Capture parents' memories while you can

Ask them to write their stories before it's too late -- or write your own

Daniel Caton

Special to The Observer

Published: Thurday, May 23, 2006


As we approach the midpoint between Mother’s and Father’s Days I find myself in a sentimental mood. My father is now only a memory, having passed away almost two years ago. And, I have been a father for a decade and a half. Many of us boomers are familiar with this stage—your aging parents, your link to your past, in decline but also competing for attention with your view to the future: your own children. Our vision is split between the windshield and the rear-view mirror.

The passing of a parent does not remove him from your life. In fact, they are in my mind probably a lot more than when my Dad was alive. When they are still here you have the knowledge of their presence as a placeholder in your mind. But, when they pass you take on the burden of memories: your thoughts of them comprise their continuing existence. And these thoughts well up daily. You find yourself falling into these “vortexes,” as dubbed by Joan Didion in her book "The Year of Magical Thinking."

Article spurs action

I have the Observer to thank for memories of Dad that I would not have—some that are not my own. Eleven years ago this month, Observer staff writer John Vaughn wrote a piece on saving “Grandmother’s Memories" (see links to article pages, listed below the entry for this column). The article struck a chord with me, and I asked my Dad to write his history. He took on the task, typing it in on his computer. I also had my mother assemble a couple of “Grandmother’s Memories” albums for our kids, just in time, as it would turn out.

I’ve not read all of it yet—having put it aside, one of those placeholders I mentioned. I’m not sure if I am ready to read it all yet.

I am lucky that my folks carefully planned their twilight years. It began with the selling of the house we all grew up in. I really did not want that to happen but my Mom’s lifetime as a garden clubber had created a lot and a half of maintenance. But I got my Dad to shoot pictures of the place before moving. They moved to a smaller, newly built house. They chose a good time to sell—a recent trip by the old homestead showed the neighborhood in decay, and burglar bars were installed on all the windows. You truly can’t go home again.

Parents' health fails

My Dad’s emphysema worsened, the price of TB during WWII and a couple of decades of smoking. They sold their new house and bought into a retirement village that guaranteed all levels of assistance, from the independent apartment they started with to the ultimate nursing home section. My Dad had mentioned concern over Alzheimer’s—I am not sure if he was worried about himself or my Mom, whose own mother had died from complications of that disease.

When instant messaging began I surprised my Dad by sending a message when I knew he was online on AOL. This started a new form of communication for us, one we shared until almost the end. I saved every conversation we had on AIM. I am not ready to read those again, either. But, like new placeholders, I know they are there for when I am ready.

Those messages got worrisome his last couple of years. He would report that Mom had gone out to buy something and was not back as expected. My younger brother would go looking for her. She would call from some store somewhere. The A-disease was here

His brains, her body

As my Dad’s health further declined I was distracted from my Mom’s condition and after his funeral I realized that she was almost “gone,” too. I lost all contact with our past in one fell swoop.

I am thankful they stayed together during an era of increasing divorce rates. I am sure they had squabbles, most of which I am unaware. But they were there together for us, and for each other.

Near the end my Dad was the brains and my Mom the rest of their “body.” Indeed, it may be best that he went when he did. His crankiness was driving her nuts, and he was growing weary of her mental gaffs. And, he passed when she was still just capable of knowing what had happened, yet a bit dulled to the pain.

The lesson for you? If it is not too late, ask your parents to write their stories. Someday, you will be glad you did.

And if it is too late, start writing yours.