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Why write your memoir? Why help someone write their life story? I wanted to share this eloquent passage from Diane Setterfield’s “The Thirteenth Tale.”

“People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic.”

You never know what interesting, and often entertaining, stories you’ll turn up when you start asking questions. This long Twitter thread is a prime example.

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Nicole Cliffe
‏@Nicole_Cliffe
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My dad thought HIS dad was dead until I was a year old. Then he found him in the Toronto phone book.
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My mom was doing my family tree and started asking where he was buried and what he died of.

“Huh, dunno. Mom just said he was dead.”
_____

“Doesn’t your mom lie about everything, all the time?”

“Yeah.”

(opens phone book for Canada’s most populous city: boom, there he is)
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“Mom, why did you tell us Dad was dead?” “Well, I hadn’t heard from him in a while, and divorce is such an unpleasant topic.”
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So, my dad calls his dad and is like “uh, are you the Ralph Cliffe who was married to Horrible Mother?” (He was.)
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So, my dad went to visit him and then we went to visit him and we always brought him a carton of DuMauriers and he bought us Mint Aeros.
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Later I was like “Dad, you know your dad didn’t think YOU were dead, didn’t that bug you?”
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And he said “listen, no human being who had the ability to get away from my mother would have passed it up. I have no hard feelings.”
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The real fun coda to this story (there are two, you’re being so patient!) came a year or so later, when my mom found a wedding pic.
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A wedding pic of my dad’s mom, not to my dad’s dad, not to her new husband. An older one. “Who’s that?” she asked her.
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Turns out she had married a British soldier during WW2, decided she hated England, got on a troop ship and came home. Never divorced him.
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(Divorce being unpleasant.) So she just took that one as a mulligan. He wrote her a lot of letters, she ignored them.
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So, she was bigamously married to my dad’s dad, and then later to her new husband.
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Now, her new husband was a lot of fun, and a great grandpa to my brother and me. Buncha weird tattoos, missing a thumb.
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He was Latvian. We would sit on his lap and play with his thumb stump and watch WWII movies.
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But in the late 1980s he started to get really squirrelly and paranoid. Which, in retrospect, was because of the Deschênes Commission.
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(Canada had started looking more firmly at the war records of German soldiers who slid on into Canada in the fifties.)
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But then he died and no one wanted more Unpleasantness, so there you go.
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Anyway, she was one of the worst moms of all time and definitely the worst wife and she and I hung out 24/7 and she let me smoke.
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And we watched Young and the Restless together and Biography on A&E and I often miss her. And my dad somehow turned out great.
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Thank you for listening to my Canadian family saga, in which avoiding Unpleasantness led to bigamy and marrying Nazis and abandonment.
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OH, I forgot the best part! On my dad’s dad’s deathbed, he said “Bill, I have secrets!” and my dad was like “Jesus, Dad, let’s not.”
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“Your sister? Not mine. You remember [some guy]?”
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So, a few months later, my dad said “hey, sis, do you remember [some guy]?”
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And she said, “oh, yeah! He took me to the circus once, randomly.”
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And THAT is definitely the end of this story.
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I do not feel bad airing the family laundry like this, because that woman may have hated Unpleasantness, but she fucking LOVED Drama.
_____

The only thing you really miss out on by hearing this story via Twitter is me saying “the Mounties are after me!” in a thick Latvian accent.

You Are A Classic

Vehicles not only transport us from one location to another, but they also represent transitional moments in our lives. It’s a fun beginning point if you want to record the life story of a loved one.

For example, my father shared memories regarding the above photograph, in which he’s sitting on a 1948 Harley he bought in the mid-1950s, while attending college in San Francisco. Pre-helmet-days, he wore an upside-down sailor hat to keep hair from blowing into his eyes.

“I bought it from a man who kept it in his barn. It was good-sized. I had never ridden a motorcycle in my entire life. He showed me the elements of it in his field. It was not a foot shifter. You had to shift it by hand, and jump-start it. You worked up a sweat to get it going. I drove it a few times around.

