Memoirs and family histories can be shared in many ways. Here’s a poetic version that not only caught my attention during a visit with a fellow writing friend, it made me catch my breath. The way she weaves experiences through and around the story of an object is fascinating. Thank you, Gretchen, for sharing your work with us.
Gretchen Blais is an author and surrealist and mixed media artist. She grew up in Santa Cruz, California – in her own words here’s the start of her artistic path:
My journey as an artist began one rainy Thanksgiving Day 40 plus years ago when my family and I were visiting out of town. My host suggested we all paint since it was too wet to be outside. It was a memorable event for four adults and six young children. I came away with an experience hard to describe. I felt that something was released, never to become invisible again. My pencil began to travel with me wherever I went and the edgy surreal forms began to emerge seemingly on their own. Although I could sit and draw in the middle of chaos, the struggle to claim the title of Artist was a long journey with flashbacks to memories of elementary school when I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. Finally, in my 70’s, I am grown up and an artist.
Gretchen is retired from her career as a licensed psychotherapist and makes her home in southern New Mexico where she writes and continues to create new art. To view more of her work visit: www.gretchenblaisart.weebly.com.
Grandma’s Table by Gretchen Blais
I gaze at you and I hear “I understand nothing of what I see.”
I sit and a new experience Begins to unfold. It’s a shift in my awareness, In my understanding of you, A picture and memories begins to emerge.
I see the seedling from whence you came. I feel the earth receptive to your needs. The rich soil moistened from the dew. Water to nourish and help push your roots down As the sun gently pulls you upward.
Up towards the sky, to reach higher and higher. Your trunk, your branches, the energy flowing. Day following day and year following year. Until one day you reach a pinnacle. A time comes and a transformation is upon you.
The ax, the saw driven into you fibers. I sensed the lumberjack’s movement. The swing of the ax, the saw back and forth, Until you succumbed and fell. On your way down, Rubbing against other trees, you settled with a crash.
I see the ropes, the chains, the wagon dragging you, Moving you to where you could be made into boards. Where legs were carved and pieces merged together To become something new – a table, Grandma’s table.
My eyes see them, the ones who sat and feasted at the table. The ones who laughed and cried for generations. The history of them is there. My grandmother, my grandfather, my father and mother, All my sisters and brothers, myself, my children and grandchildren.
The kitchen I remember, the activities I knew, the gatherings. Games, homework, laughter, discussions, arguments, meals and so many soups Each summer the canning of peaches, and pears, the tomatoes and corn. The strings beans and the jellies and jams To feed us through the winter as we sat at Grandma’s table.
The sap no longer runs through the tree veins. But the generations of those who touched the table, They bring energy and it keeps moving. Grandma’s table keeps adding a rich tapestry To each person’s life, generation after generation.
This coaching is for family history or memoir writers who know they want to share their story but are overwhelmed or stuck with how to get it done. You have the stories and memories in your head, but struggle with getting them down on paper.
Ready to kick the overwhelm to the curb? I got you!
Three months, one goal to jumpstart your memoir, me by your side to help you every step of the way.
We will be looking at:
* What you want to accomplish with your story during these 3 months, as well as going forward.
* Where you’re stuck or limiting yourself.
* What are your goals for your story and what do you need to bring them to vibrant life?
* Weekly concrete steps to achieve forward movement toward your goals.
* What tactics and tools to use to make your story shine.
* Figuring out together the best storytelling strategy for you and your unique story.
* How to make everything we accomplish during our three months of 1:1 work last BEYOND and help you continue forward.
Basically, this coaching if for you if you’ve known you want to share your story (or that of a family member) but have become stuck with the size of the goal or the sheer quantity of material to work with. We handle all kinds of stuck, so let’s talk about it!
You will set your goal with my guidance and I’ll be beside you every step of the way over a period of three months to help you achieve it.
How it works:
* We’ll talk once a week on Zoom for an in-depth 1 hour session.
* You’ll have email access to me between sessions, including for critiques and questions.
* You’ll have phone access to me for a 15 minute check in between sessions should you need it.
* I will review whatever material you have and give a professional editorial evaluation, looking for strengths and weaknesses that we can address in relation to your goal. We’ll talk through any fixes or improvements that can help you tell your story in a way you can be proud of.
