How to Preserve Your Family Memories
Recounting family lore by writing a memoir can go a long way. In honour of Family Day in Ontario (Feb. 15), we revisit our feature on how to take documentation of memories beyond the family portrait from our April 2018 issue.
Martha Harris was an elegant woman, still beautiful in her mid-80s, who hadn’t thought of her small-town childhood in years. There was no occasion to speak of the past. Who would ask, after all? Her grown sons figured they knew the outlines of her story, and the ladies she dined with at her well-appointed seniors home kept the conversation light.
But, for me, as an author who crafts privately commissioned portraits of women like Martha, she was a blank canvas waiting to be filled in, and I wanted to know everything: what Christmas had been like for her as a little girl growing up in the deep forest of northern Ontario, what movies she and her sisters snuck into on Saturday afternoons by the side door because they only had one ticket between them. I was curious to learn what she dreamed of becoming and how the war had cast its mid-century shadow upon her family.
For several afternoons, over cups of coffee and plates of ginger snaps, we travelled back in time. “Oh, for heaven’s sake,” she’d say with a laugh, “I completely forgot about those trips to Fran’s Diner after school.” Or she’d murmur, “You know, that’s a good question. I don’t know why my grandparents settled in the Prairies.”
I would take Martha’s answers home and spend happy hours on the internet, trying to layer in some social history around her personal recollections. Why did Ukrainian immigrants in the late 19th century opt to head west to Saskatchewan? How much was a Coca-Cola at Fran’s Diner in 1948? The next time I had coffee with her, I’d offer my findings, and she’d listen with excitement. Together we were weaving her history, enriching the strands with new information and uncovered recollections. By the time we were done and I’d filled in my proverbial canvas with a written profile, Martha Harris could see her place in the world in a new light. She inhabited a fresh story.
Lots of people jot down some kind of memoir when they age, but not everyone is comfortable writing; nor are they confident they have something to say. Working with a journalist helps surmount those barriers, and it can take many forms. Allanah Campbell and Judy Maddren, former CBC radio reporters, create Sound Portraits of people’s lives. (After Maddren went to England to record her grandmother’s stories in 2000, the family said, “Judy, those are stories we’ve never heard before! That’s fantastic!’)
“When you lose your elders,” Campbell says, “you lose your library. To hear their stories, in their own voices, with their own expressions is wonderful. You can hear joy, disappointment, longing. It’s so evocative of what they were like at the time they were remembering, like when they attended the debutant ball.” Layering sound effects or music deepens the experience of the one- or two-hour CDs she creates. “It washes over me and through me,” Campbell adds, “some of the advice that we hear that’s directed to grandchildren. I, myself, learn so much. I’m the stranger on the train.”
When families first began to document themselves for posterity with the invention of the camera in the 19th century, they almost always posed stiffly and sternly, dressed in their Sunday best. It’s hard for their descendants to tease apart what they were actually like as people. We’ve come a long way from that stilted standard. Photographer Catherine Farquharson brings the eye of a photojournalist to family life, shooting all day at the cottage, for instance, while her clients swim, paddle or play cards. Her aim is to capture the unguarded intimacy that makes for another way to celebrate legacy.
“I love knowing that I am showing my clients images they don’t expect,” the Toronto-based photographer says. “When the forced smile and poses are removed and the real people come out, so do the real relationships.”
Farquharson will do, among other things, four-hour day-in-the-life shoots, where she joins a family for part of their daily routine. “I’ll show up before the kids get up and do the morning routine, or dinner and bedtime. All those times that you remember the most and usually have no documentation of. I want the children to be able to look back at this time and see and feel their connection with their mother. ‘Gee, look how hard she worked. Gee, look how much fun we all had! Wow, look at how my mom looked at me. She really, really loved me.’ That’s what I shoot for. I shoot for the future.”
People’s stories can also be encapsulated in their passions – for cooking or gardening or painting. One woman commissioned a cookbook based on her mother’s cherished recipes scattered about on loose paper at the cottage. We prepared and photographed some of the dishes just as if it were an edition by Donna Hay. A hobby can be elevated into a tangible sense of
accomplishment, to be passed around and leafed through by future generations.
Some stories are forgotten because the people who hold them close can no longer tell us. For those with dementia or suffering the effects of a stroke, the fullness of who they are is lost on their health caregivers. What is their favourite music? What did they do for a living? What makes them smile? When Washington-based journalist Jay Newton-Small saw the impact this had on her father’s quality of life in a nursing home, she founded a company that provides patient profiles for the staff. MemoryWell’s journalists interview the families and prepare a private electronic file that caregivers can read on their phones or can be printed, laminated and pinned to the wall. The stories are useful – they provide tips from the family on what eases agitation or might cause upset. “Don’t bring up her first husband. It wasn’t a good marriage.” Or she likes “buttery bread.” As importantly, they restore dignity and identity.
