Sometimes, sharing your story can be a very powerful healing tool.  Fr. Michael Lapsley taps into that tool to help those struggling with incredibly painful memories.

Cemeteries and graveyards are quiet communities, which practice (as far as we know) the good neighbor policy.  The residents enjoy visitors, and are always willing to lend an ear.

Shadows cast from gnarly tree limbs, swirling leaves, and lichen covered stones can be irresistible for photographers. Some visitors enjoy the peaceful setting – walking pets around the perimeter, partaking a lunch on a bench or blanket, meditating, or engaging in a “romantic” rendezvous. Last year, “Laid to rest” took on a different meaning for a New Jersey woman, when a tombstone fell over, crushing her leg, during a sexual escapade.  (A resident’s judgment?)

Curiosity is often peaked as to the stories of the silent residents. Were their lives happy, or end tragically?

Find a Grave ( sometimes offers clues, which relies on volunteers to post photographs of gravesite markers, and information about the deceased.

Association for Gravestone Studies ( offers suggestions on difficult-to-read stones, such as taking a digital photo, and inverting colors on your computer.

While some claim that grave markers should remain untouched, others insist that cleaning them shows respect. On a practical level, cleaning them makes it easier for those researching ancestral roots.

A simple cleaning can be accomplished without damaging the stone.  Spray with water, scrape most of the lichens off with something simple as a Popsicle stick, and rub flat surfaces with a natural bristle brush.  Spray chlorine for the remaining lichen, and brush a little more.  (Some household cleaners will leave a residue that can promote algae growth, so it’s best to avoid them.)

If you’re content to stay at home, and read a good graveyard mystery, check out Amanda Stevens’  “The Graveyard Queen” series.  It has a good balance of interesting information on gravesites, and spooky happenings.

Do you have any good cemetery stories?

Nobody can do for little children what grandparents do.  Grandparents sort of sprinkle stardust over the lives of little children.”

Alex Haley

Grandparent stardust was a staple for my brothers and I, and it is missed very, very much. We were fortunate to know both paternal and maternal grandparents throughout our childhood, and adult years.

Grandparents Day is this weekend, and although they have all passed, I will take this opportunity to acknowledge my grandparents’ influence – love, support, example – and express my gratitude for having had them in my life.

Grammie always dressed well.  She even wore a skirt and cashmere sweater (sleeves carefully pushed up to her elbow) when working in her garden.  Her garden, a shoo-in for Sunset Magazine, included trellises, hanging planters, archways, and gates, built by my grandfather.  She taught me how to play Crazy 8’s, King in the Corner, I Spy, and Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button.  She was an avid reader of history, an amazing cook, and strong walker.  Although she endured several surgeries throughout her life, I never heard her complain.  When she was 93, she looked up from her hospital bed, and told the nurse, “I feel old.”  She died two hours later, peacefully, in her sleep.

Grandma Gerry was a tough cookie.  When she was 16 years old, a Sheriff pulled her out of class one day (a humiliation), telling her she had to go home right away, because her mother had left, and since her father was out working at logging camps, someone had to watch her younger sisters.  She spent the next couple of years cooking, and cleaning house, in addition to taking care of her sisters, but also maintained a high grade point average in school.  She raised three boys, while her husband worked two or three shifts to support the family.  I rarely saw her sit down, as she was always cleaning, barking orders, or reprimands.  But, I never doubted her love, and she was always there when I needed her.

Grampie was a sailor, and carpenter, who liked to call me “Granny.”  He could be close-minded, but always took my side in arguments.  He taught himself how to build a house by talking to carpenters, did pull-ups by his fingertips on door frames, flexed his chest muscles so his ship tattoo rocked its waves, loved his pipe, and the San Francisco Giants.  While his wife enjoyed reading about the past, he was always interested in anything newly invented, global changes, and innovative ideas.  As a man who had always worked with his hands, legal blindness was very difficult for him.  He’d walk down to the assisted care facility’s dining room, twist off his walking cane’s handle, and pour out Old Grandad whiskey from the hidden vial into his morning coffee.  Once a sailor …

Grandpa Bo spent so much time cutting class in school, the teacher didn’t know his name.  He decided there was no point in continuing, and spent the rest of his life working for the lumber mill.  He knew how to have a good time.  There was always a smile on his face when we visited, and a sad wave good-bye when we left.  He could build anything from anything.  He loved getting my grandmother riled up.  Whenever Lawrence Welk or wrestling was on TV, grandkids took a back seat.  When I announced, at age 19, that I would be backpacking across Europe with a 28 year old man, my grandmother immediately counter-announced that I wasn’t going anywhere, with any man.  My grandfather, however, winked, and said, “Send me a postcard.”  He said he would rather die, than quit smoking.  Wish granted. Dammit.

