My mom died last summer. Her sister, my Aunt Mary, died nine months before that. Eight months before that, her other sister, my Aunt Doris, died. In the span of a year and a half, I lost the three major forces in my life.
What I did not lose were their stories. I did not lose their stories because I have been writing them down. For years. It does not make the loss of these women any less painful, but going back to these stories is a way to connect with them even if they are no longer on earth.
Some of the best stories my mom and aunts told me were about their family of six kids growing up in South Orange, N.J., during the Depression.
Their father, my grandfather, had a successful ice business before the Depression. My grandmother even had her own car, which was unusual for a woman in the 1920s. Then the Depression hit and my grandfather kept on delivering ice, even to the people who could not pay him, because people needed the ice for their iceboxes to keep their food cold. I learned this is what you do. You help people.
It was around this time that one of my grandfather’s friends asked him to go in on a new business with him, the refrigeration business. My grandfather declined because he didn’t believe the business would be successful. This particular story has always haunted me, and I often think of it when I am about to make a big decision. Recalling it usually makes me less afraid of taking a risk, as I deeply consider the consequences of not taking a risk.
My grandfather lost his ice business, but eventually, he found a job at Ballentine’s Brewery in Newark. He delivered kegs in New York City and was served beer for lunch at the brewery. At home, there was not a lot of money, but somehow there was always butter and enough to make pound cake, with one “pound” of butter.
Through hearing this story and then documenting it, even now as I write about it again, the one-dimensional vision I had of my grandfather―garnered primarily by watching him intently while we played our many games of Slapjack when I was a child―shifts and changes. I envision an entrepreneur, a strong young man, a father struggling to provide for his family. The stories humanize my grandfather.
As I retell the stories to my children, they are able to hear about the kind of man he was and perhaps even how to be in the world, from a man they never knew.
I have experienced the transformative power of writing and sharing stories, and I want others, especially those who do not consider themselves writers, to also engage in this creative process.
Life Stories is a new Project Write Now initiative for adults 50 and older that provides a place for remembering and writing about experiences that have helped shape your life. During a Life Stories workshop, participants will be given a prompt on such themes as family, identity, and branching (or turning) points. After writing their stories, participants are encouraged to read their stories aloud to the group. This is where the magic happens: oftentimes, this dynamic leads to enhanced understanding of a person or an event. Sometimes there are tears, and sometimes there is laughter. Usually, there is a good mix of both!
I wholeheartedly believe in the mission of Life Stories―in witnessing and celebrating the power of sharing stories and leaving a legacy for family, friends, and community―and I’m excited to lead this program.
Life Stories classes are set to begin next month in our studio in Red Bank. Please join us for a free Open House on June 1 (1 p.m. to 3 p.m.) or on June 8 (7 p.m. to 9 p.m.) to experience a taste of Life Stories. Come write for the joy of it!