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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Telling Stories About Grandma - Leaving a Legacy

My wife and I lost a very dear friend this week.  My wife is a nurse, but for the past 3 1/2 years she has been companion and caregiver to a lovely woman, Mrs. Mary Bob Thomas.  Mary Bob became a part of our family - something of an adopted grandmother. She was a bright, lively Christian woman with a dry rapier wit.  She called me Charlie Brown for some reason. Probably the big head, I don't know.

Her memorial service was uplifting. We told funny stories on her. She'd have enjoyed that. I'm writing a short biography of her life as a gift to her family.

Over the past decade, I have been involved closely with my wife's work with geriatric patients and I've been struck by the number of really interesting people there are who have become old people.  Our society seems to assume that once you become old you should slip quietly out of the way so that more interesting folks can occupy the mainstage. People used to assume you'd just be put out to pasture in some old folks home and after a few years, everybody would read your obit one day in the paper.

But my generation, the Boomers, seem to be staging something of a resistance as they reach the "being put out to pasture" age.  It's about time someone did.

My wife has a special affinity for older folks. She's always seen them as people - warm, vibrant individuals with stories to tell and contributions still to make. She worked for 8 years as adult day program director at an intergenerational day care program.  I had the privilege of direction the program its last 3 years of operation.

Children and old people are natural allies. Children need time that busy parents don't always have. Old people have time that their busy children don't always have. It's little wonder that when we look back on who had a powerful influence on us as kids, the most common response is grandmother or grandpa or some older relative who used to take us fishing or hang out with us and tell us stories.

And what stories those were!  I remember my Grandpa's stories.  I got them on tape while I still had time and have started recording what I remember about him before it fades from my memory. In Sheila's senior day care, we used sit and swap stories. We had pilots who flew astronauts around and landed planes on airstrips in Vietnam where where small arms rattled off the fuselage like hail. We had submariners who torpedoed Japanese ships in the Pacific ocean. One sailed on a sub that was sunk and then raised and put back in service. One lady was a Kilgore Rangerette in her heyday and installed canopies on P-38's during WWII.  We had three Rosie the Riveters at one time - lovely ladies with bright smiles and unexpected stories.

There was the gentleman who served in the 101st Airborne at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. Another served with Patton. One was a mechanic at Edwards Air Force base when Chuck Yeager and Scott Cunningham were breaking speed and altitude records.They told us stories that some had never told their families.

Like the old fellow who had a thin scar across his belly that my wife saw when she was giving him a treatment one day. Turns out he'd been an Army Ranger in the Philippines and a Japanese soldier had jumped out of the jungle and stuck a bayonet in his belly. Charles killed him with his bare hands. It was a memory that still shook him even 50 years later and one he didn't talk about with family.

We used to put together memory books for our Alzheimer's patients.  We collected photos and memories from their past and printed up a book that they could reread every day to help them hang on to their most important memories. With a little help from Adobe Pagemaker, Photoshop and a word processor, I was able after a while to start making printed paperback books containing these stories and photos and memories. As our friends came to the end of their lives, we were often asked to print copies of the memory books for the families and to be used in their memorial services.

The families loved having a printed record of their loved one's lives and exploits.

For Miss Mary Bob, Sheila and I are assembling a history of her life with photos and stories we tape recorded as we sat around an reminisced this past week.  I have written a biography of my own son who died 4 years ago. We collected stories from his friends that tell better than a dry recitation of facts, what sort of man he was.

I suspect that most of us would like to leave some record of who we were and what kind of people we were for our children.  My grandpa's stories are safely on CD and copies are in the hands of his grandkids and great-grandkids so we don't ever lose the classic story of my Great Great Grandpa H.B. French the pastor who used to make a practice of praying in the haypile, up until my grandpa's cousin Alonso heard him praying up there about hell one morning and set the hay on fire.  Alonso was an early special effects man!  Alonso went fishing one day with a stick of dynamite he'd stolen from H.B.'s shed and a dog that was an excellent retriever. You can imagine the rest of the story.

To help prevent the loss of such wonderful stories, I have begun 'The Legacy Project". We will be assembling teams of writers, desktop publishers and interviewers, training them and building a network to help families and individuals record their life stories. I have a concept website up and am creating more samples.

I want to work with funeral homes and senior centers as partners to find families that want to create such personal histories.  If you'd like to be a part of this effort, check out the site.  Click on the "Legacy Project" link on my website at The Orion Project .  We're also looking for business partners and investors if this sounds like fun to you.  I love doing this work.  The stories are wonderful and families are so happy to have the books. We even produce videos with sweet and poignant stories for the memorial service that help bring a smile to everyone's face.

Grandma used to take poor children to the movies for a treat.  Grandma once pulled a little red wagon all around the neighborhood collecting food for a family whose house burned.  Grandpa and Grandma once let total strangers stay in their house while they were away one weekend because "God sent them to our door and they were so tired and discouraged."  Great Aunt Bennie used to sneak out of the girls dorm by climbing down the fire escape.  Honeymama used to smuggle food out of the cafeteria's back window to feed the farm boys at the school who couldn't afford meal tickets. Aunt Jane and her daughter once rolled up an inebriated Cousin Bob in a sheet and horse whipped him. He woke up bruised and battered in his underwear on the front lawn. He never came home drunk again.

These kinds of stories need to be recorded. That's what the Legacy Project is all about.

Tom King

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