There’s a gentleman in my writing group whom I’m proud to call my friend. An inspiration to me, he’s been writing his autobiography for the past several years. He’s been an explorer, an intrepid sailor, an engineer, an immigrant and a family man. He’s navigated his sailboat down the eastern seaboard to the Caribbean from the Great Lakes, sailed across the Atlantic, circumnavigated the globe and just last winter, travelled through the Panama Canal, around the Horn of South America and visited the Antarctic Peninsula. This epic voyage was a gift to himself for his 96th birthday and his written descriptions of this awe-inspiring land near the south pole were among the most beautiful and poetic I’ve ever encountered.
Next, he wants to traverse the North-West Passage at the top of the world!
Angus is the fittest senior I know. This dynamic and remarkable man still lives alone and drives his own vehicle. Twenty-six years older than I, he bikes several kilometres every day and is in extraordinary physical condition for a man half his age. So it was a shock when he came to our last writers’ meeting disoriented and ill. Determined not to miss the weekly get-together, he’d driven his car over from the next town in the worst heat wave in recent memory. We called the paramedics and he was rushed to emergency. Though he didn’t know it, he had pneumonia.
He’s recovering now but I worry that he won’t have a chance to publish his story before it’s too late. What will happen to those priceless documents if he can’t complete the job himself? And it’s not just Angus’ story — what about all the other amazing lives that as writers, we may think about writing, “someday”, but which remain undocumented?
A Debt to Posterity
My friend’s recent mishap got me thinking…as memoirists we have a responsibility to write down our own stories and others’ to provide our unique point of view for the benefit of those who come after us. It’s been said that history is written by the winners. I say it’s written by those who make the effort to do the work, even, or especially, when it diverges from accepted history.
The entirety of recorded human history is made up of the memories and experiences of the individuals who sat down and wrote about it. How much more could we know about the daily life of our distant ancestors if they’d been literate or cared enough to write it down? How much more could we learn about our own selves through written details of vague family legends? The combined loss of all these intimate histories is staggering.
I will always regret not being more diligent about asking my parents about their own stories. I know something about my mother’s history — she kept all sorts of letters, photos and documents that I can reference, but her experiences, her conversations, her emotions were gone once she was gone. About my father, I know even less. He was a quiet, private person who didn’t like to open up (unless he’d had a drink or two; he always said he’d been born two drinks under par!) and the only recording I have of my dad’s voice is still on my telephone message, years after he died — I can’t bear to erase it. I wish I had asked him, “what did you do in the war, Daddy?” I wish I’d asked about the details of his childhood as the eldest son of a country doctor in the early 1900’s. I wish I’d asked so many things. But I can’t.
But maybe you can
Are your parents or grandparents still living? Talk to them. Take notes, audio or video recordings. Ask them the important questions — the ones you might have heard as guarded hints or family secrets, or the ones about your own early history that you don’t recall. Talk to the older generation about their life stories — aunts or uncles, step-parents, foster parents, caregivers and people whose lives have affected yours in profound ways.
Retrieve this valuable information before it’s too late. It can be transformative, giving you new insight into their goals, choices, fears and regrets. It’ll give you insight and a deeper understanding of your own experiences, motivations and personal and medical history.
And at the very least, it will give you fantastic inspiration for your own future stories, both fact and fiction.
2020 Update: Angus passed away peacefully two weeks before the Covid-19 lockdown in March of 2020. He died as he’d lived, surrounded by family. The day he died, he finished his autobiography.