If Only I'd Known
“If only I’d known about your services before my grandmother passed away.” This is far and away the most common phrase I hear when I explain to people what I do as a personal historian/story preservationist. Sure, they look at me quizzically first because my “job title” isn’t exactly common. However, once they understand, I inevitably hear the “if only” statement. Of course it's not only “grandmother,” it’s whoever happens to come in mind for them. Yesterday though, it was double the grandmother sentiments.
Networking is the lifeblood of a small business like mine. You meet people, they know people, and eventually those connections lead you to a client. Yesterday, while engaging in the normal networking activities, I heard the familiar lament. In the morning it was from a very accomplished gentleman who stated how his grandmother knew something about everyone in the family. She was the connector. And when she passed, she took the stories with her and left a void. Think of her as the family resource librarian. She knew the stories, the connections, and the gossip of the family. No one thought to record those memories (or how much they'd be missed) and now the many boxes of overflowing family photos lack the meaning they once had.
Then, in the evening I was at yet another networking event. This time it was a group of women entrepreneurs. All of them had their own amazing stories of their businesses - how they got started and what it took to launch and grow something from scratch. One of the ladies, a fashion designer, commented that she wished she had preserved the stories/memories of her grandmother. This gregarious woman was an artist, actress, and activist. Can you image how coloful those stories must have been? Her granddaughter, the designer, did remember some of the stories but they've faded. It's tough when you can't confirm the stories with the original source who has long since passed away.
Of course, wishing you would have done something is pointless. You can’t go back in time but we can learn a valuable lesson. These two very different individuals I mentioned both yearned for the stories of their grandmothers. I wonder who will be wishing for their stories some day? We often acknowledge the bravery or the “amazing” lives of our ancestors but what about our own lives? What you’ve lived is interesting and will be interesting to members of your family today and decades from now.
Part of the reason we’re enamored with the past is because it’s different from our current reality. The same will be true for future generations. We think riding a horse or walking five miles to school is interesting because it's far removed from our reality. When folks were experiencing those rides and walks it was simply a part of their days and probably not a very enjoyable part. But imagine the thrill of hearing the voice of your ancestor telling you the story of their school house commute? Interesting, right?
Who knows what the future holds. The only thing we know for sure is that change is inevitable. If forecasting is at all accurate, in the not so distant future, people won’t even be driving cars. Cars will be self-driving. What if education becomes centralized and internet based? If those things happen, your ancestors will be looking back at your youth thinking – “wow, they drove their own cars to a building filled with kids all learning the same curriculum. How weird!”
You might not think your life is interesting but interesting is not only fueled by great adventure but also by novelty. Your life today is very different from what life will be like a century from now. Don’t sell your life short and thus back away from preserving your story because “it’s not very interesting.” A friend recently asked me “what do you do when the story is boring?” I don’t know. I haven’t encountered one yet! When you’re constructing a highlight reel, it’s all interesting. Tell your story!
If recording your own story is the first thing I think of when I hear "If only," the second thing I think of is – you remember, save that! You remember some of the stories from the person in your past who inspired you. What is your responsibility to preserve those memories? It’s not as good as a firsthand account but it’s something. If you do nothing to preserve memories and you’re not a famous movie star, sports hero, or politician, you will be forgotten in two generations. Grandparents are known by their children, and most likely their grandchildren, but that’s where it ends unless you intervene. Maybe there’s a notation in a family bible, or random letter, or photograph but without a story, those are empty words and images. And even those things require some level of conservation or they disappear. If you want a calling card into the future, save your stories and memories. Audio and video recordings are enormously valuable because you feel more connected to someone telling you their story. You pick up cues about who they were simply from their voice and appearance.
The bottom line is this. Ditch the “If only” and replace it with telling your story and telling the stories of your ancestors who inspired you. Future generations will be thankful you did. Current generations probably won’t even look up from their cellphones but give them time. The value of a family legacy grows in importance. It’s remarkable how our perception shifts after we have kids, care for a dying loved one, or persevere through hardships ourselves. Our part is not in convincing future generations that our story is valuable, our part is making the valuable available. This is something we all can do.
Wisdom is a gift. Save it today. Share it forever.