“People remember the anecdotes, talk about them,” Newton-Small says of the 450-word stories she and her colleagues craft. “Families can also upload photos, videos, music and art to the digital versions so that whomever is sitting with [the elder] – a caregiver or grandkid – has a whole toolbox of things with which to engage them. We hear from families that our stories have actually helped improve connections within the families themselves. For example, one of the women whose story we did had grandchildren who used to resist visiting. They found her boring and hard to engage. But with the MemoryWell, they had her life and favourite media at their fingertips. They’d play her favourite music and ask her about wedding photos. Suddenly, they liked visiting Grandma.”
As I have found, Newton-Small has discovered that “families love the process of being interviewed by a journalist. A conversation carries less weight” – than a formal institutional questionnaire – “and some times it even enables them to remember the good times, before their loved one declined – times that an overburdened caregiver may not have had much opportunity to contemplate in recent months or years.”
Ultimately, all these ways of pre-serving our lives are about others listening to us, watching us, acknowledging us. “My clients seem so grateful that someone wants to take the time to listen,” agrees Alannah Campbell. “We all have a story in us, but it’s hard to tell it by yourself.”
So what more, specifically, can we learn from Costa Rica, Denmark and Singapore? That long-term environmental conditions are key. Buettner is not a fan of the North American quick-fix scheme. “Trying to change behaviour to achieve health and happiness is usually a recipe for neurosis. No diet, pill, pop psychology lasts,” he says. “After six to nine months, you lose focus and discipline. Our brains are hard-wired for novelty. It’s our environment that shapes our lives for happiness and health and living a long time. Our environment shapes our attitudes and daily habits.”
There are three main kinds of happiness, he says. Costa Ricans, says Buettner, demonstrate “positive affect.” The Central American country is notable in the region because it never developed a class system where a powerful few owned most of the land. Thus the small farmers were free to elect politicians who placed education, clean water and accessible health care as top priorities. In Costa Rican society, the extended family is the glue that holds things together, a sense of security in well-being that enables happiness. Generosity of spirit also flows from that naturally.
Denmark, he says, represents eudaimonia, he says, a Greek concept that stems from Aristotle, who spoke of living a life of meaning. “Danish society, it seems, encourages the kind of balance between engaging work and rewarding play that results in a sense of time described as flow,” wrote Buettner in a National Geographic excerpt on the subject. The Scandinavian happiness hot spot is notable because the environment encourages activity (swimming, biking, hiking) and the government takes care of education, health care and a financial safety net so its citizens are free to concentrate on growth. Buettner cites the fact that “more than 90 per cent of Danes belong to a club or an association – from cold-water swimmers to rabbit breeders – and more than 40 per cent volunteer for civic groups.”
And the unique factors that shaped Singapore led to a high-level of self-reported “life satisfaction.” These are some of the things we have traditionally been told “can’t buy happiness,” says Buettner. The city-state island may have strict laws, he points out, but it also places value on harmony, respect and hard work. There is a guaranteed living wage and workfare programs with housing, education and health benefits. Because of these and the fact religious freedoms are guaranteed effectively, there are no “ghettos” on the island. He also points to the bonds forged by compulsory military service, which unites the disparate ethnic groups into a common sense of purpose.
Buettner then moves his book into traditional self-help mode, detailing how to translate these factors into concrete changes in one’s own environment – from shoring up finances to efficient home design and downscaling of our stuff and things, plus changing the dynamic of workplaces and emphasizing social networks.
And though Canada doesn’t star in this happiness guide, Buettner is a big fan of our shores. According to the World Happiness Report Canada ranks No. 7. “Canada is a rock star when it comes to happiness. You do everything right,” he says. “You have enlightened leaders who have rightly identified universal health care as important. Equality and trust is highly correlated with healthy life expectancy.” He gushes also about our great access to green spaces, quality of air and bike-ability in places such as Vancouver. “The rest of the world is looking to Canada.”
One of Buettner’s key collaborators is a Canadian economist named John Helliwell, “a terrific guy and probably under-celebrated,” he says. Helliwell is a happiness researcher and founding editor of the World Happiness Report, as well as professor emeritus at UBC. As Buettner writes in his book, Helliwell lives part of his year “off the grid” with his family on B.C.’s Hornby Island, practising what he has learned.
A Helliwell study that was included in Buettner’s book used our wealth of immigrant stories to test a hypothesis about happiness “set point,” the idea that we are born with a certain level of happiness, much like the set point of body weight, that we naturally return to.
“Remarkably, John and his colleagues discovered that no matter where they came from, within just a few years of arriving in Canada, [immigrants] reported happiness levels close to those of their newly adopted home – no matter their class, gender, age or profession.” Canadians typically self-report an 8.1 on a happiness rating between one and 10.
So, we can be chuffed we are doing well enough to pass our good happiness habits on to the newest Canadians, but that isn’t to say we couldn’t take a sense of purpose and belonging from Denmark, and more family bonding like the Costa Ricans. Or even indulge in life satisfaction in the form of a new car, like a cheerful Singaporean tycoon.