How to sign up:
Since 1:1 work is a big commitment for both of us, let’s make sure we’re on the same page and that there’s a good personality fit. If you’re interested in working with me, shoot me an email at email@example.com and let me know what you’d like to achieve in a three month memoir coaching jumpstart. If I believe I can help you, we’ll set up a time to chat over the phone or Zoom call and I’ll send you a detailed overview of the Life Legacy Signature Coaching program.
I’m looking forward to visiting with you about your story!
are top of mind right now, emphasized even due to the social distancing we’re
experiencing in the pandemic. This is foreign ground for most of us but will
become one for the history books. In the scarcity of human contact we long to
connect and are finding creative ways to do it. The silver lining may be an increase
in family connectedness and deeper friendships. This is one of the good things
to come out of this season of pausing, reflection and in some cases deep loss.
relationships and how they’ve impacted our lives is the theme for this
journaling exercise. Think of it as a creative tool to
use in developing your memoir, short or long. It all starts with a few words on
a page or spoken into a recorder.
give it a shot! Review the many relationships in your life; most of us are sons
and daughters, parents, friends, spouses, employees, aunts or uncles. Think of
the connections you’ve had with others over the years, both personal and
Don’t get stuck, just pick two or three that stand out in your memory.
You can always try this technique with others later.
How have these relationships impacted, molded, changed and directed the course of
your life over the years?
relationship from childhood, one from youth and one from adulthood. Your choice
of how close the relationship was; don’t force it or get stuck with
expectations, go with what rises to the top of your thoughts. They don’t even
have to all be human.
Many people count a dog or horse among their best friends.
It’s perfectly ok to write about these dear friends too.
each one I want you to try two approaches:
1—How has this relationship affected your life? Did it inspire you, coach in in a positive way, maybe it deflected you down another path? You can go as deep as you like here. Sometimes even fleeting relationships impact us deeply and change the course of our lives. Other times it may be the long faithfulness of a dear family member or friend.
2—How would your life have been different if you hadn’t known that person? Don’t edit, just write down your thoughts and speculate, follow the rabbit trails, this is just for your own use. A well-known example of this, and one that’s been used in many book and movie plots, is the storyline behind It’s a Wonderful Life when George Bailey’s angel gives him the opportunity to see what life in Bedford Falls would have been like without him. As Clarence says, “You’ve been given a gift.”
Another tool to use is to take a sheet of paper for each person you want to write about. Now do a mind map or a bubble outline. Write their name in the middle of the page and then, using a timer set for about three minutes, write down everything you can think of that’s associated with this person. Don’t second guess yourself, get it all down. Write each item or phrase on the page radiating out from the central person. When the timer dings, stop. You can always add more later but these are the top of mind and semi-conscious ideas that come out when you brainstorm like this.
When you’ve finished this exercise you may realize some interesting side notes or even have a great light bulb moment (epiphany for you fellow word nerds). Jot these reflections down too. You now have the makings of a fine chapter or two for your memoir. In fact, you may have even discovered the theme of your lifestory. See where it goes.
“I hate to write, how can I do this?” As I mentioned last week, this is a sticking point for some folks. They’re great oral storytellers but the thought of writing those stories and memories down gives them “test anxiety” at the least and “the screaming mimi’s” at the worst. Never fear-there are a few different ways to handle this, don’t let it stop you!
Solution 1—Talk out your story into a voice recorder
With the help of a handy little voice recorder you can just tell your story. Carry it with you, turn it on, record, pause or turn off till you’re ready to tell your next story, or continue with your thoughts. You can collect memories in a stretch of reminiscing over photos or with family. Or maybe just relate brief thoughts or impressions as they come to you throughout the day. Don’t worry that they’re not in order. That is the beauty of digital recording and computers. While it will save you some time and help you focus if you have a plan and go through your life story memories somewhat chronologically, it isn’t critical. Thanks to the beauty of downloading and cut and paste, your lovely, moving or humorous stories can be rearranged into whatever order you choose later.
Here’s how it works:
Purchase an inexpensive digital voice recorder. I have used an Olympus Digital Voice Recorder very similar to this one for years (some links on this site are affiliate links–I only recommend items that I either use myself or strongly believe to be helpful):
I show this tiny workhorse at workshops and folks repeatedly ask what model it is and where they can get one. There are many different brands out there in a range of prices. The Olympus model has been a great fit for my work and has had excellent reviews on quality, clarity and ease of use. It also lets me record in different files to keep projects separate. This makes downloading to separate computer folders even easier. The recorder runs on a two AAA batteries and has great battery life. I have found that Procell by Duracell batteries have excellent performance and reliability and have switched to using them exclusively in my work.
