Today, in the middle of a very difficult day, my dear husband queries me via text message regarding my participation in the disposition of his mother’s purse.
Him: did you take mom’s purse?
Me: (an hour later because I’m not supposed to use my phone at work) no.
The black bag from hell had still not been located when I got home. So I proceeded to go through my mother-in-law’s things and found it in her dresser drawer. And that’s when the fight started. She wasn’t grateful that her purse and bank card and check book was safe. She was livid that someone moved it from the kitchen to her dresser drawer. It must have been me or the two year old grandchild yada yada yada. I had a rotten day in a series of rotten days and I come home to get accused of theft. My empathy is limited. And unfortunately, in the heat of the daily battle, I have no point of reference wherein my mother-in-law was kind and loving and generous.
The hard truth is that dementia will destroy the personality of a person well before the disease progresses to the point where the brain forgets to run the body. The building will remain but all the books inside will be gone or so degraded no logical pages remain. This is where you as writer have the opportunity to use your beautiful gift and restore the library.
The first thing to remember is that since this is a gift, it isn’t about you. (We will do you in a later installment, but for now it’s about other people). While I personally struggle with my mother-in-law and her current personality, I have managed to collect things more indicative of the woman she was and I have the wherewithal to preserve and share them at some point in the future. It helps that I am an avid genealogist but I’m suggesting that you start small. If you are a writer, you may have a tinge of OCD or a bit of an addictive mindset so be careful that working on a library doesn’t eclipse your other writing. It is a gift, not a lifestyle change.
The best starting point would be whatever access you have to the oldest of your family members. Keep things simple. Keep them light hearted and enjoyable for you as well as your subject of study but do not hesitate to give it your own flair. Along with asking your patriarch or matriarch his or her birthplace and school memory consider things like the music and art your subject enjoys. If you are fortunate, you’ll get lots of data that can then be turned into a bio of your family member. However, if all you receive are a few statements, you can still take these and do your own research perhaps on what a person’s birthplace was like at the time of the birth. I’ve actually googled addresses of family members and found old homes still standing. The options are as varied as your imagination and dedication are. If you don’t have aging family, consider those in your own generation or even the generations after you. I myself have grown children and now a grand babe. Pictures are a powerful starter for stories and can be used easily with younger family. Finally, if you are without family, consider your friends. You’re the writer. You’re eloquent and your friends would probably trust you with their stories.
It goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. Investing even a small amount of time in capturing moments of someone else’s life will inevitably give you more than you give. You will find that delving into someone else’s life, fleshing out the words to fill that library with stories will enrich your own life and feed your own creativity. Above all, it will keep your heart soft preserving those moments of beauty and pain for those of us who spend our days running reconnaissance through burned out buildings only to face a flamethrower. We need those stories to build our empathy, to remind us that everyone has hopes and dreams beyond the day-to-day survival.
So that is my challenge to you. Pick one person and write the book of them. You’ll enjoy it. I promise.