Bridge the Divide Between Young and Old: Write a Book For Your Family

Posted on September 15, 2014


It never fails that at family reunions, the “old folks” are sitting around reminiscing about grade school and about people that the younger folks have never even heard of, much less met, and maybe the time that old Fred turned the school bus over in that ditch down by Carl’s place. The young think it’s all a meaningless, boring drone-on. The older generation thinks the young don’t listen and that no one will remember any details about them after they’re gone. In that very moment, they both would be right.

At home, the older folks tell some worn-out story one too many times for the younger ear’s taste. “Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard this one before! Whatever!”

But then it happens. Gramps isn’t around any more. After a year or five or ten, living memories fade, and the younger person (no longer so young) is poring over some photos, say – “I don’t remember who this person is. Gramps had a story about him, but…” Or, “Oh, yes, Gramps was a war vet. He had this story he would tell about… ummm, well, it was something like this, but I don’t recall exactly…” Or, “The way Mom and Dad got together was a really funny story but I don’t remember all the details.” And finally: “I wish I had listened better. I wish I had asked more questions… I wish I had gotten this on tape, or written it down.”

So, older people: WRITE A BOOK. Nothing fancy, but a real memoir, with all those stories you like to tell that your kids and grandkids are so bored with right now.   Trust me on this.

Lila’s Great-Grandfather wrote just such a memoir upon his retirement, recalling stories of his childhood, his family, his military career. He lived to a ripe old age and died a dozen years before Lila was even born. Lila grew up with that book in the house; it was a bore at age 10, only slightly less boring at age 15, and seemed sort of pompous and meaningless at age 20 or so.   “What is the big deal? Why does he think this anecdote is so important that he wants to write it down? Sheesh!”

Lila never forgot about the book – it is a family heirloom, after all – but for years, the book sat unread on a shelf.

Meanwhile, Lila grew up, and found herself halfway through a military career of her own. One day, home on leave, Lila picked up the book, and suddenly, it was by turns funny or dramatic or poignant. There were several anecdotes I had not understood at all in my youth, but now a spark of recognition was kindled: “Augh! This is exactly the same as what happens in the military today!”

I never met my Great-Grandfather, and yet, because of that book, I feel as if I had sat at his knee soaking up these stories as a child. The irony is that had I actually done so, I would probably have had the same sort of baffled reaction as most other young folks do when their elders seem to drone on about The Old Days.

In our family, Great-Grandfather was easily the most colorful character, but he was by no means unique in producing a memoir for posterity. I also am privileged to have two other memoirs by a Great-Uncle with a stellar Air Force career, and by a second cousin with extensive experience in the Arctic. Those two, I knew in life, but still: no matter how many visits and conversations we might have had, the information I might recall does not hold a candle to the wealth of history in those books. A written, firm history, one I can return to again and again to refresh the details that fade from my mind.

And so, I say again: WRITE A BOOK. Nothing fancy, but a real memoir, with all those stories you like to tell that your kids and grandkids are so bored with right now.   Trust me on this.