Both are high quality items that will do the job and serve you well. Whichever one you choose, based on features or price, they all work pretty much the same and will make telling your story easy and fun.
Keep the recorder with you, it will serve as your ever-ready personal assistant. Starting with the technique in the last blog post, go ahead and brainstorm your memories and story ideas into the recorder. Then, when thoughts come to you or you want to expand on some stories or reminiscence over visual prompts such as photographs, you’ll just talk your story out into the recorder. A recorder such as the Olympus holds about 24 hours worth of audio recording. I use mine regularly for interviewing and as an extra note-taker when I’m at meetings and need to be able to go back and fact check or review content. It will help you focus on the story and not on trying to write your notes legibly, a challenge for me, that’s for sure!
Later, when you’re ready to download your stories, just plug the recorder into your computer, transfer the files and you now have your oral history recording in a format that can be easily transcribed into written form. Voila, “test anxiety” gone!
Solution 2 – Team up with a friend to record each other’s stories.
Again, this taps into the power of oral story telling. It also adds in the fun of having a buddy to tackle the project together. Find a friend who is either interested in also telling their own story or is intrigued with you and yours. Remember, this is not a never ending time commitment nor a long term project. Getting these stories down will take a focused-10-12 hours of recording time, spread out over a handful of sessions. I’d recommend setting aside time once or twice a week for about a month. Of course, the beauty of this is that you can work around your own schedules.
Then, either use the voice recorder (I do recommend this as it helps you go back at your leisure and capture the full nuance of the story. For family members and friends, having a recording of your voice is a priceless addition to your story—why not do it?) Or, you can take turns with your friend, interviewing each other and taking notes on each other’s stories. This takes away your fear of a blank piece of paper, you just tell the other person’s story.
The fun of the buddy system will keep you both on track and accountable. A multi- strand cord is stronger, tag-teaming with a friend or another family member will help you both to succeed.
Thanks and Happy Story Telling!
(Karen Ray is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.)
This advice was characteristic of Betty Somppi’s lively take on life. Although she passed away this spring just days after witnessing the dedication of the Women Veterans Monument in Las Cruces, her words and lifelong enthusiasm continue to make the media rounds. Her life impact hasn’t stopped. Take a look at the video interview on the City of Las Cruces FaceBook page and notice her lifestory book, the photos and her enjoyment in talking about her life. Below is a profile I wrote about her after a fascinating conversation back in 2016. I’m so glad she took the time to share a bit of her life’s history while she was living. You don’t have to wait till someone is writing your obituary to do the same. (Photo–Betty Somppi, courtesy of her friend, Karen Wood)
You can save your family stories too!
A few days ago I had the privilege of giving a workshop to the Las Cruces Association of Educational Retirees, providing some practical inspiration for sharing their stories. Who should I meet later in the audience but one of my favorite teachers, Hannah Monsimer. Seventh grade English teacher extraordinaire! If that’s not a tough job I don’t know what is. Of course, I gave her a big hug and told the group she was responsible encouraging my love of writing. She was kind, tough and an excellent teacher; qualities I am grateful for to this day. Thank you Mrs. Monsimer!
Betty Somppi was enjoying a new career as a lab technician at a Cincinnati hospital “when the war came along…Most women wanted to do something and there weren’t that many choices for women. We were very interested and we wanted to be involved more than just going around the community. So I applied when we first heard about the Women’s Army Corps, which was WAAC (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps) at that time. She recalls that the bill passed in March and by July the first class of officers were in training. “That shows how quickly Congress can work when they want to,” she laughs.
She served in the WAAC for about a year before it became the WAC (the women’s branch of the United States Army). “We had to apply all over again and had to have our physicals all over again and we didn’t know until the word came back from Washington, whether we had been accepted or not. That was very traumatic for some of the women who had been there for a year. Somppi remembers Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby of Killeen, Texas served as the first director of both the WAAC and then the WAC. “Mrs. Hobby” as she was called built the Corps to over 100,000 in under a year.