That was on Friday. On Sunday, I headed to San Francisco, with two days’ experience. I’m driving down 101, and the wind is starting to blow. I’m not used to leaning into the wind, and it keeps blowing me toward the center line. I had to keep slowing down to get where I’m supposed to be; speed up a little bit, I’m back at the center line. I get to the Golden Gate Bridge, and my hands, from gripping the handlebars, were closed like claws, and I’m trying to get the wallet out to pay the bridge fare. Cars behind me are blowing their horns.

I was living with my grandmother in San Francisco at the time, and she had a garage below the sidewalk. I loved the motorcycle so much, that I would go down there, and just sit on it; smell the oil.

I had it for the rest of the school year. That July 4th holiday, I thought it would be great to take it to Yosemite [from Fort Bragg], and to take my kid brother, Steve, who was only 13 at the time. I was 18. I told my mom we were going to Yosemite, and then to Carson City, and Reno. She said, “Oh, okay.”

We were about half-way to Yosemite, and I start getting a flat fire in the front, and the front end is shaking back and forth. I could hardly hold onto it, and there’s a big semi behind us.

I said, “Hey, Steve, get ready to jump, because I’m not sure how long I can keep doing this.”

He said, “Get ready to do what?”

I managed to pull it off to the side of the road, and the truck went by. The motorcycle was so heavy in the front end, I couldn’t lift it. There happened to be a husky farm boy who lived near there, who helped me lift it up, put some blocks underneath it. We took that wheel off, hitchhiked back to the nearest town, where they fixed it; hitchhiked back to the motorcycle, put it on, and started heading to Yosemite.

After about 15 miles, the tire started to go flat again. It started to shake a little bit, but not as bad as it did before. If I kept the speed up, the shaking wasn’t too bad, so we made it to the next town. The tire shop said the previous guys did a crappy job of repairing it; didn’t cover the hole completely.

We finally got to Yosemite, camped out on the ground, drove around Mirror Lake, and other places. Beautiful place to drive a motorcycle.

In the middle of the night, a big thunderstorm came up, and we got soaking wet in our sleeping bags. I said, “Why don’t we just cancel Carson City and Reno, and head back to Fort Bragg?”

We drive back through St. Helene to the Becks’ ranch, where I used to go when I was a kid, driving kind of slow, and the motorcycle tipped over. We didn’t get hurt, but it spilled a lot of gas. I kick-started it, and it burst into flames. So, I had to beat it out with a rag.

We had to make it back in one day from Yosemite to Fort Bragg. It was getting foggy and dark. We were on Navarro Road, which had pea gravel all over it, because they had been working on it. One thing motorcycle drivers don’t like is pea gravel, because you skid. So, I’m gingerly working my way along, and finally pull onto Bald Hill Road, totally exhausted. But, we made it back alive.

That was my big motorcycle adventure with my 13 year old brother. He doesn’t realize how many adventures I brought into his life, because he’s gotten really cranky lately.”

When he needed to downsize his closets, he gave me that bomber jacket in the photo. Yes, it’s too large for me. Do I care? No.

The thing about death is that you can’t remember what a person sounded like. You forget all the little things that you once knew. The sound they made when they opened up the front door, the way they walked, the way they laughed.”

Anderson Cooper

 

The other day, I watched something online so hilarious my left eye closed as I laughed, and I thought of my mother. Her left eye would also close during deep laughter. She passed away over 30 years ago, and while I will obviously never forget her, sometimes these smaller aspects of her fade away. Fortunately, my family has old home movies, and every few years, we’ll get together for a home movie night and I can once again see my mother’s bright smile and gestures that belonged to her alone. Back then, sound wasn’t an option, but her personality shines through nevertheless.

If you were lucky enough to have someone in the family who filmed holidays and other events, those films can be converted onto DVD’s, so you can “revisit” those favorite (and not so favorite) relatives who have passed on or have aged a few decades. Consider sharing these DVD’s as holiday presents this year.

Don’t forget about the future! Videos taken of family events with your camera, smartphone, Pad, Notebook, etc., can be compiled and shared with the family globally.

You also have an opportunity to sit down with your favorite people, and film a one-on-one conversation about his or her life — how obstacles were tackled, funny anecdotes, lessons learned, his or her favorite people, etc.

If a family gathering approaches where a few “old timers” will be present, consider filming them as a group, asking them to share stories about when they were kids. The different personalities will be revealed, and their interaction will provide another layer of insight into your family dynamics.

As this popular vintage photograph montage demonstrates, personalities exist behind formal portraits, so even if you’re taking a formal or quasi-formal group photograph, be sure to take a couple of candid shots of the group being themselves.

Vintage

That’s a keeper.

I love strolling through antique malls. Some may only see a building filled with old junk, but for me, it’s a fabulous opportunity for imaginative spelunking through objects’ unshared stories:

A painting purchased by a lonely housewife temporarily eased her aching heart. A book offered adventures to a young boy who yearned to leave home. A clock traveled thousands of miles from the “old country” accompanied by hopes of a prosperous land. A porcelain Victorian doll was shipped by a WWII sailor to his young niece two weeks before losing his life to a direct torpedo hit. Vinyl albums were played over and over by girlfriends at a slumber party. A mahogany table played host to dinners, holidays, discussions and challenging homework. The art of whittling was learned with a pocketknife gifted from a beloved grandfather. A ring had been carried in a pocket during picnics, movies and walks before the proposal was finally blurted out during a rainstorm. Building blocks hand-me-downs from four older siblings continued to bring joy. Martini glasses filled every Thursday night for ladies’ bridge night.

Photographs of discarded relatives periodically appear in and out of frames: Two brothers – one seated and one standing – agree to the portrait after their mother’s anguish that they are leaving home to fight the Yanks. A teenage girl standing behind a chair with a wide, white collar and hair tied back in a pony tail just learned the boy she has crush on also has a crush on her. A young daughter holds her mother’s brooch, causing the younger brother to cry until his father lets him hold his pocket watch for the family portrait. A group of second grade students in a class picture just learned of two classmates’ deaths due to diphtheria. A middle-aged woman glares, irritated, at the camera, thinking about numerous unfinished chores.

I also love driving or walking through older communities where more stories await: That beautifully landscaped home’s secret cellar witnessed brewing of illegal hooch during Prohibition, which was also sold to neighbors. A victory garden in the backyard in the next block preceded the swimming pool and spa. A battered wife hid her shame and embarrassment in the charming bungalow. The strict piano teacher on the corner produced three successful concert pianists. A president visited his old college chum in the brownstone.

That is why I enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s book, “Behind the Scenes at the Museum,” in which she provides a bird’s eye view of a family history. The reader is led back-and-forth through time through objects, places and people as informative bread crumbs gently and often humorously ultimately bring us to a complete picture. The book’s story, as with  life, is multi-layered.

Pay more attention to what surrounds you. Leave the flat plains of existence and explore the depths and heights that surround you. You won’t be bored. I promise.

“You can’t judge a book by its cover.”  But, we do.

It starts in childhood – picking on kids who wear glasses or braces, have a physical/speech/mental handicap, different skin color, weight issues, unique fashion sense, etc.

As adults, even though we should be smarter and more mature, we continue judging others.

In the late 1970’s, Randy Newman’s hit song, “Short People,” was a sarcastic commentary on prejudice.  Most people, however, didn’t pick up on the subtle sarcasm, nor did they grasp the lyric’s main point, “All men are brothers until the day they die.”  They focused on the insulting lyrics, which they used to ridicule a specific segment of the population.  A co-worker, who was 5”1’, found the song extremely offensive.  I empathized with her frustration.

