The Voice of Experience: Family chronicles are important for future generations

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Several years ago, one of my daughters remarked, “Mom, could you maybe write your story for us? We don’t know who you were before we were born!” I guess that’s something most of us don’t think about unless we’re asked, but it’s really important to the kids to have some parental background — with a few exceptions, of course!

So, with some enthusiasm I began My Story: Rambling Memories of Mary Underhill. Some 20 pages later, I stopped, having reached only the first eight years of my life! It’s amazing what happens when you start writing about your past. You really can’t remember much of your childhood when you first sit down at the keyboard, but the memories come flooding back after the first few words.

It is close to 14 years since Anne asked me that question, and after those 20 pages somehow my enthusiasm waned. However, I’m back on track again, having just completed a few pages on my high school years and my first job. Included are incidents like my brother, Pete, coming home after five years overseas in the Second World Way, being asked to go with my friend to Christmas choir practice and winding up as soloist (my mother sang in concert back in Victorian England and I inherited her voice), and having a huge crush on my math teacher!

This chronicle of mine is not just hard facts, but contains such things as my dream of becoming a neurosurgeon, the dream shattered because my parents were poor financially. Besides, women in the ’40s were expected to become nurses, secretaries or teachers, but definitely not doctors! In fact, at that time, there as only one woman in McGill University med school, and life was not very happy for her.

One important thing here is the medical history of the family, not only just my own. For instance, during his teenage years, in an incredible growth spurt, my son had seizures, diagnosed as petit mal. When my mother commented that there was nothing like that on our side of the family, my father said, “Oh, yes, there was.” He had had the same thing happen in his teens! We need to let our children know as much as possible about our family’s medical history, and this is a good way of doing it.

Another interesting side to writing our memoirs is that we can have a lot of fun remembering the good times that have been tucked away in our “attic”, and perhaps dealing with some of the not-so-good times that we haven’t previously wanted to look at. In other words, reminiscing can be a very healing exercise. I’m personally recognizing some unpleasant times in my life that I’ve not let go of completely, and now I can put it all down on paper, so to speak, and get it out in the open. It’s very freeing.

There are so many more memories tucked away in the recesses of my brain that have yet to surface, but I’m confident that they will, little by little, as I sit here at the keyboard. Of course, there will be some very personal experiences that I’ll keep to myself, but generally my life is unfolding for my children, grandchildren and, eventually, great-grandchildren to learn from and enjoy.

A key point here is to take pleasure in writing your story, being as truthful as possible (a little shading/polishing of the facts is OK at times!) and being aware of those experiences that will have meaning for those who read it. So, pick up your pen or sit at the computer or record your memories onto a disc — whatever method is right for you. Just do it! Now! And have fun with it!

Mary Underhill is a stress therapist and grief counsellor. The Voice of Experience is a column co-ordinated by the Therapeutic Activation Program for Seniors.