Sharing memories enhances their value, said the featured speaker at the First Sunday program June 2 at the Nodaway Valley Historical Museum in Clarinda.
“Memories never fade away,” said Mary Kay Shanley, an author from West Des Moines. “They are always there. They just need to be called upon.”
Those memories that are derived from first-hand experiences, she added, “are worth passing on to the generations that follow us. Our stories will be fascinating, if only we pass them down.”
During her presentation, Shanley cited a connection to her own family as a means of illustrating the significance that memories have -- and the importance of preserving them.
She said her grandmother led a “very common, ordinary, everyday life that was steeped in routine. Her life became, for us, a series of rich, marvelous tales about the past. But we don’t really know many of them because nothing was ever written down.”
Shanley encouraged program attendees to “share stories from your own growing up years with your children and your grandchildren. If you don’t share the stories and pass them down, they’re just gone into the ‘ether world’.”
She noted that “the world in which you grew up is a world the younger generation cannot know unless you share it with them. The most important gifts [we] can give are our love and the happy memories that the love created.”
To stress that point, she quoted from anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Grandparents need grandchildren to keep the changing world alive for them. Grandchildren need grandparents to give them a sense of the human experience in a past world they cannot know.”
Shanley recommended that program attendees visit the library and find a children’s book that was written during the decade when they were youngsters. Then, when reading the book to a grandson or granddaughter, she said, “talk about how life for the character in the book was the same as life for you, and how it was different.”
Along with verbally relaying information, individuals can “write your own stories,” Shanley said. To accomplish this, a work space at home should be created free of distractions where the writing can take place for a specified time each week.
Obtaining reflections from individuals by asking questions during conversations is another way to record episodes from people’s lives. “Interview others, and have someone interview you,” Shanley said.
She suggested another option for preserving memories -- writing letters. Though this form of correspondence has lost popularity with the advent of e-mailing and texting, Shanley said utilizing a “pen on paper” format is worth the effort, especially when the content describes -- or contains comments on -- facets of life during a particular time or era.
“Letters are in themselves a treasure,” she said.
In addition to personal memories tied closely to what has occurred in an individual’s life, there are “common memories that are shaped by the generation in which we grew up,” Shanley said.
To demonstrate this concept, she cited three monumental events from the past -- the bombing of Pear Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941; the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963; and the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Depending on how old a person was at the time of these incidents, they were either “just historical events, or powerful personalized experiences,” Shanley said. For people who lived through them, they evoke long-lasting memories that can be shared with individuals who do not have first-hand recollections of what happened.
“You have to be around for the big ones,” Shanley said. “That’s when you choose to personalize them. Whenever you personalize a memory, it becomes a part of your own past. It plays a pretty important role in your life, even though you may not realize that.”
Regarding memories in general, Shanley said: “Each one of us looks forward and looks back, a little bit every day, no matter what our lives, no matter what our ages. We are constantly chipping away, discarding the old, putting on the new, rearranging what’s left over. And the one companion that goes with us on this journey is our memories.”
She said they can be stored in what she called a “memory box” -- which may not necessarily be a physical object, but is where “you keep things that mean nothing to anybody else, but everything to you, because otherwise [they] wouldn’t be on your journey.”
Shanley’s presentation at the museum received funding support from Humanities Iowa.