Rachael Rachael, a mom of two daughters, is a freelance editor and writer who enjoys gardening and dreams of keeping chickens in her suburban St. Louis backyard. In her spare time, she helps to edit her husband’s science fiction books. Read more of Rachael's work at www.rachaelsjohnston.com or contact her by emailing rachael@mumblingmommy.com.

As I thought about family memories and what makes a memory, I started to think about a quote from Wilfrid McDonald: “’What’s a memory?’ asked Wilfrid Gordon. He was always asking questions. ‘It is something you remember,’ said his father.  But Wilfrid Gordon wanted to know more, so he called on Mrs Jordan who played the organ. ‘What’s a memory?’ he asked. ‘Something warm, my child, something warm.’”

           –  Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox

During the first week of school, my first grader’s teacher read the book quoted above. While I’m familiar with Mem Fox, I had never read this one. I like to know what my kid is doing all day in school, and I have an English degree and love to read, so I tracked the book down at our public library. I sat recently with both of my daughters on our large swing on our back patio and listened as my older daughter read.

It’s a poignant story about a young boy who befriends residents in a home for elderly people. When one of his good friends there loses her memory, he sets out in his own innocent, childish way to try to help her find it again by collecting various items to help her remember.

My paternal grandfather.

Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partidge’s story is also poignant because my family has experience with Alzheimer’s and memory loss. My paternal grandfather passed away early this summer after several years of memory decline. While he still had lucid times, the changes over the last few years were visible and rapid enough to cause deep concern among the family. We explained to my 6-year-old how her great-grandfather sometimes had trouble remembering things.

The last time I saw my grandfather alive was a few days after Christmas, when almost all of the extended family gathered to celebrate the holiday. My husband and I sat directly across from my grandparents during lunch and chatted about the assisted living community they had recently settled in. Grandpa talked about the good food there and the musicians who came in to perform for residents. My husband and I left that day feeling good about the time we had gotten to spend with my grandparents. The extended family was aware it might be the last Christmas grandpa would still know who we all were. We knew our time with him was limited, although we never would have predicted his passing would come so suddenly.

Grandpa was one of 11 siblings, and only three now remain. As I have watched many of grandpa’s siblings pass away before him, I have felt a keen awareness that with the passing of his generation, we lose important firsthand knowledge and stories. We lose family memories. It has spurred me to try to collect as many of those memories as I can – from both sides of my family. So, what is a memory?

Family Memories

My maternal grandmother’s wedding.

A memory is what I got when I asked my dad and his brother questions about their childhood and about their grandparents during a family camping trip last summer. I value the stories they shared around late-night campfires about grandpa’s years spent working as a pastor.

A memory is what I received when I spent a morning last fall on the phone with my maternal grandmother, asking questions about her childhood, how she met my grandfather, and what they did during the early years of their marriage. My maternal grandfather died when I was 4 years old, but I learned about his parents who emigrated from Lithuania early in the 20th century. I typed that information in a Word document as grandma spoke, and I later went through and arranged it into a narrative format so I can give copies to other family members. My husband and I spent an afternoon with that same grandmother this summer scanning old family photos so we’ll have digital copies, and I have a lovely collection of photos from grandma’s 1948 wedding that show a surprising amount of detail and spontaneity for wedding photos of that era.

A memory is what happened when my paternal grandfather passed away and the family collected photos from his life. They saved them to disks so everyone would have copies. My favorites are the family portraits of my grandparents with their four children when they were young.

My daughters with my paternal grandmother.

A memory is also something that happens in the present time. As I grow older, moments with family are becoming more valuable. I see my surviving grandparents as often as I can considering the miles between us. I notice when my recently widowed paternal grandmother gets watery eyed toward the end of our visits. I give her an extra squeeze around the shoulders, and I privately coach my 6 year-old to be generous with hugs.

I’ve become aware, as fellow blogger Katie has talked about, that my own parents are growing older as well. They live six hours from me, and I was privileged this summer to see my parents multiple times when we went camping together, visited their home, and then hosted them at my home for an entire week. The more time my daughters can spend with these relatives, the better.

These are the things that make a memory. I want to be able to look back and feel confident that I spent these years well. I want to tell my children about the family members who lived before them. Someday my children and grandchildren will look back on their own experiences, and they will look at the stories and  photos I’ve saved, and they’ll have a better idea of who our family was. Like Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, I don’t want any of us to lose those family memories.

What are some of your favorite family memories?

Category: Grandparents

Tags: Alzheimer's