Encouraging our senior citizens to pick up their pens and reveal their gems
Writing about one’s life is like picking up a stone on a dusty gravel road and giving it a good rub to reveal the gem within. Besides writing books about eating disorders, I enjoy helping people discover their own special gem.
My love of the written word began when I was three. An early memory is of sitting cross-legged on the linoleum-covered kitchen floor of my parents’ farmhouse, turning the pages of the daily newspaper and thinking: ‘When I grow up I will read every word on every page.’ Even the tiny print in the Birth and Death columns.
Words were fascinating. They were full of promise and possibilities. They could describe and express, reveal and reflect. Their shape, their look, big words, little words, the way they could mix and match to mean and convey different things – was mesmerizing. They were friendly. They were also an escape and helped me cope with a stressful home environment. They connected with me and when I wrote them, they belonged to me.
When given a small, soft-covered diary for my 12th birthday, this little book with blank pages quickly became a best friend. I have kept a diary every year since – and I am a grandmother of five, now. Initially, entries were mostly matter-of-fact observations, like, “I collected 10 eggs from the chooks and got nine out of 10 for an English test”. Expression of emotion – happy or sad – was rare.
Rise above life’s challenges rather than become a victim to them – thank you, Patsy Adam-Smith
As I entered adolescence, observations and reflections began to reveal my feelings. Words like ‘dark’, ‘black hole’ and ‘depression’ appeared. During the decades I worked as a newspaper journalist, I became deeply inspired by the late Patsy Adam-Smith (1924-2001). Patsy, a prolific writer, was a tiny Australian woman with amazing resilience and passion for the written word. She was an astute observer of life and had an innate talent for capturing and preserving it with her pen.
Patsy overcame all sorts of adverse situations to become an Australian “living treasure” as social historian and author. I met her at a time, in the 1990s, when I was struggling to let go of my long-term eating disorder. Patsy’s determination to rise above life’s challenges rather than become a victim to them, inspired me greatly. I particularly cherish her two-part autobiography: Hear the Train Blow, written in 1964, and Goodbye Girlie, written 30 years later in 199
Patsy encouraged me to push on in climbing my own mountain in life. Many years on, when I summoned the courage to read my journals and write my memoir, A Girl Called Tim, I was rewarded with a heightened understanding of self, of the influences and environment that shaped my childhood. This was liberating in moving forward with my present. For decades my life had seemed like a jigsaw puzzle – there were pieces missing. My diaries contained clues to help heal and fill those gaps.
Writing workshops for senior citizens can be particularly enlightening
At every age, writing is rewarding. A diary or a journal makes an excellent gift. Sometimes if I forget to pack my diary, I write on anything at hand – a serviette, a coaster, or piece of scrap paper. It doesn’t matter what we write on, or how we write, the main thing is to write. I love it, and love encouraging others to do so.
Writing workshops for senior citizens can be particularly enlightening. I love helping others to record their stories. Nancy celebrated her 85th birthday by coming along to the first day of an “I Remember When …” workshop and went on to write a magnificent 3000-word essay on being a peace activist in the 1950s. June, age 84, mother of eight and a great grandmother of many more, caught a bus and travelled 20km to join the class – she was not going to miss it for the world. “This is my time now,” she said with a sparkle in her eye.
When all is lost, start again
Sons and daughters of WWI soldiers explore their childhoods, “of when Dad came home from the war”. Norma, whose house was burnt to the ground in the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Australia, had been a schoolteacher and loved to write. On Black Saturday, all her written works, together with photographs, were turned to ash. Heroically, two years later, at the age of 80, she came to a writing workshop, picked up a pen and began writing afresh.
John starts his story at the age of 10, during the Great Depression, when his pianist dad heard him tapping in time to the music and said: “I think we have a drummer here”. John describes how his dad made his first drum set, resourcefully using items from around the house, and soon he was earning pocket money playing at Saturday night dances. Fifty years later, John was still playing the drums and giving joy to many people. His descendants, when they pick up his drumsticks one day, won’t have to wonder about the man who tapped those sticks. They will be able to read his story
Then there is 80-year-old Harold, who had been sent to an orphanage run by the Catholic Church at age four and separated for years from his older sisters. He describes how a Father punched him on the nose when another child hid his jacket. At age 15, Harold was put on a train and sent miles away to a strange place to work on a farm. There he stayed, married, and had 10 children. Happiness for Harold was having all 10 children jump on his bed on a Sunday morning. You can guess that family is the central theme in Harold’s story.
Self-doubters produce stories their descendants will cherish
Men and women who have not written since they left school at the age of 14 or 15, more than 60 years ago, are often quite sure they can’t compose so much as one sentence. “We haven’t done anything special in our life,” they say. Or a devoted and dutiful wife meekly says, “I’m here to support my husband in writing his story.” As though she hasn’t a life of her own. With a little encouragement, the rusty self-doubters and the submissive wife come alive and produce stories their grandchildren will cherish.
Christine’s childhood was one long move, more than 30 in all – because her dad, a WWII soldier, could not settle when he returned home. For years the large family’s worldly goods comprised only what could fit into their small car when they ‘hit the road again’. Everything else was left behind. And for a while, everywhere that Christine went, troubles seemed to follow – she came to dread Christmas because traumatic events had a habit of occurring on that day. At times the load proved almost too much. But Christine found an outlet in not only writing not only her story but poetry as well.
Senior citizens are a treasure trove
Imagine a Christmas tree before it is decorated with glittering streamers, baubles and twinkling lights. Such is the transformation when men and women share memories and start writing. A chain reaction occurs, with one long suppressed but equally poignant or heart-warming memory sparking a memory in another. There is much animation and excitement. Senior citizens are a treasure trove. Their stories are worth preserving, to help their descendants know who they are, and for the wider community as well.
Your story is worth preserving, too. Do you need help to get started? Contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org