I grew up a blonde, blue-eyed California girl.  Media and popular movie characters and/or actresses promoted the idea of the “dumb blonde,” which subsequently gave birth to popular dumb blonde jokes.  They are offensive to me, because there are individuals who actually believe them.  Those who didn’t know me assumed that, because I was blonde, I had nothing intelligent to say or contribute.  It’s incredible how many times throughout my life I have had to correct their assumptions, and watch their surprise double take.  As a result, I try to make a concerted effort not to judge someone on his or her physical appearance.

The truth is that everyone has been on the receiving end of judgments at some point in their lives. Do they carry a grudge, or become sensitive to others’ pain?

Writing a memoir or biography provides insight into a life journey.  It’s an opportunity to explain how such experiences re-shaped perspectives, and to share resulting wisdom.

That shared story needs a book cover design.  A picture is worth a thousand words, the adage says, and the photograph chosen for the cover is important.  It should reflect or highlight the individual’s core essence or personality, because it provides a visual introduction to the book’s subject matter – either repelling or inviting.

The cover itself can also align itself with the subject matter – dimensions, soft or hardback, board (found in young children’s books), or handcrafted.  There was a gentleman who spent his life as a woodcrafter, so his memoir’s book cover was crafted from wood, with the title and design engraved into it.

Ensure your life story book cover showcases your uniqueness, where judgment is not an issue.

What photograph(s) and/or images would best reflect your life thus far?

 

You Are A Classic


Genealogy is all the rage right now, providing individuals with a sense of identity; a connection to people whose lives may seem more interesting than their own, and offer bragging rights.  “I’m related to ….” 

A cousin’s research into one side of our family revealed a Swedish Duke who was banned from his kingdom.  We’re very proud. 

Wouldn’t it be great if you could to speak to one of your ancestors and ask him/her what life was like or why certain decisions were made? 

Well, if you don’t record your life story, that’s what your descendants will be asking.  Your great-great-great-grandchildren will have no idea who you are.  Your favorite grandfather or aunt will be relegated to city and county records.  Their life experiences will be forgotten.  Their personality traits, the reasons you love him or her will never be known. 

You are interesting.  Somone you love is interesting.  Write, type or tell someone your stories. 

The future is listening.

You Are A Classic

My grandparents had been married 70 years when it came time for them to move into an assisted living facility.  Forced to leave their home and losing their independence was obviously difficult for them.

My mother – their daughter – had passed away a couple of decades previous, so it was up to my brothers and I to overlook the moving process. My grandparents sat next to each other watching, with sad, sad eyes as I emptied cupboards and drawers, and would respond quietly, sometimes with a catch in their voices, whenever they were asked if they wished a particular item to be donated, sold at a yard sale, or gifted. 

My grandfather had served in the Navy the first couple of years in their marriage, so moving was not new for them.  However, they had accumulated a lot of memories in the subsequent decades, and many of them were associated with treasured items – drawings and paintings created by my grandmother before arthritis kicked in, her grandmother’s lace bed coverlet and her mother’s plates, a high school textbook, dance cards, my grandfather’s tools from his basement workshop, his sailor’s uniform last worn in 1930, a sword he obtained in Panama, souvenirs from road trips after their children had grown, silhouettes of the grandchildren when they were in grade school, and so forth.

My brothers claim their part was the most difficult – loading up the few heavy pieces of furniture and boxed items that would fit in their small, new apartment.  I disagree.  I drove them away from their home.  As we pulled away from the curb, my grandfather said, “Good-bye, house.  Good-bye, old house” and started singing, “The Last Roundup,” while my grandmother rifled through her purse looking for her heart medication.

When you’re writing your life story, or helping someone else to write his or hers, ask what treasures are sprinkled throughout the home that have a history; a memory.  It will not only serve as a memory trigger, but the story can accompany the item to its new home.

What items in your home are special to you, and what’s the story behind them?

You Are A Classic

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Rene Manes was a female version of the neighborhood bully.  She was taller than most of us girls, had long blonde hair, pale skin, and was intimidating as hell.  A bit of a loner, she kept to herself, except to abuse any poor sap who unwittingly crossed her path.

