Editor’s Note: This article was prepared by La Verne Olsen for the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation a great example of how you can keep your mind active and sharp by doing something you enjoy. La Verne was available to discuss her passion and shared tips with everyone who attended the Tucson Memory Screening Day on Tuesday, November 17, 2009.
I didn’t intend to be a writer. In fact, I never wrote a thing after high school except letters to friends and, of course, the infamous Christmas Newsletter about all the goody things the family accomplished during the year. I loved getting those newsletters.
But then, at the age of 73, after a lifetime of raising kids and now grandkids, I enjoyed a day at the zoo with six year old and four year old grandchildren. A peacock followed us all over the zoo for most of the day. We made the mistake of throwing him popcorn so we literally couldn’t get rid of him.
When we got home, Matthew, the six year old, was telling his mother about the peacock when he suddenly looked up at me and asked, “Grandma, what would happen if the peacock followed us home?” He then told me how that could happen. That the peacock could sit on top of the car, and we wouldn’t know that he was there. And then what would we do with him when we got home?
My daughter, Matthew’s mother, insisted that would make a good story. So, Matthew and I went to the computer, and I wrote down everything that he said. I then wrote several more stories, and out of the mouths of babes the book was born.
In 2007, I self published IF A PEACOCK FOLLOWS YOU HOME…Children’s Stories by Grandma (available at Amazon.com).
As the kids got older, they still inspired me with their questions, like “How did you and Grandpa meet?” When they told me that their mother didn’t even know, I thought it was time to write down some history. Then they would know from where and when their family came.
I belonged to a writing group and started reading some of my stories to them each week. The response from them encouraged me so much that I couldn’t stop writing. So much so, that when I was out with the grandchildren and we saw something a little unusual, they would say, “Grandma, you should write a story about that”.
The thing about writing memoirs is that every day you see or hear something that sparks a memory. My trip to the zoo made me think about the trip to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, on my 7th birthday, which was also Father’s Day that year.
That memory made me think about all the birthdays I had experienced with my Dad on Father’s Day. He always made that day special, so I wrote about that. That sparked more memories about my Dad, like the accident that he had in Montana, where he was homesteading, and how it changed his life because he lost his arm. And how he overcame that disability even when there wasn’t the medical technology that there is today.
I put together a book for my kids and special friends for Christmas this year. There are 42 of those stories accompanied by pictures that coincide with the story. It took me longer to find the pictures than it did to write the stories. This last May, my grandson, Garrett, who is now 12, asked me something about the family and I started to tell him and then said the story was in the book I made for them. Before I left, he had read all the stories and had more questions.
Sometimes he asks, “Did that really happen?” Well, of course it did. A memoir is the way the writer remembers it. If it is embellished a little, that is normal. Just like telling a friend a story. It doesn’t always come out the same way.
I have now embarked on a new project. My sister has Alzheimer’s and lives in an Assisted Living Home in Henderson, Nevada. I don’t see her as often as I would like but I do call her. She always knows it is me. When I mention that I have written another story, she wants me to send it to her. I have sent her almost every story I have written, and an autographed copy of the book and she doesn’t remember any of them. I am concerned about that but I know that her daughter-in-law reads them to her and she does enjoy them at that time, so for that I am thankful.
My new project, at the suggestion of Valerie of the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation, is to read these stories to her and record them on tape. This way she will hear my voice reading the stories, since many are about her and our childhood together. More often than not she will say, “Oh that didn’t happen.” But I usually convince her that it did.
Memoir writing varies with the individual writer. You don’t have to start with your grandfather’s birth or birthplace and go from there until you get to your life. I don’t do it chronologically. I just write down stories as I remember them. One could be something that happened when I was four years old – when I got my first pair of glasses – or something that happened yesterday. Every story is a memoir in itself.
So, I am encouraging everyone to WRITE IT DOWN when you remember something in the past. Or record it, if possible, or tell it to someone else, and let them write it down for you. It will be something your family will cherish and it will be your legacy.