Memoirs: insight not ego

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My nephew’s Grade 4 heritage project on his great-grandmother.

Talking with a client today, he said he feels like he’s tooting his own horn when it comes to his memoirs. That telling his story is selfish and who would want to know what he had experienced and thought. I said maybe right now it seems egoistical but down the road his children, grandchildren and their children will be happy to have the insight and an emotional connection with him and their heritage.

I witnessed this link between past and present generations last week. My nephew did a school project on his maternal great-grandmother, Jean Booth. She came to Canada as a war bride from Scotland and was the focus of his Grade 4 heritage project.

Since his great-grandmother is no longer alive, my nephew had to interview his grandmother (my mother) about her mother as well as track down photos and other information about her life and background. He also learned something I didn’t know – the name of the ship his great-grandmother, along with her two kids, arrived on in Halifax – the S.S. Aquitania.

However, instead of having only facts and figures about the ship that crossed the Atlantic or how many war brides came to Canada, he had stories to share of her experiences. How while most people watched the British Isles, saying goodbye until the land faded into the horizon, Nana was so sick she couldn’t sit up. Or how the trip was made a little longer by rough weather and icebergs. These are some of the stories I had recorded with her in 2003 and then transcribed after her death in 2007.

Last Friday, my nephew displayed his project at an elementary heritage fair and presented it to judges, teachers, students, his parents and grandparents. My sister e-mailed me after the event and said it was wonderful for her and her family to learn about Nana’s life and for her great-grandchildren to understand their Booth background. Nana’s stories are more than just tales, they are a narrative that shape her into a living being instead of someone who lived long ago.

It ties into this observation that I read the other day. It’s by Fenton Johnson, a memoirist and teacher, and it rings true. He said:

A successful memoir is a product not of the self-obsession of a selfish, me-first generation but evidence of literate people’s recognition that the written word has replaced the story sung by the winter fire as our means of establishing and preserving cultural memory.

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