Growing up, I listened to my grandfather tell his war stories. His airplane had been hit by flak, a shell that exploded into a thousand shards and ripped through the fuselage. Shrapnel struck his leg and left raised scars that I marveled at. Shrapnel ripped apart his copilot’s head.
This is a wild and emotional story. I feel it in my body, a physical response. It really is more of an impression than a narrative brimming with specific details. Whenever I’ve tried to retell this tale of my grandfather in action, it sounds like a lame game of telephone. I can’t make the listener feel the way I felt when Grandpa told it.
This is the difference between a story you hear and a story you read:
The details exist forever on the page. You can revisit them. In all the years I listened to Grandpa in awe, I only digested the broad strokes. I was too busy feeling to remember it all. Not until we set his story in writing was I able to more fully absorb the particulars:
Grandpa was in such shock that it was only when the doctor ordered him to down a cup of scotch that he realized a five-inch blade of shrapnel jutted from his leg; rushing to surgery, Grandpa asked that they not notify his mother, but they sent a telegram anyway; Grandpa felt a duty to write a letter to his deceased copilot’s family.
These are only a few of the many important details we captured for his memoir. They help bring the story to life. Let’s get these things written down. They deserve it.
I want to tell you about Al, a master baker and product maker who has been in the business for over six decades. Back in the 1970s, Frank Sinatra tasted Al’s cheesecake and decided that Al's was the cake Frank wanted for the parties he threw at his home. So Al shipped a case out to L.A. about four times a year.
When Al was a boy growing up in Brooklyn, his father had a major stroke. Al had to go to work to support his family, and he's been a baker ever since. Al told me how he almost became a professional baseball player. In 1951, he tried out for the New York Giants, made the cut, and would likely have gone on to the majors, but they couldn't offer him enough money to leave Brooklyn, where his family needed him.
I love what I do. It brings me incredibly close to people. As a writer, I spend a lot of time at my computer. But to generate the content that makes up somebody’s LifeStory, I sit with people and I enter their worlds. My curiosity is boundless. I am one big open ear. And when the stories stop pouring forth of their own momentum, usually into the second or third interview hour, then I bring out the questions. We find another fertile tap, and the stories pour again like wine—a complicated mosaic of dynamic, developing flavors.
I haven't posted a blog in a while, as I have been putting a lot of my energy into my freelance writing career, but lately I have circled back to another line of thought--and it feels like déjà vu; how do I really want to spend my time, doing something I am truly passionate about, or not? This thought feels like déjà vu because it is exactly what I was thinking when I first started doing LifeStory memoirs for people. I was passionate about it then, but I got sidetracked. Well, I'm back.
Over the past year, I have had the privilege of learning all about the lives of some very special individuals. Paul is a Holocaust survivor who grew up in Poland. He remembers the day the Nazis arrived in his town--September 1, 1939. He watched them march down the boulevard. Paul was an engineering student. His intelligence, and certainly a fair amount of luck, helped him survive his harrowing ordeal through a number of concentration camps. When he made it to the United States, he became a successful furniture maker and businessman, and raised a beautiful family. Paul is one of the sweetest men I have ever met.
I also loved learning all about Al, a master baker and product maker who has been in the business for over six decades. Because Al's father had a major stroke when Al was a boy growing up in Brooklyn, Al had to stop going to school and start working to support his family. He's been a baker ever since. Al told me how he almost became a professional baseball player. He tried out for the New York Giants and made the cut. He was invited to the training camp, from where he would likely have gone on to the majors, but they couldn't offer him enough money to leave Brooklyn, where his family needed him.
And then there's Lionel, a business mogul who created a whole new model in the shoe business. Remember how when you used to go into a shoe store, the guy sat you down, measured your foot, and then went into the back to get a few pairs of shoes for you to try on? Lionel had a new idea: put the shoes out on the racks, organize them by size, and let the customers try them on themselves. This way they often ended up leaving with a few pairs, and Lionel didn't need as many employees. Well, it was a success. He later sold his business for a lot of money. When the buyer bankrupted the business quickly, Lionel bought it back for pennies on the dollar and sold it again a few years later. Amazing! It's one of the few businesses ever to go public two times.
Some amazing stories from some amazing guys!
I have a stand of bamboo in my backyard. It is beautiful, reaching fifty feet high and dancing in the wind. Birds make their homes in its leaves. When the snow falls, it weighs the tops of the trees over to make a network of tunnels that my son and our neighbors’ kids crawl through like explorers in a new world. The feather sounds of winter as the trees rustle…sounds of my home, now and in my youth.
