For the last month or so I have been getting emails from the college I graduated from as an undergraduate. They wanted me to call a number and verify my personal information for some sort of alumni project. I ignored the emails and deleted them pretty consistently until, in a weak moment I guess, I decided that maybe I did want my records to be correct. And, yes, I recognized that this was also the opening of a door for their fundraising folks but, in truth, that door has been open for a long time.
So, as I had a few minutes on the weekend, I made the call. Turns out that the project is focused on an oral history of the college and that what they really wanted was to ask some questions and capture some stories. I’ll be honest, my first reaction to hearing that was not a positive one and I thought that I’d just try and finish the call as quickly as possible. I thought “I don’t have any stories about my college years,” and there was also an element “And if I did, why would I share them?” I raced through college, graduating in three years, and those years are, in many respects, a bit of a blur.
Yet I found myself answering the questions in ways that surprised me. While I could not dredge up the names of any specific professors who stood out to me or name any specific classes, on just a moment’s reflection I could see and share the impact that my program and my education had on me. In fact, I went on after the last question was answered to talk about the ways in which my course of study served both to help me to define my passions and build the foundation of my career.
How rarely do we ask for stories, especially from our elders? For those of us who lost parents at any early age, and even many who lost them later, how many times have we wished we’d asked more and listened more? Stories educate us, motivate us, inspire us. Stories preserve memories in those who tell them and create memories in those who are listening. These personal stories and recollections are likely not going to be written in memoirs or preserved in recordings. When the storyteller is gone, the story is lost forever.
All of our stories are important, not just for what happened but why and how we felt about it. Why did we make the choices we did? What might have been different had we chosen differently? The impact of the story is far beyond a recitation of what transpired but offers the opportunity for deeper understanding—of emotions, of outcomes and even of the era in which they lived.
So often we visit with our loved ones and we race through the conversation, thinking about the next topic we want to share or running through our “to do” list in our heads. What if we took a few minutes, purposeful minutes, and asked for the stories. Elders with cognitive impairment may not be able to share more recent memories, but those older ones are often still accessible. Seek them out, remember them, share them, treasure them as the precious gifts that they are.