Preserving the Past in 'Living Histories'

Senior citizens enjoy penning their memoirs and adding their voices to local records

After 60 years, Celia Sloan decided her childhood memories were worth writing down.

One in particular stands out to her: Outside her apartment building in Brooklyn, N.Y., a row of trees ran along Eastern Parkway. "Each of the trees had a fence around it," she says, with "a plaque commemorating a soldier from World War I. I would stare at those plaques and wonder about war and what the battlefields must have been like."

For most of Mrs. Sloan's life, powerful memories like this were known only to herself and the few people she could share such thoughts with. But now these defining experiences have been written down under professional guidance and bound into a collection of short autobiographies. With other volumes like it, the book sits in a special room of the town library in Brookline, Mass. There it forms a kind of "living history" where citizens young and old can read the memoirs and, in many cases, connect with their authors.

The books got there because of a seminar in autobiographical writing offered by the Brookline Adult & Community Education Program. For more than 10 years "Telling Your Story" - as the class is called - has been helping seniors focus on images and feelings from their past and shaping them into written form.

The continued success of this class is one sign of how popular "living history," reconstructed through stories told by those who actually lived it, has become. The growing movement usually involves formally recording, in one form or another, the often vibrant personal stories of seniors. From their individual recollections emerge universal themes of love, sacrifice, struggle, and joy.

Interest increasing

Many towns are now conducting some version of the Brookline program. And around the country, colleges are offering courses and projects devoted to plumbing the rich memories of older people.

"It's an increasingly common practice, and there is great interest in preserving this kind of history," says Elisa Diller, a Presbyterian minister who has recorded the memories of seniors as part of her research into the changes taking place in communities.

She has also incorporated the writing of what she calls "a spiritual autobiography" into the course she teaches at the University of Delaware, Newark. "I have found this structured way of writing about themselves to be very helpful," she says.

"The interest in recording personal histories is definitely on the increase," says Rosemarie Sepos, program director of the Academy for Learning After Fifty - called the Athenaeum - a program conducted by the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. An increasingly popular course at the Athenaeum is "Writing Your Memoirs," in which class members recall and record their life experiences and those of their ancestors.

For Irving Schwartz, who founded Brookline's "Telling Your Story" and teaches the course with Jean Kramer, the value to seniors is incalculable. "It orders their memories and puts them in command of their experience," he says. "It is an affirmation of a life. You are sharing it with others and thus affirming that life."

Desire to document

For some of his students, the class is a way of realizing a long-standing desire. "I was interested in doing a history of my family and myself," explains Eleanor Kaplan of Brookline, who has been taking the class for about a year and a half.

"What I needed was some direction and inspiration to let me call upon my own memory, and I really learned a lot from the people in the class and from the teachers. They helped me give my life a framework from which I could pick up specifics for my writing: Where did it begin? How did it come about? What were the major elements of life in the 1920s and 1930s."

From such prompting, "The whole feeling of the '30s leaped out of my head," she recalls. "It became very meaningful - the school, the neighborhood, the things we did as children."

Mr. Schwartz's interest in creating such a class harks back to his interest - as a teacher and scholar - in what he calls "the autobiographical way of knowing." He says autobiography is a way of helping people sense the difficulty in establishing the truth about the past, including history.

"When you discover that it is very difficult to recreate even the life that you yourself have lived," he points out, "let alone whole historical movements, then you have a sensitivity to what is knowable and what is not knowable. You realize you can never really recreate the past as it was."

Yet only from such bits, he claims, can a larger picture be drawn. As Schwartz says, "Your own life is as close as we can get to history. If you examine your life and make sense of where you came from and what you have done, the result is wisdom."

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