Gifts of a Lifetime

By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack Premium

You’ve been pestering your relatives all year to record their life stories for posterity. So this holiday season, instead of another cookbook or golf shirt, why not present Mom, Granddad and Aunt Lu — even yourself — with a gift the whole family can appreciate? Bookstores are brimming with legacy books — tomes designed to help people put their memories on paper. Legacy books help with those “I don’t know how to begin” and “my life isn’t all that interesting” excuses you’ll hear. Unlike a blank journal or an empty computer screen, they make life-story writing easy and enjoyable by giving guidance and prompts relevant to anyone’s life experiences. And there’s a type of legacy book for every personality, from the writing-shy to the super-creative. Look for books to fit your family members among these four categories:

Memory joggers

One category of legacy books is what I call “memory joggers.” This type of book doesn’t provide space to write your answers, but it does offer you endless topic ideas for journal writing, oral history interviews or inspiration to write a life story. With memory joggers, your kin have the flexibility to write as little or as much as they want on each topic, in whatever format they choose.

To Our Children’s Children: Preserving Family Histories for Generations to Come by Bob Greene and D.G. Fulford (Doubleday) is a classic for jump-starting your family history. This step-by-step guide will help create personal histories from people’s memories. A reader in Indiana wrote a review on that will give you goose bumps:

“I bought this book for my father in November for a Christmas gift but gave it to him as soon as I received it. He got busy on it right away on his computer and wrote a 13-page history of his life. He passed away Dec. 29. My gift for him turned into a gift for me….” This story shows how urgent it is to get those life stories recorded now.

Q&A keepsakes

If you think your relatives might be more responsive to recording their life stories by answering questions, you’ll find plenty of Q&A legacy books, too. Some, like the companion to Greene and Fulford’s book, To Our Children’s Children: Journal of Family Memories (Doubleday), have the look and feel of a journal. Others are presented as coffee-table books. An advantage of fill-in formats is that the person responds in his or her own handwriting — something that’s lost when you record memories on a computer.

One creative format is Remember Me? A Guide to Organizing the Experiences of Your Life and Writing an Autobiography That Will Be Cherished for Generations by Robert Max (Remember Me?). This boxed kit can motivate you or a family member to record what life was like when you were growing up. It includes a three-ring portfolio, acetate sleeves, index cards, personal philosophy and Stages of Life stationery, and a 50-page guide to writing an autobiography.

A Father’s Journal: Memories for my Child and For My Child: A Mother’s Keepsake Journal (Northland Publishing) are two journals Linda Kranz created for parents to give to their children. The journals have two sections: “About Me,” which prompts details of your life, and “About You,” to share your memories of your son or daughter’s childhood. Get yourself one to fill in and give it to your child as a unique gift. Although they look like they’re meant for young children, your grown-up kids will appreciate these journals most of all. If you have a lot to say on a topic, however, you may want to write small or insert additional pages. The writing space, while often a full page, doesn’t seem like it would be enough for some subjects.

Memoir-writing guides

Maybe cousin Al likes to write, but you’re having trouble inspiring him to get going on his autobiography. After all, where do you begin when you have half a century or more to write about? Guides such as Living Legacies: How to Write, Illustrate, and Share Your Life Stories by Duane Elgin and Coleen LeDrew (Conari Press) show writers how to combine illustrations, photographs, memorabilia and other family treasures into a life story. From the first step to the completed project, you’ll find memory prompts, sample stories, ideas, advice on finding your writer’s voice and guidance to select materials to include in your story.

But what if Grandma doesn’t think she’s a good writer and worries she’ll write something filled with grammatical mistakes? Nancy Pengra’s Family Memories, Life Stories: Easy Non-Writer’s Guide (Center for Life Stories Preservation) is a good choice. Written for busy folks and people who think they have no writing skills, this guide makes it easy and fun. It’s filled with hundreds of ideas and projects — some that include writing, others that don’t. The emphasis here is to just tell stories: The format doesn’t matter as long as the memories get recorded.

Heritage-album helpers

If Aunt Lu prefers scrapbooking to writing an autobiography or answering questions, there are several books just for her. In Crafting Your Own Heritage Album by Bev Kirschner Braun (Betterway Books), she’ll learn how to preserve photographs, records and heirlooms with archival-safe materials as she weaves genealogy, family lore and tradition into a special heritage album. In the second book, she’ll discover new page-layout ideas and ways to preserve and present oral history interviews and family memorabilia. Braun’s New Ideas for Crafting Heritage Albums (Betterway Books) has suggestions for using a scanner to restore old photographs and for turning a heritage scrapbook into a family activity.

In Making Heritage Scrapbook Pages (Hot Off the Press), Aunt Lu will learn how to organize heirloom photographs and safely adhere them to scrapbook pages. This book comes with dozens of patterned papers designed to enhance black-and-white photographs. Basic, easy-to-follow instructions help with page layouts, journaling and other scrapbook-design techniques. And since no memory album is complete without journaling, there’s a short question section to prompt Aunt Lu to write about her life.

Giving your relatives a legacy book is just the first step — your next challenge is to get Mom, Pop, Grammy and Great-uncle Harry to fill in the books or complete the projects. Rather than simply nagging, dangle a reward in front of them. Include homemade “coupons” for whatever would give them incentive to fill in a page, such as “Complete page 45 and redeem for one free dinner at the Olive Garden” or “Finish the project in chapter two for one game of golf on me.” As they preserve their own memories, you’ll also be creating new, shared ones.

From the December 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine