Who Should Write Our Story?

Posted May 11, 2012 by Geni | 2 Comments

Special thanks to Smadar Belkind Gerson of Past-Present-Future for this week’s blog post. Read on to hear her insightful thoughts about telling your own story and those of your relatives in their own words.

I must admit, I was not excited about reading about Alzheimer’s, the theme of my last book club book, Still Alice by Lisa Genova. As the eight of us sat around the cozy dining room table, I learned that the apprehension about the book was universal. Aging and the fear of dementia was a subject too close to home for the older woman in the group. Others had lived through caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s. Some work with the elderly on a daily basis, and would have prefered reading about anything but a work related topic. But that is the thing about book clubs, you read books that you may never have chosen on your own. All of us admitted: Still Alice was a great book club book and well worth reading. The discussion was intense, animated, personal, deep, and beautifully thoughtful. As always, I really enjoyed listening to this extremely intelligent group of women have become very important to me, in the short time since we met. For some reason, I was more an observer than a participant in April’s heated debate and since then, I’ve been pondering why.

Still Alice is novel about a woman in her early fifties inflicted with early onset Alzheimer’s. While there are many books about this frightening disease—reaching epidemic proportion in today’s aging population—this book is uniquely told from the patient’s perspective. It takes the reader along Alice’s haunting journey as she struggles to maintain a sense of self and remain still Alice. Yet the outcome of becoming “still”, a motionless Alice, is inevitable. A few days after our discussion, it struck me why I had been mostly silent during book club. My focus as a genealogist is recording people’s stories. Alice, never took the time to write her story and then it was too late, her illness became her story. The genealogist in me wondered if that was the legacy she wanted to leave?

As a genealogist, I’ve spent years, tracking down people’s story. I began with a blank tree, and have been filling in the blanks ever since. At first I was asking simple questions such as: what was my great-grandfather’s name? But as the basic facts fell into place, I realized I wanted to know much more. A name, a picture, a date or place of birth were not enough. I needed to know who my ancestors were. I wanted to know their story. Like Alice, many of them, did not record their life stories. Maybe they thought there would be plenty of time. Perhaps they believed their story was not worth telling. Most likely, they were busy living their lives and it never occurred to them to record it. And suddenly, like Alice, life slipped together with their legacy. I was left with only fragments of their lives as clues, and it’s up to me to write their story. Note to self: next book club raise the subject we never broached: is it important to tell our own story, before it’s too late?

According to Geni.com’s convenient statistics section, I’ve collected forty-eight ancestors on my family tree. Only one of them, Minnie Crane, left a journal behind. I knew my great-grandmother, Minnie, well. If I were to fill out the “about” section on her Geni profile, I could have done a pretty good job myself. However, until I discovered her manuscript, I erroneously believed, I could do her story justice. If it were not for her handwritten notebooks, I would never have know about her near death experience with diphtheria or about what it is like to be the daughter of the only Jewish postman in a tiny shtetl in Belarus.

Publishing Stored Treasures, a Memoir has transformed my mission as a genealogist. Thanks to Minnie, my goal, is to inspire everyone to tell their own story. I myself, spend a lot of time, filling in the gaps and piecing together the stories of my forefathers. I even writing about them in my genealogy blog Past-Present-Future. Despite my best attempts at reconstructing stories—such as my grandfather’s amazing contributions to the foundation of the State of Israel—I recognize these attempts are feeble without a first hand account. Knowing what we know as genealogist, we should ask ourselves the difficult question: who do we think should write our story? All of us interested in history’s genealogical perspective, should set an example, pick up the pen and write, not only about our ancestors, but about ourselves. I believe our job as family historians is to rescue fragments from the past as well as record a clearer ledger of the present for future generations. I challenge you to write your story, interview your loved ones and try to inspire them to record their legacy as they wish it to be remembered! To an idea of how to inspire your loved ones to write a memoir, see my latest blog post: The Gift That Keeps on Giving. Alzheimer’s or not, all of us will eventually become as “still” as Alice. Why not, tell our stories, before they slip away?

Have you started writing your story? Share them with us! Do you have ideas of how to inspire people to write their story? I’d love to hear them.

Smadar Belkind Gerson
Author of Stored reasures, A Memoir
Blog: Past-Present-Future