What are your best memories of your grandparents?

A recent appalling news item concerned a woman who unsuccessfully attempted to restore a fresco.  To say she is an amateur is an understatement.  For those of you who are unaware of the story:

It triggered a memory of an anecdote a photograph restoration expert shared with me years ago (although not as horrific as the fresco tragedy).

A client brought him a portrait of his mother taken in the 1940’s that required restoration.  The client’s parents had married, divorced, re-married, re-divorced, and so, the portrait has been torn lengthwise, and horizontal-wise.  The photograph was restored, but the client told him that, although beautiful, it didn’t look like his mother.

The restorer had a sit down with a forensics expert, who taught him about bone structure.

Now fully armed with this additional knowledge, he returned to the portrait, and, voila, client says, “Perfect.”

If you have any photographs that require restoration due to damage by mold, light exposure, etc., and basic restoration techniques may not be enough, interview different restoration service providers about their background.

As Mom used to say, “If you’re going to do a job, do it right.” Your ancestors would be pleased.

You Are A Classic

Every family has its own particular dysfunction, which could even be a denial that dysfunction exists.

Mine is no exception.  There are the usual suspects, quirky character-wise; that is, relatives who refuse to conform to the mainstream.  Thank gawd.  How boring to live a cookie cutter existence.

When I was young, our annual July 4th reunions were held at an old logging camp.  My grandfather and his brothers worked at the lumber mill, so we were allowed to vacation out there for a few weeks each summer.  It was fabulous.  Beer was an ever present guest.  But, no matter how much anyone had to drink, there were never any fights.  Seriously.  My cousin Deborah and I still joke that the family is a bunch of “happy drunks.”

However, one year, when someone outside the family tried picking a fight with one of our relatives, he was quickly surrounded like Custer, and was never seen again.

On an individual basis, whiners are obnoxious.  A group of them, ie., the Jackson Family, is intolerable.

If there is a silver lining to their public debacle, perhaps individuals around the globe can look at their own families, and work on healing.

Sharing family stories can be a first step.

“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

My parents’ hometown was a four-hour drive, which my family would undertake each holiday, as both sets of grandparents still resided there.

Memorial Day was predominantly spent with my paternal grandparents, whose families had immigrated to the town in the late 1880’s, and so had a fair number of gravesites to visit.  I would follow my grandmother around their one-acre property as she gathered calla lilies.

At the cemetery, as the adults walked from grave to grave of loved ones, laying down the flowers and reminiscing about each lost relative, I would venture off, walking between the sites (mindful of stepping on someone) and reading the gravestones. Sometimes, there would be a quote which would offer a clue about who was buried there.  I especially liked walking to the back end of the cemetery, where it had become neglected and overgrown; only sporadic bits of markers remained.  I wondered who they had been and why they were forgotten.

My father confessed his curiosity, as well, not only about the forgotten, but all of those who were buried there.  Who were they?  What were their stories?  He thought it would be grand if each gravestone had a button you could push, which would play a recording of the deceased’s story.

Little did he know that years later, QR codes would come along, holding a brief biography of a decedent, tastefully embedded on a gravestone.  Imagine, after visiting a loved one’s burial site, strolling around meeting his or her “neighbors” with a simple scan. 

Another way to share a condensed bio is through Find A Grave (, where you can search for graves at cemeteries around the world. It’s volunteer-based, so it’s up to individuals to post a photograph of the gravesite and type in information.  Photographs of the deceased can be uploaded as well.  It’s a free service. 

Obituaries provide one-time glimpses into lives of loved ones.  These two options provide ongoing introductions and storytelling. 

Who would you like to be remembered?

You Are a Classic

“If there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers.”
The Old Curiosity Shop, Charles Dickens

Storyteller extraordinaire Charles Dickens created a legacy of diverse literary work of lighthearted serials, historical fiction and platforms for social reform.  One of the most popular authors of the Victorian era, his fan base ranged from the “lower classes” to royalty.

His creatively named characters, such as Sairey Gamp, Mr. Wackford Squeers, Daniel Quilp, Mrs. Jellyby, Noddy Boffin, Ignorance and Want, Mr. Fezziwig, Peggotty, Jarndyce, Tattycoram, Abel Magwitch, Polly Toodle, Jeremiah Flintwinch and Mr. M’Choakumchild are timeless, and continue to captivate new readers.

