Stories of the past - a gift to the future

Many afternoons this fall, my father has been engaged in a project that interests the whole family: He's writing a small book. It won't be bound in hard cover, it will never appear on shelves at Barnes & Noble, and it won't make the bestseller list. In fact, only a handful of people, mostly relatives, will ever read it.

Even so, for them this slim volume may hold more meaning than all the other titles in their bookcases combined. It's an autobiography, recounting a long and productive life that began on a dairy farm in southern Wisconsin and continues in suburban Boston. As he writes it, my father will undoubtedly include accounts of working his way through college, along with details of his 42-year career as an electrical engineer and his happy 58-year marriage to my mother.

For nearly a decade, memoirs have reigned as one of the hottest genres in American publishing. Yet for every tell-all author whose personal revelations create a buzz on the talk-show circuit, there are legions of people like my father, writing privately and interested only in preserving memories for their families.

When we first suggested that my father write about his life, modesty prevailed. "I'm not sure it would be interesting to anyone," he said. "Oh, yes, it would," we countered. After several weeks of friendly persuasion, he warmed to the idea. The stories of a life began to unfold on paper in his neat handwriting.

The first-person singular is a tricky pronoun. It can be fascinating or boring, puffed up or humble, depending on who is wielding the pen. Long before the current spate of autobiographies, the 19th-century French novelist Stendhal complained about the memoirs of his day by saying, "What an awful quantity of I's." But everything changes when those I's belong to a beloved family member whose stories we long to hear.

Writing an autobiography requires a minimum of materials: a tablet of paper, a small spiral notebook for jotting down ideas, a manila folder, and a pen. What could be simpler? That other necessity, time, exists in abundance for many retirees.

Those who want help can even hire a personal historian to pen their life story for them. There's a price tag attached, of course - from $5,000 to $40,000, according to Lettice Stuart, president of the Association of Personal Historians. She attributes some of the growing popularity of these services to baby boomers who feel a sense of urgency about getting their parents' generation talking. They tell her, "I want to know what my mom and dad did."

Members of this senior generation - whose lives spanned much of the 20th century and were shaped by the Depression and World War II - have lived through more changes than perhaps any other group in history. My father, for one, remembers the day electric lights first lit up their rural home. Goodbye, kerosene lamps. He also recalls details of the one-room school he attended - 40 students, eight grades, one teacher, two outhouses.

What 21st-century grandchildren could find such stories boring?

One of my cherished possessions is an autobiography my paternal great-grandfather wrote in his 80s. It begins:

"To be absolutely forgotten in a few years is the common fate of mankind. Few of us have any clear transmitted impression of our great-grandparents; some of us could not describe our grandparents. It has occurred to me to record such facts relative to my ancestors as I have been able to secure from my parents, my Eastern relatives, and published records."

At the end of his fascinating account, he wonders whether his autobiography will be of interest to his immediate family and their descendants. But he quickly adds, "However, how much or how little may be worth preserving, I have enjoyed the writing of it."

That comment hints at the pleasure autobiographers can derive from reflecting on their experiences.

How I wish my other great-grandparents, as well as my grandparents and my mother, had taken pen to paper, sharing thoughts and anecdotes. Most family history will disappear unless someone writes it down.

Everyone has a story to tell. An autobiography, however simple, offers a reminder that every life has meaning and importance. What a gift to a family.

Inheritances take many forms. Ms. Stuart sums them up this way. "Money is lovely, and things are nice," she says. "But a life story is the priceless legacy people can leave their children."

Perhaps we should all start writing.

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