As we age our memory tends to fail us now and then, we are not as quick to remember things, but that is a normal part of aging. When the memory loss is significant then it becomes a concern which needs to be looked at for possible neurological disorders, one of which is Alzheimer’s disease.
There are things you can do to improve your memory as you age. Much has been said on this topic lately due to our aging population. So often we have heard of people who retire and don’t know what to do with themselves. The people who fare better after retirement are those who have a reason to get up in the morning. Many people develop their hobby into a full-time activity and others volunteer their services in an area of interest. The key is to keep active by being involved with people. Keeping up social connections helps to keep the mind active. Learning new skills is another way to keep the brain sharp; joining a club, playing bridge, pursuing an interest in music, gardening or whatever brings learning and enjoyment together.
However if you are concerned about your memory then I urge you to seek out medical advice. You may not have anything to worry about, but on the other hand if it is a form of dementia then you are doing yourself a favor by having an early diagnosis. There are several new medications which are effective, but only if the diagnosis is made early.
After Aunt Emma placed the photo of the “M” family in the newspaper she had a surprising number of calls. Several people called to say they had worked with the youngest son Otto who use to live in Edmonton! We couldn’t believe it, but where was he now? My aunt followed several leads and made many phone calls to people who knew of him or had worked with him, but no one knew where he was. She gave me regular updates, as I was just as keen to find a member of the family. After many weeks on the phone Aunt Emma called a number in Oregon and a the man who answered was Otto!
She called me right after talking to him. Aunt Emma was so excited she was laughing and crying at the same time. Imagine finding each other after 65 years and realizing that they both immigrated to North America! Even more incredible that they both lived in the same city for several years and didn’t know it. I was amazed by it all.
Otto told my aunt that the photo showed the last happy time his family was together with their father. He wept when he saw the picture. Otto told Aunt Emma that shortly after the picture was taken they returned to Germany and his father was drafted into the SS and he was never heard from again. The photo meant so much to Otto that Aunt Emma could feel his happiness radiating like sunshine.
Aunt Emma and Otto phone each other regularly now, as they have 65 years to catch up on and on a global scale they are neighbours once more.
When my parents passed on my sister and I ended up with a box of photos. Our mother didn’t do albums; organizing was not her forte. So we were left to sort through them. Most of the photos were of us growing up and our children and other family members, but there was one black and white photo that we had never seen before. It was of a happy looking family with three children standing in front of their house, circa 1940’s according to the clothing. We had no idea who they were, so we asked the only person still connected to that time, our mother’s sister. I sent the photo to Aunt Emma who identified them as the “M” family, their summer neighbours from the Black Sea.
Apparently many German families had summer homes on the Black Sea. There they spent may idyllic days with the “M” family as both families had three children of the same age. The youngest son Otto was Aunt Emma’s age and she told me that those wonderful days ended in 1940 with the war. She had not seen or heard from the family since then. I told my aunt that I didn’t know what to do with the picture, but wouldn’t it be great if I could return it to the family. Without hesitation she said, “I’m going to find them!”
I asked how she planned to accomplish that, and she suggested placing the photo in the German-Canadian newspaper which is distributed throughout the western provinces. I suggested that she send the photo to Germany and place it in a paper there, but she had other ideas. I had my doubts about her strategy, but left it in her hands.
To be continued.
Around here hiking is a popular pastime. Many people take to the hills using walking poles or walking their dogs. Some hike for fitness and others do it for the fresh air or to commune with nature. My friend Anna walks her dog regularly around the neighbourhood and they know all the trails, short cuts and pathways which run from one street to the next. Anna was telling me of one hidden trail leading up the hill to the next street and the unbelievable view. Soon this became a favorite trail, but one day she noticed some people on the patio where she had never seen anyone home before. Anna was well hidden behind the trees and bushes, but the occupants on the patio were in full view. She couldn’t help but notice the couple was completely nude, drinking beer in the buff! Not exactly the kind of ‘nature’ she expected to find on a hike. It was a sizzling scene since it became evident that they were barbecuing. So on that day the trail had an even more unbelievable view, if you include the hot dog and the buns.
How is the view from your vantage point?
I am very fortunate to be living in a city nestled in a lovely valley surrounded by mountains and forests. As our city encroaches further up the mountain it moves us ever closer to the habitat of the big horn sheep and deer who also call this home. In the spring and fall we often get black bears wandering down to the creek in the green space behind our street. We all live here together but it’s not always harmonious.
The other night we were driving home from a concert when the car in front of us suddenly hit the brakes as a deer jumped out in front of him. We stopped and asked if we could help. A call was made to the police and the conservation office and there really was nothing more anyone could do for the poor injured deer. It was clearly suffering. I found it painful to witness. I felt completely useless. Eventually help arrived and we carried on, but the image of the suffering deer remained with me.