Somppi explains that this new organization had no officers or enlisted people. “They picked 1400 women from those who applied throughout the United States,” she says, “We went into officers training with the idea that if we did not complete OC (Officer Candidate) we would be enlisted. They were recruiting enlisted people at the same time…These 1400 women were put into the first nine officers classes.” She was in her early twenties when she entered the fifth OC class.
She arrived at Fort Des Moines Provisional Army Officer Training School in July, 1942 the day the first class graduated and heard Colonel Hobby speak. “I think if anybody thought this was going to be some sort of a glamour deal, they got a good shock. We got off the train and had our suitcases in hand and got piled into the back of a six by truck and taken to the base. Once we got to the base we were assigned to our quarters. We had all male officers for those nine classes because there were no WAC officers trained yet.”
After graduation she was assigned to the base. “I was in the training section doing the basic training. After they finished that they went either into motor transport or clerks or cooks and bakers. Those were the three fields that they were training for and had schools at Fort Des Moines.” Within a year the army had women in 274 fields in the military. Somppi says,
“I really did love that and so I spent
the whole war training women to do things
that I would have loved to have gone and done.”
In December of ’42 she was one of the first to be sent to Chemical Warfare School for six weeks along with five other women at Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland. “My job was to go back and teach chemical warfare to the people at Fort Des Moines.”She’s kept newspaper clippings from that time and says, “It (the school) was very very good. There were I think something like 180 army and a few marines and air force, all men and then us six women. We were all single and we had a great time. Everybody was curious about us, we were still pretty new and there were only a few out in the field. We were the equivalent of second lieutenants and wore gold bars. The general down there invited all six of us to all the fancy Christmas parties, he would send his car over to our quarters for us…they always had the general’s star on the car and the people on the ground always had to salute when it went by…it was interesting.”
Somppi says, “The old fort (Des Moines) looked a great deal like Ft. Bliss, big parade ground, big enough to play two horse polo teams. I walked to work every morning. My office was in Boomtown. The trainees came to us as a class, as a unit of a company and we trained them in military customs and courtesies and the history of the army; all those things that they still do today. Boomtown was just being finished, there were not streets yet and those companies waded to our classrooms through the mud. In fact, they used to come in with a shovel to get the mud off the floor before they swept it. It was a lot of fun.” She says the best food the army ever had was in those mess halls.
From there Somppi was stationed at Fort Oglethorpe as Director of Training, later helping close that base down. She says, “I remember the day that they announced that the war ended, the colonel at Ft. Oglethorpe’s son was killed that very day.” She returned to Fort Des Moines and served as Operations Officer at the separations center, processing returning military personnel. During that time the war in the Pacific ended and her husband was sent back from China.
The Somppis were married during the war, “We always said those wartime marriages never ended. Ours ended last March at 72 years. We were very fortunate.” They had difficulty meeting up to marry, “Jimmy was about three days later than the date we had set because at that time troop trains were pushed aside to get the freight through…He was a corporal when we were going to get married and by the time he got up there he had his third stripe on. I had just got my captain’s bars a couple of months before.” The couple met seven years before while she was teaching first grade in Pennsylvania. He was a senior in high school at that time. When asked her secret to a long life and sharp brain she laughs, “I always tell people
‘Marry a younger man!’
Jimmy was six years younger than me which at that time was something pretty shocking…that long marriage is a great comfort to me now.” This trip will be in Jimmy’s honor. She lives in independent living at White Acres and celebrated her 101st birthday the day after this interview. She says,
“I’ve been very lucky.”
Although the couple was stationed in Washington, DC, they had never seen the memorial. After Jimmy passed away, Betty’s close friend Karen Woods asked her if she would consider going on Honor Flight of Southern New Mexico’s (also serving El Paso) Mission 9 this fall. She says, “I said yes, I think now I should. I felt like this was something I could look forward to, I needed that right at that moment. I’m ready; I’m very excited about it.” The couple had three daughters; their eldest, Sharon, will be going along on the Honor Flight late this September as her mother’s guardian.
What stands out from her service days are she says, “The wonderful people that came through Fort Des Moines. Everybody wanted to come and see what happened… We had Mrs. Roosevelt and many many outstanding people all came and talked to us as an officers group; I’m sure they did to a lot of the enlisted too. We met them and felt personally greeted. Mrs. Roosevelt managed in the receiving line to say something personal to everybody and you felt like you had met her, you know?”