One summer day, she approached a few of us who were playing marbles, and asked if she could join the game.  Stunned, we just looked at her.  Rene Manes not only wanted to play with us, but she actually asked permission.  Speechless, all we could manage were slow, short nods.

In our school, “steely boulders” were considered the most valuable marble, followed by agates, then purees.  Cat-eyes were at the bottom.  In this particular game, I won my first steely boulder.  I was simultaneously ecstatic and terrified, because the marble, naturally, belonged to Rene.  She immediately denied my victory.  A bit loony in my joy at having finally won the coveted steely boulder, I actually stood up to her.  This resulted in an intensely heated debate, and ended when she shoved me on the ground.  The skin of my knee scraped off, I limped home, crying, as blood dripped down my shin.

A couple of days later, my family and my aunt and uncle’s family took a trip to Disneyland.  After checking into the hotel room, my mother discovered my knee wound had become infected.  As she scraped the puss off, I cried and screamed.  My cousin (three years younger than I) watched the painful, grisly procedure through the hotel window, crying and screaming in harmony with me, until her mother carried her off to their room.  The scar on my knee remains to this day, a subtle reminder that standing up to a strong personality does not always have a happy ending.

That fall, I had one more encounter with Her.

In my front yard, stood a tall sycamore tree, with a long, fairly straight, horizontal branch.  It was about half-a-foot out of my reach, but I could jump up, grab it, pull myself up, drape a leg over it, and swing around it like I did on the monkey bars on the playground.

One afternoon, standing under said branch, I assumed the squatting position to segue into the jump.  Rene happened to be walking down the street.  I pretended I didn’t see her.  Midway through my vertical leap, with deliberation and malice aforethought, she yelled my name, knowing that, in a knee-jerk reaction, I would automatically turn my head in response, lose momentum, and plummet to the ground.  I landed on my arm, and watched her continue walking with a smile, as tears rolled down my face.

The doctor told my mother I had a sprained arm, and that I would need to wear a sling until it healed.  At school the next day, Manes called me a “faker,” saying there was nothing wrong with my arm.  Everyone believed her, so I took it off.  When I got home, my mother was not pleased to see me sling-less.  The following morning, she watched me walk down the street to ensure I kept it on.  Of course, I took it off as I was out of her sight.  The arm managed to heal, without physical scarring.  To this day, however, when someone doesn’t believe me, I can become somewhat defensive.

Manes’ family moved the following summer, and the streets became safe once again.  As I grew in height and age, my self-confidence grew as well.  I now stand up for those who are unable to do so, and support the underdogs.  However, whenever I find myself standing next to a tall woman, those cell memories shoot up to the surface, and I have to remind myself I am no longer eight years old.

Were you bullied, or were you the bully?  How have those experiences affected you?

You Are A Classic

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Joe audrey pop virginia 1949For some people, spending time with family during the holidays does not warm the cockles of their hearts.  There are arguments, disputes, old resentments resurface, lives are judged and criticized, etc.  There is a way, however, to ease the emotional pain of the holiday season. 

Who, in your family, is sincerely cherished by all; someone who is truly respected and held in high regard?  Consider giving a tribute to him or her this holiday season.  A tribute is something the entire family can be involved in, both separately and together. 

When I am hired to put together a personal history, every single person in the family – even the ones who aren’t speaking to anyone – happily donate their time for an interview, because they want to preserve that relative’s memory.  They actually move beyond their issues with the family, and focus on the much loved relative.  When the book is complete, relatives read about the special memories others have – some unique, some shared – about the same individual, and the fondness they once had for each other rises up above the old grudges and disputes.  A healing begins to grow, working its way through each branch and leaf on the family tree.

You have the ability to create a powerful gifted family legacy for future generations.

It begins with one.

Whose life story could you preserve that would reconnect your family?

You Are A Classic

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