The images from the 1930 high school yearbook brought them all back.
As we all flipped through its pages, Ramie’s grandmother regaled us with stories of her early life as if it all happened yesterday. Her uncle later queried Nana why she had never shared any of these stories with him. “Well, you never asked,” was her reply.
After that, we began “asking” everyone on both sides of the family for their stories.
It turns out Ramie’s grandfather trained homing pigeons for the U.S. Army Signal Corps during WWI, serving as a “pigeoneer.” Her other grandmother was the second woman in her county to drive a car. Ramie’s mom swam across the Allegheny River to downtown Pittsburgh just to see if she could do it.
Norma’s youngest brother served on a Coast Guard gun boat patrolling the Mekong River during the Viet Nam War. Leo’s dad succumbed to mustard gas exposure in the trenches during WWI, leaving him fatherless at age two. Norma was devastated when her favorite foster child returned years later to tell her that he was dying of AIDS.
None of these stories would have been known to us if we had not asked.
The Thanksgiving holiday is a time when many families gather to enjoy a bountiful meal and create or perpetuate family traditions. This can also be the perfect opportunity to encourage older relatives to share their life stories — to the benefit of them as well as those who love and care for them.
Daily caregiving demands can be so all-consuming that it can sometimes be difficult to remember that your loved one has many important memories and experiences to share. It is easy to see them first as a “patient” struggling with certain health issues, especially if it is memory loss.
But we have found that storytelling and reminiscing can reveal important experiences in your loved one’s past. The caregiving experience can become far more personal and rich when you learn about the things that mattered the most in the lives of these special people.
This can be important because the more you know about your loved one’s history and values, the better you can adapt your caregiving to them. Listening to stories can give you a deep insight into their beliefs and fears, likes and dislikes, in a non-threatening way.
These stories might also shed a light on what things may trigger bad memories or negative feelings, or perhaps explain a certain behavior or habit. They can also help to build connections and increase empathy between the caregiver and those they care for.
Storytelling is just one way to improve communication with your loved one, which in turn can reduce care-related stress and strain on the relationship. You will at least learn a lot more about your own family history, and quite possibly garner some “pearls of wisdom” that may help you with challenges in your own life.