Although his writings were published over a century ago, his insight and commentaries on the vulnerabilities of the human condition remain true today.

Jennie Scott teaches Honor English 1 and Junior English atRioAmericanoHigh School, and includes “Great Expectations” in her curriculum.  “It’s easy for the students to relate to, because the main characters in the book are setting out in life, and so are the teenagers in my classes.” Personally, the pathetic Miss Havisham is the character who has stuck with me all of these years.

If you read “A Tale of Two Cities,” your memory easily conjures up Dickens’ vivid portrayal of the stark realities and passion behind the French Revolution, and the dramatic ending as the main character approaches the guillotine. (Dickens actually witnessed a beheading by guillotine in Rome in 1845.)  And, who can forget the “resurrection men?”

Dickens’ legacy is such that an auction in December 2009 saw his ivory and gold toothpick (“used on last visit toAmerica”) sell for $9,150, and in December 2010, a leather dog collar with a brass inscription he once owned sold for $11,590.

It comes as no surprise, then, that international celebrations are planned to commemorate the bicentennial of the birth of Charles John Huffman Dickens on February 7, 2012.  TheCharlesDickensMuseumand Film London, in association with The Dickens Fellowship, have created a website – Dickens 2012 – showcasing events, films, and contemporary authors offering their responses to the query, “What Would Dickens Write Today?”  (

As often occurs with authors, Dickens’ personal experiences and people he knew were often incorporated into his work.

For example, Dickens’ father’s inability to manage his finances landed the entire family, except Dickens, in Marshalea Debtors Prison in 1824.  Dickens, at age twelve, was sent to work at a blacking (shoe/boot polish) factory, and left to fend for himself.  Those experiences were written into “Little Dorrit” and “David Copperfield.” (The character of Mr. Micawber in “David Copperfield,” was based on his father.)

He later worked as a law office clerk, shorthand reporter, and journalist, writing for The True Sun, Mirror of Parliament, and The Morning Chronicle, under the pseudonym “Boz.”  (His son, Charles, Jr., was given “Boz” for a middle name.)  In the 1840’s, he edited the London Daily News. 

In 1836, the same year “Pickwick Papers” was published, he married Catherine Hogarth, whose father was the editor of a paper for which Dickens was writing.  

A year later, Catherine’s sister, Mary, moved in with them.  Dickens was particularly fond of his 17-year-old sister-in-law, and when she suddenly died in 1837, Dickens was so griefstricken, he asked to be buried next to her and wore her ring most of his life.  He and Catherine’s first daughter was named after her.  In 1842, Catherine’s 14-year-old sister,Georgina, then moved in with them.

In 1857, actress Ellen Ternan entered his life, and they maintained a relationship until his death.

Dickens and Catherine separated in 1858 after 22 years of marriage, and the birth of their tenth child. Georginastayed with Dickens as a housekeeper, but also took on the role as the children’s guardian.  Although none of the children pursued a literary career, son Henry was knighted and son Edward was elected to Parliament inNew South Wales. 

Dickens had boundless energy, walking approximately twenty miles on a daily basis, writing travel books, entertaining and performing readings.  He produced fifteen novels, wrote essays, edited periodicals, and was active in innumerable causes, including an ongoing fight against corrupt institutions, such as Parliament and the education system.  

From the 1840s, Dickens traveled extensively, including a couple of tours in the United States, during which he met President Tyler.  His initial tour in 1842, a month shy of his 30th birthday, was intended to promote the idea of international copyright law, as Americans had been pirating his work fairly regularly. He tried to convince them that it would protect their writings as well, but his efforts fell on deaf ears. 

During his next trip to theUnited States(1867-68), he performed seventy-six readings of his work, one of which Mark Twain attended. Dickens’ readings were said to be entertaining, as he spoke with accents and mimed mannerisms of the various characters.

Twelve-year-old Kate Wiggin missed Dickens’Portland,Mainereading, but encountered him on a subsequent Boston-bound train.  Their long conversations made the journey more interesting.  In 1903, Kate Wiggin also entered the novelist arena with the publication of her book, “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.” 

Dickens probably would have enjoyed seeing Wiggin’s literary success, but, a stroke took his life in 1870, at age 58.  His popularity remained, unabated, at a high level.

