How My Grandfather’s Memoir Changed My Life
Growing up, I knew my grandfather had written a Korean War memoir, but I wasn’t particularly interested in reading it. I assumed it was boring, filled with war talk and little else.
I didn’t think of it for years, until he passed away and we were cleaning out my grandparents’ house. Then there it was, over 1,000 typewritten pages underneath layers of dust and junk. By this point, I was curious about what he’d written.
The memoir was a compilation of letters my grandfather wrote to my grandmother, and there was actually only a small amount of war talk. Instead, the pages were filled with enthusiasm, longing, creativity, and family stories. It was a time capsule that gave me a peek into the man my grandfather was when he was my age. It was my grandfather as I had never known him—young, romantic, loquacious.
About 10 years after the war, he typed the letters, did some editing, and tried to get it published. He even took a sabbatical from his medical practice to work on it, but to no avail. I’m sure he was disappointed, and I wish I could tell him that he had at least one very satisfied reader.
I got so much from his memoir. I learned new family stories and got to know my grandfather better. Most rewarding of all, I discovered how much we had in common. Everything from his ideas and thoughts to his writing voice felt familiar. The similarities between us made me feel more connected to him and less alone. It was also reassuring to know that someone so similar to me had turned out so well, with a rich family and career life.
Even now, I return to his memoir every so often to see how my perception has changed. Recently, my husband and I had our first child, and along with the lack of sleep, fun and joy, came plenty of worries. Revisiting my grandfather’s memoir helped put things into perspective.
In one section, my grandfather discusses the pain of losing their 5-month-old baby the year before. Just having passed the 5-month mark, it’s hard for me to imagine (knock on wood and every other surface you can knock on!) losing a child at that age, or any age. Yet, not only were they able to make it through that difficult time, they went on to have three other children. Their resilience is incredibly comforting for me.
My experience isn’t unique to me. Research backs up the many benefits of getting to know your family history. They teach you about survival and hardships, problem-solving and make you feel like you’re a part of something greater than yourself.
Studies have shown that kids with parents who reminisce and tell family stories, are more empathetic, have better coping skills, and higher self-esteem.
James Birren, one of the founders of the field of gerontology, also did a lot of guided autobiography work that showed when seniors share their stories, they have reduced rates of depression and anxiety. This kind of storytelling has also been known to improve cognitive function, reduce chronic pain, and further personal growth and self-discovery.
So, it’s never too early or too late to share family stories. Even if you never know its impact on future generations, somewhere out there, there’s a future relative who will appreciate your foresight. I know I did.
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Rachael Rifkin is a ghostwriter/ personal historian who blogs about the traits we inherit, whether genetically or environmentally, and the qualities that we find only in ourselves. Her favorite things are reading, random acts of kindness, high fives, playing with her dogs, and laughing with her husband. www.lifestoriestoday.com/blog