“Why bother with the past? It is not where you come from but where you end up.” This was a question posed by my younger son who was and is as American as Mom’s apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side. I smile at him as we sit around a kidney-shaped swimming pool with sparkling blue water; the bright Florida sun glinting off the calm surface of the water with occasional swirls from the underwater jets and filtration system.
My answer was unthinkingly swift and spontaneous, as I had heard this type of question before, posed by students who were impatient to get on with life.
Trying not to sound too pedantic, I said, “There is an old Latin saying, that from the knowledge of the past we can predict the future. But that is not why I write stories from my past. I write to remember the events and people who have impacted my life and made me the person who I am now, before you. It is also a record of the times through which I have lived like it will be yours when you write your history. We each, see the world through the lenses of time and experience. Each glimpse is unique to us, our interpretation of our experiences!”
I look at his long, slender, artistic fingers playing with his iPhone and realize that he has never known what it is to be truly hungry in a Third World country with no electricity or running water; no indoor plumbing, washing machines and refrigerators, and I start to talk to him about America and the West. Our country is less than two hundred and fifty years old and still dynamic and changing. His ancestors come from a country which has a recorded history of about five thousand years, but also a country which choked itself by confining its citizens into a caste system with no room for them to grow as individuals.
I watch his face, alight with interest, as I start the story of my great grandfather who was brought to the West Indies as an indentured laborer, along with hundreds of others stowed below decks, in 1858, aboard a sailing ship called a Windjammer. They replaced the black slaves who had recently been freed by the British.
I relate the stories of that little low-caste peasant who founded a dynasty which spread later to the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States of America. Some of those stories I told him were handed down by parents, uncles, aunts and elders in the community. Some of these accounts may have been fictionalized, but most were products of their time, observed by other people as well.
A true memoir is a collection of stories by one individual who has looked at the world through his or her eyes and experiences. It may be corroborated by others, but it is uniquely that person’s. All experiences are colored by the prism of one’s peculiar slant on events and the people who create them. The ultimate impact, however, is on your interpretation of those events. That is why you, and only you, can write your memoirs!
All people, in whatever civilizations or eras in which they have lived, have undergone these unique experiences. I finish speaking, and he seems to have understood what I have said and meant. It is the reason I write and teach, to those who want to add their pages to the book of life.
Ray Paltoo, retired M.D, joined OLLI in 2011. He has taken OLLI courses in literature, writing, comparative religion, history and word processing.
Ray teaches life story writing for OLLI. He is also working on finishing a novel.