Wherever the English language is spoken the intelligence we publish this morning of the decease of Mr. Charles Dickens will be received with feelings of deep regret.

The Guardian, June 10, 1870

His long-time friend, Henry Wordsworth Longfellow observed, “I never knew an author’s death to cause such general mourning. It is no exaggeration to say that this whole country is stricken with grief.”

His popularity didn’t cease with his death, as proved by The Dickens Game, created In 1886, which was played similar to the game of “Authors.”    

The publication “The Dickensian” was founded in 1905, and continues to thrive to this day.  It is published three times a year, with articles of literary criticism, reviews of plays and radio shows, and offers reportings on The Dickens Fellowship (founded in 1902).  (

“What the dickens?” Mr. Dickens may have found it amusing that so many of us assume this cliché refers to him.  Its origins are unknown, but the term first appeared in Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor” – over 200 years before Dickens was born.

What Dickens character made the biggest impression on you?

You Are A Classic

On January 16, 1919, Congress passed the 18th Amendment, prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol.  Although this was meant to end, among other things, drunkenness and crime, it actually had the reverse effect.  Organized crime rose, along with the number of private illegal stills.

My great-uncle Oscar was no exception.  His oldest son recalls the family cat staggering around after lapping up some of the spillage from his dad’s still.

Oscar’s sister, Rena, drank so much bootleg whiskey, the next morning she woke up in a panic, because she couldn’t feel one of her legs.  Looking down, she realized she had put both legs into one pant leg of her pajamas. 

For better or worse, alcohol was always part of the social scene, and the public’s resentment at resorting to the neighborhood speakeasy or bathtub gin continued to grow.  After thirteen years, everyone had had enough.  During his run for Presidency, one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s platforms was the repeal of Prohibition.  The ratification of the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933 ended the Prohibition Era. 

Are there any stories in your family about the Prohibition Era?

Strolling down the streets of Santa Barbara one afternoon several years ago, I came across a sandwich-board sign outside a bookstore promoting Banned Book Week.  Intrigued, I read a partial list of books that had been banned for various reasons in different locations around the country.  The store encouraged people to participate in their “Read From Your Favorite Banned Book” event that Saturday.

I was startled to see a book from my childhood – “Harriet the Spy.” Apparently, somewhere in Iowa or Idaho (don’t remember which), there were issues with Harriet’s lying, spying, talking back, and cursing (words she had actually made up).  I was so annoyed at this blatant absurdity, I signed up for a 15-minute slot.

When I arrived for my allotted reading time that weekend, a reporter and cameraman approached me, asking for an interview, to which I agreed.  Not only was my interview on the evening news, but a segment of my reading was used as a promotional piece. 

Take that, Idaho or Iowa!  Harriet rules.  Bwahaha.

There are books, of course, that carry heavier tones; highlighting stark, harsh realities of the human condition.  They can make some readers uncomfortable.  Does that mean those books should be banned or restricted simply because a small portion of the population doesn’t agree with them? 

Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was one of thirteen books petitioned by parents in a Kansas school district to be removed from all classrooms because of “vulgar language, sexual explicitness, or violent imagery that is gratuitously employed.” Ms. Angelou wasn’t writing a book of fiction.  It spoke of actual, personal violent childhood experiences.

At the turn of the century, children’s lives were not peaches and cream, and books written during that time reflected it.  The same is true of language, including racial slang.  To learn how to improve the human condition, it helps to learn about the past.  If one desires a true education of history, it is important that these writings be available. 

Ironically, what these purveyors of manipulation and control don’t understand is the more they attempt to prevent a book’s availability, the greater the interest. 

“Let children read whatever they want and then talk about it with them. If parents and kids can talk together, we won’t have as much censorship because we won’t have as much fear.”   Judy Blume

The capstone of the irony pyramid is the Bible – the book on which so many of these protests are based.  What novel today could compete with its sex, incest, violence, slavery and mass murder?

What does this have to do with personal histories or biographies?  Everything.  One of the questions I ask clients is whether they read books when they were younger and, if so, which ones they specifically remember.  Books are educational and insightful; they broaden one’s perspectives and views, influencing a life journey.

A short list of books that have been banned:

Brave New World The Grapes of Wrath
The Great Gatsby Grimm’s Fairy Tales
All the King’s Men Little House on the Prairie
Catch 22 Lord of the Flies
James and the Giant Peach Huckleberry Finn
Catcher in the Rye The Color Purple
Gone With the Wind One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next

What book(s) most influenced you that have been banned?

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