The Value of Remembering



Noun: 1. A historical account or biography written from personal knowledge.

2. An autobiography or a written account of one’s memory of certain events or people.

Last night, I was the designated discussion leader at my monthly book club. I never learn – she who suggests a book for the group to read is automatically expected to review it! This month we delved into Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch, a memoir written by a woman grieving for her sister who died unexpectedly at the age of forty-six.

On one level it is both a story about working through grief and the role literature has ever played in connecting us to the wisdom and shared experiences of others. The grieving Sankovitch, always an avid reader, turns to books, methodically reading one book a day for a year to assauge her grief and to “get back to that place where I was sure of all my dreams.” Since I, too, have been reading since my early childhood to understand the world, her words resonated with me. “Books are experience,” she writes, “the words of authors proving the solace of love, the fulfillment of family, the torment of war, and the wisdom of memory. Joy and tears, pleasure and pain: everything came to me while I read in my purple chair. I had never sat so still, and yet experienced so much.”

Mostly, however -- and this was the reason I suggested we read it – Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is a book about the value of remembering, and then taking the next step and putting our memories into written words. For Sankovitch, “Looking backward allows me to see the entirety of my present life, of what it took to get me to where I am, and of what I want to have in the life still ahead of me. The big picture, the great perspective. I understand what is important by looking back to see what I remember.”

Amen! This is what I’ve been prattling about for years. Like Johnny Appleseed, I’ve been scattering my own simple stories about place and family, in hopes that they will take root in other people’s hearts and minds and encourage them to remember – and write – their own.

In Sankovich’s case, she remembers a lifetime with her two close-knit sisters and their immigrant parents. The intense emotional closeness of her nuclear family was likely forged in the loss of family her parents, especially her Polish father, experienced in the Europe of World War II. She delves into her parents’ war wounds and understands how their stories have influenced and shaped her own life story. Her parents’ disturbing memories of their experiences during World War II, and the account of their subsequent immigration and acclimation to post-war America are among the most compelling passages in the book.

The point I would make, however, is that our stories do not have to be as dramatic as Sankovich’s or featured in the New York Times as hers have been, or even be published to be “real writing” that is important to someone.  Indeed, I could make a strong argument that the world doesn’t need more writers running around trying to sell mediocre books to folks who don’t care in the first place.

No, what we need is for ordinary people to tell their own stories, in their own way, to those they want to remember them.  Imagine how wonderful it would be to run across letters written a hundred years ago by a relative that told you about your family.  This happened to me.   A cousin of some degree sat down in the years from 1910 to 1917 and wrote a series of letters that was a “sort of” history of our family.  In those letters, I learned that my gg-grandfather was shorter than all of his brothers, had thick dark hair, disliked farm work, and “liked to drink too much” before his wife, “a good woman” led him to a religious conversion and he became a Baptist preacher.   In a moment, he became more to me than a name on a tombstone.  He is alive in my imagination.

Because of my personal priorities, it is important to me to become as good a writer as I can push myself to be.  Because I respect the craft of writing, I’ll continue to study and ponder how to write better until I topple over. But the best advice I’ve been given about writing was simple – just do it.

Pick up a yellow notepad and pencil, or a flowered journal book, or sit down at your keyboard, and begin.   Answer the questions your children will ask when they are 65 and you’re no longer here to respond.  Write the stories about your family and your place and time that you want your great-grandchildren, not yet born, to know. 

Write with the directness, simplicity, and passion of a love letter to people you may never meet.  As Iver Pico has said, “… writing is, in the end, that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.”

Copyright © June 2012 Georgia Green Stamper