Helen was my father-in-law's younger sister; Charlie was her husband. For years they lived a few blocks away from us but we saw them rarely, at large family gatherings or when their daughters, David's cousins, were in town. Helen said she had often invited the girls to ask questions about the early life of their parents, but they had never taken up the invitation. It occurred to me that it wasn't likely to happen while their daughters were in the throes of their own careers and families, and living two provinces to the east.
Those questions needed to be asked, and I told them that I would ask them and record what they said.
The basis for the questions was a little book, "To Our Children's Children: Preserving Family Histories For Generations To Come," by Bob Greene and D.G. Fulford, 1993. I quote from the introduction which is directed to someone wanting to write their own story but it applies equally to writing someone else's story.
"You will find in these pages many questions - questions to lead you down the pathways of your own life. What you are going to be doing is putting together a personal history for your family. We're here to show you that it can be easy and full of pleasure for you - something intimate and special, the creating of a lasting and beautiful hand-me-down for your children, your children's children and generations that will come along far in the future.
"Your story will mave much more resonance for your children and grandchildren than any biography or autobiography of a famous person. It's almost startling that making this kind of personal history has not been a custom. Older people are often able to leave property or money behind for their descendants, but this - a package of memories of a person's life - is what usually doesn't get passed along. The most precious commodities of all - people's own recollections of their worlds - seldom get preserved, at least in a proper and permanent way.
"The secret of all this is found in the particulars. The specifics of your own memories are what your family will treausre the most. The main thing for you to know is that you need not attempt to sum up your life in grand, sweeping historic strokes, but stick to the seemingly small basics.
"Thus a man in his seventies shouldn't try to tell his children what post-World War I Canada was like; he should answer for them the question 'What did the neighborhood where you grew up look like?' Or: 'Who was your best friend when you were a boy, and what did the two of you do together?' Or: 'How did you get your first job, and what was it like on your first day?'
"A woman in her eighties shouldn't try to reconstruct the political events that took place during her youth. She should reach into her memory to answer questions on richer topics: 'What was your schoolhouse like?' Or: 'What to you remember about going on automobile rides with your family?' Or: Describe what you would do on summer days when you were a girl.'
"The purpose of this book is to help you along the way. If you know what questions to ask yourself, the answers almost take care of themselves - you already know them but you may not have thought about them for a while.
"Maybe you have never considered that the stories from your life are important. But be assured that they will be cherished far beyond anything money could buy. Whether you write your history or speak it into a tape recorder, your stories will be eagerly awaited by the most appreciative audience of all - your family. Far into the future, your family will read your words or listen to your voice and be grateful that you took the time to put this gift together for them."
For the better part of one winter, I went over every Tuesday afternoon for two or three hours and we three, Helen, Charlie and I, sat at the kitchen table, asking and answering the questions and recording the responses. Then I went home and expanded and transcribed my notes and sorted them into chapters - Ancestors, Childhood and so on.
I didn't use all of the questions in the book; there were literally thousands of them. But the book was helpful in exploring the lives of those two - the particulars of those lives, not the grand sweeping history, but the personal and intimate living of those lives.
From a standing start, people will often say, "I didn't have an exciting life; I didn't do anything dramatic," and will be prepared to leave it at that. But knowing that Helen and Charlie had the urge to tell their story and were merely waiting for someone to ask, I asked. Through them I was helped to learn that there are NO lives bereft of drama, and excitement, pain and joy.
In due course the book was produced, and illustrated with photographs from Helen and Charlie's collection. Copies were printed and bound for the appropriate people. Within a couple of years Helen had died at 89, and six months later Charlie at 91 followed her. The last chapter of the book, their reflections about their life as a whole, was read by their son-in-law as Charlie's eulogy.
The timing had not been right for their daughters to tell their parents' story; it was, however, right for me, and the story was written. This was a great satisfaction for me, because I had myself left it too late to record so many of my own family's stories from their memories, and had to rely instead on the printed reflections of their lives and the memories of others. For Helen and Charlie it had not been too late.
One consequence of this experience has been my effort to pull together stories from my Rempel first cousins - and even with this group, now in the grandparent stage of life, it is too late for some of them.
Every life has a story - a unique and important story. Every story needs to be told for the younger generations to understand the lives of their forebears. My conviction about this drives my interest - my passion - to spend most of my waking hours working on family history in one manner or another.
Status: "Helen and Charlie: Our Life Together" was completed in 2002.