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                                           Episode 147 Memoir in Retirement

  

            This is Retirement Talk. I'm Del Lowery.

             Joining a memoir writing group can help in understanding our entire lfie. It helps us look back; it helps us examine the present and it helps us clarify our connection to others. Dick Smith shares these recent thoughts.

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           The unexamined life is not worth living. How can we proceed to examine our life? Our childhood memories are distorted. Relatives and friends are distant or dead. The old home town has been improved or decayed out of existence. The years in the rat race and raising a family are a complex web of interconnected experience. What is left to examine in retirement?

           I meet with a Memoir Writing Group every Wednesday. There are usually about eight people, six women and two men. The women often write about their children and families while the men may talk more about careers, cars and wars. It is an opportunity to examine the thoughts and feelings of each person in the group. We have a lot in common.

We each read a short piece, after which the most common response is, “That’s like what happened to me.” Some readings are a section of a life story and may be part of a planned book. Some like mine are in no particular order, just fragmented memories that I am trying to organize. Most of us are not highly skilled writers and this format helps us to persevere and to improve our writing.

The responses to the readings are often more interesting to me than the readings themselves. They create a shared understanding of the meanings of our lives as child, adult and now as seniors during a certain era. In this group it tells us a lot about the Great Depression, WWII, post-war prosperity and the emergence of the American Empire. We are all actors in a larger historical drama that is both comedy and tragedy. We don’t know how the drama will end or whether our part is of any significance in the eyes of others.

Old houses often had attics that stored the treasures of an earlier age, a museum of our family. I feel like I am groping through cobwebbed memories, rummaging through old boxes to find a picture or relic of an earlier day. I send some of my family stories to my sisters or my children and they often tell me that I have it all wrong. It makes for lively conversation and stimulates further memories. The emotional attachments are more important than the facts. What are the similarities and differences between my family of origin and the family I later raised?

           On a visit to my home town, I looked at an old house where I lived as a boy in the 1930s. It was vacant and for rent so I was able to walk around and peek in the windows. It almost seemed like the old family might suddenly appear seated around the table having supper together. The lilac tree was still in the corner and the brick walk that I helped my dad make still served as a path to the garden. In that house, I slept in a small closet off my parents’ bedroom.  I was often sent off on long errands on Sunday afternoons while they took a nap. I didn’t realize at the time what a threat to their privacy I was.

For a time, I was interested in genealogy. I discovered that an aunt had traced some of our family back to pre-Revolutionary America. My parents and most of my immediate ancestors were ordinary people that did not leave prominent traces of their existence but their lives do provide an appreciation of local and national history. My grandparents were active in the timber and oil booms of nineteenth century Pennsylvania. I have the Civil War record of a great-grandfather. I tried to find another family member interested in this data. I passed my unfinished papers to my brother’s grandson who had shown some interest.

 

There is the risk of getting lost in the past and neglecting the present and our plans for the future. Every life has a quota of regrets. Most of our memoirists have told us of a folly or a road not taken.  Remorse is useless but experience alerts us to future possibilities. Reading and listening to friends about cloudy periods in my life has helped me to understand that I am in good company. Writing about another period often leads to a fuller appreciation of what family and friends were doing and saying but some old mysteries may never be solved.

I have written dozens of short sketches of events from my life. They reside in my computer and tempt me to elaborate and reconnect my memories. Each week I select one to read and the reactions of my writer friends causes further expansion of the theme. A Memoir Group is a great way to examine and reinterpret our lives.