The next day I mentioned it to my sister who told me her own deer story. Apparently it happened several years ago as she and my brother-in-law were driving home one night from their son’s basketball game. My nephew and his friend were in the jeep in front of them when they suddenly hit a deer. Everyone jumped out of their vehicles and before they could think what to do, my nephew’s friend pulled a hunting knife out of his jeep and ended the deer’s suffering by slitting its throat! My sister said they knew he was a skilled hunter but they were absolutely stunned by his action. It was an image they didn’t soon forget. Begging the question, which is worse, watching an animal suffer of watching it die?
If you are not sure where to start your story, start with a list of events from your life. You can generate that list by writing down your earliest memory and go from there. Using the free writing technique, write your list using only a few words for each idea and keep writing without stopping to re-read or critique what you have written. That will come later. When you have exhausted all ideas resort to your photo albums for more idea.
Now that you have a list the next step is to go through the list and mark those events which are turning points in your life. Circle them, underline them or put a check mark next to them, but mark them as significant. Then select only one of those events and draw a map of the location where the event took place. Perhaps it was dinner at Grandma’s house. Your map might be of the inside of the house, including not only the furniture but the smaller details as well. You can’t draw the wall paper on your map but you can add a few descriptive words next to the wall. Your map will then be filled with pictures and words. You may have added the words, floral wall paper, daisy cushions, rosebud china, maybe your grandmother was a gardener. You get the idea. The more you can add to your map the more memory is triggered which is the idea behind the exercise.
Once your map is complete for that event then you are ready to write about it. To make your written scene come alive add details from your map and don’t forget to include the five senses. Add some emotion, make it vivid, make the reader feel that he is there.
You can use these steps each time to write a scene as it enables you to tap into your memory. These steps can also be used to interview family members to get their story. I used the mapping technique with my father to learn about his childhood farm. Unfortunately I have never seen the farm since it no longer exists. The map helped him focus his memory to specifics which brought forth many details. For instance, I asked him to tell me about the barn. I soon learned that the question was too vague so I asked him to tell me what was the first thing I would see if I entered the barn. He proceeded to tell me that I would notice all of his father’s tools hanging neatly on their hooks. He then told me that my grandfather was known in the village to lend his tools to anyone who would return them to the correct spot. If they were not returned to the correct place, he would not lend to that person again. Apparently he kept track of the lenders by writing their name next to the nail. I was facinated by this piece of information about the grandfather I never met. This mapping technique can re-kindle memories which otherwise may be lost.
Once you have written several of these scenes you can then decide which one might be the best place as a jumping off point for your story. If you can’t decide, you can always ask your writing group, or a trusted friend to help you. Sometimes it helps to set the scene aside for a time, a week or longer and then look at it again with fresh eyes. You may be surprised at what you notice.
The best advice to any writer is to read lots of books in your genre and see how other authors deal with their subject. Also helpful is reading up on the craft of writing.
Here is a list of book which I found helpful:
- Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, by Judith Barrington
- Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing a Memoir, by Natalie Goldberg
- Thinking About Memoir, by Abigail Thomas
- Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir, by Lisa Dale Norton
- Inventing the Truth, The Art and Craft of Memoir, edited by William Zinsser
- Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on the Writing Life, by Anne Lamott
Writing needs structure, unless you are writing free verse poetry. There are many structural styles but the ones I will be discussing here are those which take shape before you begin to write your memoir. You may already be using one of these structural styles and not even be aware of it.
Some authors begin their memoir by writing several scenes and then pull it all together by a unifying theme. Others don’t start to write until they have the theme firmly in mind and then write the scenes that go with it. One is not better than the other, it is just different operating styles. Which type of writer are you?
Most books talk about the first style. They encourage writing many scenes and suggest finding a theme later. I’ve always found this advice frustrating since I need to know where I’m going, not just in my writing. This kind of advice often stops me in mid sentence asking, “Where is this going?” And if I don’t know then I end up having to find my bearings, and just like that I’m no longer in the flow of the writing. So for me it works best to know the theme of my memoir or at least know what I’m aiming at. The author Ian Frazier once said that , “If you know where you are going then it gives the writer faith”. In other words it gives the writer confidence.
Another structuring aspect for a memoir, which is largely behind the scenes, is the balance between exposition and story telling, or reporting versus scenes. The goal of the memoir writer is to find that delicate balance. There is no formula that works for every book, but it must work with your subject. If you are writing a healing memoir with lots of analytical insight, then a narrative exposition style is suitable. On the other hand if your memoir is a coming of age story with lots of humorous escapades, then you may want to have more scene building to make the story come alive. Two authors who use more scene building than exposition are Jeannette Walls in her book Glass Castle, and Mary Karr in book, The Liars’ Club.
These are two aspects to consider when writing a memoir. I hope they will help keep you on track. Happy writing.