Speak now – or forever hold your peace

I’ve reached that unenviable stage in life where I find myself attending more funerals or memorial services or celebrations of life or whatever they choose to call them these days.

For me, as a writer and historian, they’re not just a reminder that the years are taking their toll but that, far too often, these are stories that will go, for the most part, untold.

Oh, your immediate family, friends and colleagues will honour your passing with shared reminiscences, most of them, hopefully, good ones, and you’ll be missed for the duration of their lives. You may even have left your mark on your community or in some other public-spirited way. Other than that? What, when all is said and done, is your personal legacy?

At a recent memorial service for a friend (I’ll call him Harv), the mood was anything but sombre. There were smiles and gales of laughter as family and friends shared their memories of the deceased, how he’d influenced their lives, what he’d meant to them, his wicked sense of humour, his adventures as a gung-ho hobbyist.

But as they did so it struck me how transitory, how fleeting in the grand scheme of things, this is.

Four years ago, Harv, who’d enjoyed a lifetime of robust health, was struck down, almost fatally, by illness. He was in the hospital for months and it took three years for him to regain most of his former vigour and to return to a normal lifestyle. It was one of those seminal experiences that made him really think about himself, his family and the goals he needed to set for the balance of his life.

I urged him to set down his life story on paper – paper, because he’d never accepted computers. He not only agreed to do so but, in very short order, handed me five hand-written (fortunately they’re legible) pages of his life, from the time he and his family moved to B.C. to about 30 years ago.

I read it, and found it fascinating. But what of the rest of the story? I badgered, I begged him for a year or more to at least bring his memoir, as sketchy as it was likely to be, up to date. He agreed with me every time; yes, indeed, he really ought to get to it. But he didn’t. And now he’s gone, taking with him what I know was a great story. I heard snatches of it at his memorial, the memories of his siblings, his children and grandchildren. They merely confirmed what I always knew – that he had a great story to tell!

Those who attended his service probably learned something about Harv that they hadn’t known previously and that’s great. Particularly for his grandsons, now young adults. But what of family members who come after them? Who will know anything of substance about the real Harv?

But Harv isn’t the exception, he’s the norm. How many of us have set down "for the record" (for posterity!) a chronicle of our life’s travels? I’m not talking ego here, I’m talking about sharing your unique story with your descendants. What can anyone learn from a bare-bones family tree besides full names, dates of birth and death, parents, siblings?

As I write this, the veterans of the Second World War are in their 80s and rapidly passing away. Just think of the treasury of experiences most of them – those who’ve not troubled to record anything for their families – are taking with them to their graves. But even those of us whose lives have been less dramatic have stories to tell, of our experiences, the lessons we learned in life that can be of benefit to those who follow.

I realize that this is a personal choice, perhaps none of my business. But if you agree with me, even a little, please give serious consideration to creating a memoir for your children’s children. Something by which they can know something about you as a real person. They’ll never meet you in the flesh but you’ll be part of their DNA. That’s a biological fact.

Why not also be part of their future by providing them with a sense of their past, of their roots as Canadians? You could even help them to come to terms with their own places in this tumultuous world.

It’s been said that we can’t know where we’re going if we don’t know where we’re coming from. Here’s your chance to become immortal by speaking to the future.