But there is a root system under the ground that steals water from my grass. And when the springtime comes, baby bamboo shoots spring up in places I didn’t think the root system could have spread to. The bamboo stands at the back of the yard, yet new trees want to grow in the middle, even on the other side of the fence in my neighbor’s yard. In the growing season, I have to keep my eye on it. My son and I go on periodic searches, and when we find young shoots, sometimes only an inch out of the dirt, we kick them. If we wait too long to check the grass, we find shoots that in a couple of days have grown three feet.
The bamboo is crazy, its network of roots everywhere, growing out and out, generation after generation. The longer the network exists, the stronger it becomes, and the harder it will be to eradicate.
Which gets me thinking about family, legacy, heritage, and the importance of root systems. Each of us is a node; we have roots behind us, the ones that led to us. If those roots had never existed, then neither would we. Now we plant our own roots, grow offshoots.
But whereas the bamboo can live hundreds of years, generations side by side, we need to tell our stories for our roots to really survive. Where do my roots go back to? That’s hard to say with precision. When my son asks, I’ll tell him what I know: my grandfather’s parents emigrated as infants from Germany through Ellis Island in the late 1800s. I’ll tell my son how Cousin Dougie did some genealogy work and learned that our family name, Squires, is actually an Americanization of Skwaris, which was a Germanization of a town in the Ukraine, Skvyra. My grandfather confirmed that Skwaris was in fact my family’s name until his father and uncle changed it.
But how many generations lived in Germany after migrating from Skvyra, Ukraine? How did my grandfather’s parents meet? What made his grandparents decide to make the trek to the United States? Grandpa couldn’t say.
I just wish I had the story—as much of it as possible, anyway—from the many nodes in my root system. The story I have thins out the further back I look. It’s a ghost, irretrievable. But looking forward, I want to do my part to thicken up my family’s story. When my great-grandchildren want to know about me and how I view the world of today, they’ll just have to open the book. I want my family network to be more like the bamboo root system under my grass—generations side by side.
As I launch into my new venture to assist people with the recording of their LifeStories, the question arises: Why do a lifestory? What are the benefits?
Answering this question feels overwhelming at first, because the answer seems so obvious:
We record these stories so they will last forever, so we can pass them down to the following generations. When my son asks me about my grandfather, when he’s curious about his heroism in World War II, about what growing up in 1920s and 1930s New York City was like, about how he met my grandmother, about what it was like to become a grandfather, a great-grandfather, we’ll have that story from ‘the horse’s mouth.’
How wonderful for my son; perhaps it will build in him a greater sense of family and history, a feeling that he is part of a long and ongoing family line that stretches back in time and charges forward with momentum. Perhaps that will give him a feeling of having strong roots in life, a home he belongs to, and will work against the feeling of loneliness and purposelessness that we all must sometime face. I could go on and on about the potential benefits that my grandfather’s lifestory can provide to my son and the rest of us who follow.
But what about the benefits to the person who is telling the story?
How gratifying to know that you will be remembered, that the story of your life is important to somebody, that you and your story can provide comfort, history, education, guidance to young ones coming up after you, ones who surely can use all the guidance they can get.
And what about the therapeutic benefits to the mind that come with remembering? The flexing of mental muscles that may have lain dormant for a while. Remembering can improve the cognitive functions, can get those mental juices flowing.
And it can be great fun for the storyteller. You ever notice that across an entire life, whether you’ve lived 90 years or only 37 as I have, there are some episodes that take up far more real estate in your memory than the rest? People tell the same stories over and over again, because those are what stand out to them as the most memorable parts of their lives. Out of my grandfather’s long and varied 92-year life, he mostly talked about the war and his swimming career (he was good enough to compete in the Olympics, and would have if it weren’t for World War II). He had a ball talking about training for and winning swim meets all through high school and his first year of college. And it made him laugh every time he talked about the fun he had while on R&R in the Pacific—in Sydney, Australia, and Auckland and Wellington, New Zealand.
Now that I have his stories immortalized in print—despite the fact that Grandpa is gone and can never tell his stories again—they will not fade with the passing years. They will live on forever.
According to the Society of Certified Senior Advisors, benefits of telling your lifestory include:
It is healthy for our elders to tell us their memories, but they need us to listen.
Every now and then, I like to write a blog on a topic relevant to LifeStory and the notion that immortalizing our stories in print is invaluable to future generations.