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Special to the Signal Tribune : Capturing Memories

February 21st, 2008 · No Comments · Special Section

memoirist-headshot.jpgBy Rachael Rifkin

We all encounter stories on a daily basis. There are fictional stories, factual stories, gossip stories, funny stories and, if you’re unlucky, long-winded stories about the boil your Uncle Milt recently had on his nose. In my family, however, stories weren’t merely a way of life, they were a passion.
Growing up, my parents always made sure to have a fairy tale, Dr. Seuss or Stan and Jan Berenstain book on hand for my brother and me. Library visits were weekly occurrences. On Saturday nights, we’d head out to the bookstore to see what had just come out. Even today, that new book smell continues to excite me.
I blame (and thank) my grandfather for all this. Not only did he love stories and surround himself with books, he also had to be a wonderful storyteller and a prolific writer too. When he passed down this love to my mom, he was also passing it down to his grandchildren. But even that wasn’t enough to convince him that our family would keep the tradition alive throughout the generations. He simply refused to stop telling us stories, even after he had passed away.
A couple of months after he died, we were helping my grandmother clean up when we found another batch of his stories waiting for us under piles of old tax returns and mountains of dust. There were over a thousand pages detailing the time my grandfather served as a medic in the Korean War. Every day for two years, he had written my grandmother long letters, and he was true to his promise when he warned her that he was going to write “minutely, accurately, truthfully.” memoirs2.jpg
Discovering these letters was like accidentally unearthing a treasure you had never known about, only to discover how much you were at a loss without it. I was able to get to know the person my grandfather had been at age 27, just a year older than I am now, by reading his letters. Two years of his thoughts, anxieties and hopes, and they were all mine to greedily gobble up. Even though he couldn’t be around to personally tell me his stories, I feel closer to him now than ever.
Inspired by my discovery, I felt encouraged to do some more digging into other aspects of my family’s past. Oddly enough, my family had neglected to share their own history, despite being avid story aficionados. My grandfather’s letters reminded me how little I knew about our ancestors.
My only contact with them had been through the black-and-white photographs my grandmother would occasionally take out. Those photos had always enchanted me. They exposed me to relatives from faraway lands like Poland and Hungary. But to me, the people in the pictures weren’t just my relatives. They were people who wore beautiful clothes, owned shiny black Model-T cars and enjoyed posing like movie stars. They were people who had wavy hair and noses just like mine. Above all, they were magical creatures, who I jealously regarded for existing in a time period that I could never be a part of.
So, I decided to start looking for these pictures. Along the way, I found more letters, old telegrams, paintings, immigration papers, old passports, postcards and the pictures I had coveted. They have taken years to find and assemble, but it’s all been worth it because, along the way, I found my history and my family.
My journey into the past made me realize that even families with the best of intentions do not always share their ancestral roots. It does not always occur to us to preserve our history, but the loss it creates is immediately evident. When we share our stories, we share a bit of ourselves, our experiences and our wisdom. We create a connection to the past that carries us through to the future.
Our lives are an endless stream of stories, strewn together by our thoughts, intentions and actions. Family trees shouldn’t just be school projects, and memoirs shouldn’t just be for celebrities. Our stories start the minute we are born. If I’ve learned anything from all this, it’s that written memoirs are the best way to preserve our history for us and generations to come. So, no matter how old you are or how boring you think your life is, you have a story; please write it down! Your family will thank you, even if they have to go through piles of old tax returns and mountains of dust to get to it.
Rachael Rifkin is a memoirist with a background in journalism. She can be reached at lifestories2day@aol.com or at (310) 612-4183.

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