Thank you to CJE for inviting bioGraph to speak at the Major Donor Recognition Event. We are grateful to everyone who supports this vital institution supporting our senior community.
Preserving is Pre-Serving
Preserving our stories is not an extracurricular hobby, or something we can afford to put off until we reach our golden years, or worse, our death beds. Preserving stories is our urgent obligation. We should preserve our stories no less diligently than we’d record our last will and testament or advanced medical directives. Just this morning, the headlines read “Aretha Franklin Estate: Handwriting Experts to Examine Wills” found in a notebook under couch cushions 2 months ago, 10 months after her death last August. Without life insurance or an updated will, we would feel delinquent in our obligation to our families and descendants. But we are equally responsible for preserving our stories, which convey values that give meaning to our legacy and our children’s inheritance.
The exponential growth of the DNA testing market shows our widespread fascination with ancestry and genealogy. It shows that beyond our instinct to pass on our genes, we also have an instinct to know who passed their genes on to us. There is real value in learning our genetic heritage and family trees, but like our will and testament, the story of our genes constitutes only one part of the full story. To think we can spit in a vial or swab our cheek and that scientists at 23andMe or Ancestry.com will be able to tell us everything we need to know about ourselves is to fall into a genetic determinism that prevents us from evolving. We are more than our genes. Nobody knows ourselves better than we do, nobody can tell our story or convey our values and the lessons of our experience better than we can.
It’s not vain to get a DNA test, nor is it vain to tell your story. One person we work with says in the introduction to her work:
This book is not a vanity piece. I suffer no delusions of grandeur. I tell my story to define my legacy as more than the privilege in which my kids are growing up. I can’t say how many, if any, of your difficulties this book will settle, but if it settles just one, I’ll be satisfied.
“We can’t micromanage from the grave,” my 93 year old friend reminds me, but we can and must preserve our vision and perspectives, hard-won through life experience, because our stories benefit others, who can build upon what we have learned rather than reinvent the wheel. Preserving stories saves lives. Preservation is more than the dusty recollection of ancestors. Preserving is also as pre-serving: a proactive form of service for self, family, community, and posterity. Our stories are more than the record of a past that’s set in stone; through stories we shape the present and create the future.
Stating the obvious
Everyone in this room has lived a full life and accomplished extraordinary things. The story of a life is invaluable even if it isn’t full of adventure, earth-shattering events, fame, or notoriety. It may seem trivial to record details about our wedding, how we felt starting a career, challenges we overcame, relationships with our parents were like, the neighborhoods we grew up in. Stating the obvious may seem insignificant to us today, but in the eyes of our future selves and our children, even the most mundane details of our lives are treasures.
They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, but Grandma’s box of nameless pictures, however interesting, don’t mean much to me without her stories. What is obvious to a grandmother is not obvious to her grandchildren. What is obvious to us today is not obvious to us tomorrow.
After interviews, family members often ask each other, “did you learn anything about me you didn’t know already?” The answer is usually, “maybe a few things—like I didn’t know you met Mom in third grade—but even the things I did know, there’s no way I’d be able to recall the characteristic details in your own words and voice.
Library Burns Down
My 93-year old friend and co-author understands the urgency of stating what is obvious to him, but not obvious to the next generation of readers, about the trajectory of our democracy. He never imagined that he had a book in him, but his mentees insisted that the wisdom he casually shared over pancakes at Walker Brothers every month could make the world a better place. They finally convinced him to preserve his words in a book, which he entitled Achieving a Better World for Every Person. Every time we meet, he repeats the African proverb that when an old person dies, a library burns down (read more about the proverb). He understands his responsibility to secure his library for posterity. In his words:
This book is one part of my three-part legacy. First, I have provided my children with the resources they need to thrive into the future. Second, I have established a charitable foundation that requires my children’s participation. Lastly, this book conveys my older-mind perspective to my children and their children’s children. It’s not about me. I was concerned that readers would perceive this as a tutorial. I’m not your teacher. I’m not smarter than you, particularly. But I’ve had some experiences, and hopefully I can translate those experiences in ways that could be helpful.
This gentleman exemplifies what gerontologists call generativity, “an adult’s concern for and commitment to promoting the well-being of youth and future generations through involvement in parenting, teaching, mentoring, and other creative contributions that aim to leave a positive legacy of the self for the future.” “For the first time in years,” he tells me, “I feel that I have a reason to be. I only wish I began sooner.”
Generativity is common among the older adults with whom we work. We just finished interviewing 10 survivors for a book project in partnership with the Illinois Holocaust Museum. What many of the survivors have in common were schedules packed with speaking engagements. I dare any among us to complain we’re having a busy week before taking a look at the calendar of a survivor on the speaker’s bureau.
One of the questions we’ve asked the survivors is “when/why did you start telling your story?” Many remained silent for years after the Shoah, because they rightfully perceived that most people didn’t care. One child survivor recalls that after the war, whenever her relatives and parents spoke of the horror inside the camps, they spoke in Yiddish so she and her siblings, the next generation, couldn’t understand. We can’t blame them for wanting to preserve whatever innocence their children still enjoyed, but at some point, the survivors realized that preserving the memory, legacy, stories, and lessons of their experience was too urgent an obligation to avoid.
For some, the catalyst was Nazis marching through Skokie; for others, the epiphany came when the next generation started asking questions to which only they, the survivors, had answers. However they arrived at the realization, all the survivors interviewed for this book embrace their obligation to preserve the story as they lived it.
In the words of Elie Wiesel at the inauguration of Yad Vashem:
All of us know more or less that there was a tragedy. There are no words. Only those who were there know what it meant being there. And yet, we are duty-bound to try and not to bury our memories into silence.
While survivors’ testimonies are the extreme example of the obligation to remember the past and preserve stories, Elie Wiesel’s words pertain to us all.
Any Last Words
Transmitting values from one generation to the next is nothing new for the Jewish people. The ethical will or Zava’ha, harkens back to the book of Genesis where Jacob gives burial instructions and offers blessings and predictions to his twelve sons (who become the 12 tribes of Israel). He tells Asher, for example, that he would “provide delicacies fit for a king.” He predicts that Dan would “provide justice for his people.” As one verse says
Your father’s blessings are greater than the blessings of the ancient mountains, than the bounty of the age-old hills.
The scene of Jacob’s ethical will is in some ways ideal. At the ripe age of 147, he foresees his death and has enough wits about him to carefully impart messages to his sons, who promise to do what he says. However, the scene is not the perfect model of communication across generations, because it paints the preservation and transmission of values as an end of life activity. We must not wait that long to preserve our family’s stories.
Not all of us are lucky enough to live to old age. Life and death are messy. Not all of us can count on a good friends to teach our children about who we were and what we valued. My grandfather was delinquent on his obligation to preserve his and our family’s story. I can’t blame him, since he died when he was only 40, and probably thought there would be more time.
Whether I claim my grandfather’s virtues as my genetic heritage or a model to emulate, I take pride in reading that he “was a far above average quick thinker, could grasp and handle any problem, and had a vocabulary second to none. At the age of fifteen he could do the hardest Sunday newspaper crossword puzzles in just over an hour, without ever using a dictionary.” My grandfather’s absence was ubiquitous in my childhood, influencing my life no less, just differently, than his presence would have. If two and half pages typewritten for a 13-year-old can mean so much and last so long, how cool it would be to have my grandfather’s full story preserved in his own words.