Somppi sounds a bit wistful, “Every person that worked with me or for me is gone, my secretary in my office just died last year and that was the last one of the friends that I had kept in touch with for many years.” She is a charter member of the Women’s Memorial in Washington, DC. If you visit there you can view her biography and photo as part of the data base. She’s proud of her groundbreaking service, “We were right there at the beginning. We got a lot of kidding about it. People around Des Moines were used to us and were very welcoming and very nice to us. It was fun…I became a friend of the general (Major General Gwendolyn Bingham) when she was at White Sands. I was so proud that we had anything to do with that, they recognized us and said ‘Well you got it started you know.’ They talked about how far women in the military have come, they fill every field now and they’ve held every rank and it’s wonderful to see.”
Thanks for taking the time to read about Betty’s life. This next week I’ll be bringing you some tips for capturing life stories of folks a bit younger, the graduates in your life. Stay tuned!
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!
We spent a couple months in New Zealand several years ago. One of the last things we did before heading back to the US was something called Blackwater Rafting. Not all of us remember this positively, but that’s their story. For me there were some pretty profound moments. Well, actually you might call it flat out fear—but you decide for yourself:
9:00 a.m. Blackwater Rafting. Struggle into thick wet-suits, then drive over to the river to get the inner tubes (flotation devices the guide calls them in her charming accent). We will use these during the adventure. In the southern hemisphere it’s fall and the river is quite low with a dark channel on one side and a deep pool with a white sandy bottom. Beautiful. The guides walk us out to the end of a dock where there are two platforms to jump from, one rising 10 feet above the current water line for use during high water and another at about four feet. It starts to feel like the gangplank scene in every pirate movie I’ve ever watched.
We had to jump off the dock backwards, holding the tubes onto our rumps. Shock of icy water, went all the way under like a bobber snagged by a giant fish. My first thought was a gasping, “I paid money for this?!!” However, the wet suit warms up pretty quickly and there was a fair bit of laughter among the spluttering as the rest of the group plunked over the side.
We are headed to a wild cave with this river running through it; it’s rough walking over the rocks to reach the entrance. And it’s chilly enough to see our breath. Our guides were two stunning, athletic young New Zealand women. In the first part of the cave we float almost flat on our backs and push along the ceiling just a few inches above our faces.
Note: Did you know that there is no suing in New Zealand? For example, if a tourist bungee jumps off the bridge and the rope breaks. Well—ta ta! You had fun going down! As a result they have all these amazing adventures available, great fun but you take full responsibility for the risk. I think they might actually have a good idea, but that’s another soapbox.
Any rate, back to the river. Our little tour group of floating rubber sausages came to a spot where we were supposed to jump backward, again, but this time off a waterfall. In the dark cave. “Oh by the way, make sure you jump far out so you miss the rocks.” The guide, who by this time I was silently screaming unkind things about, had morphed into Amazon Warrior Woman in my mind. She stared down at my nice middle aged mom self from her six foot height and kept telling me to get closer to the edge. Backwards. “Are you ready?” “No.” “Are you ready now?” No, not yet.” Her, irritated, “I’m going to push you.” “Okay, okay, I’m going.” Actually I’m not sure I voiced anything out loud but there were sure a lot of panicked words going through my adrenaline rushed brain. And one ridiculous line from the movie “Muppet Christmas Carol” “God save my little broken body!”
Cold-cold-cold. Instant body part evaluation, intact, didn’t hit the rocks. Well, thank you, Jesus! Then we floated through caverns with stalactites of all sizes hanging down and glowworms all over the ceiling like gorgeous star constellations. It was surreal. We stopped and just floated below a “waitomo,” a natural window opening into the cave from the ground 60 meters above our heads.
It was worth it but wow, what an adventure. And I tell you, it all came back when I went to see Wonder Woman at the theater recently. I’m pretty sure Guide Girl had a role as an extra.
Now go capture some adventure memories–here’s your tips:
Grab a recorder, your phone or pencil and paper (yes, they still sell this). Find someone to talk to for 30 minutes.
Ask about their most memorable adventure.
How old were they?
Where did they go?
Who were they with?
Was it what they expected?
How do they remember the event?—smiles, laughter, fear, embarrassment, anger? Explore the emotions