. Some of the best stories ever told are just a snapshot in time, one event, one object. If you’ve always wanted to tell your story but have felt overwhelmed, start with these 5 keys and begin. You’ll soon have a powerful, condensed collection of life memories.
Then, voila! You are unstuck and have given yourself the gift of making progress.
A reminder from author Terry Pratchett says “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”
Keep it up—