And then after we'd gone over the details large and small, people who knew him well told their favorite stories about him, ending with his 21-year-old granddaughter, who described the unique experience of living with him after graduating from college and coming home from her first job every night to discuss her day with him.
Through it all, the guest of honor sat and listened intently until it was his turn to speak.
Yes, the guest of honor was present. Because despite what this sounds like, it was not a funeral or memorial service, though in many ways – good ways – it felt like one, with the tributes, the shared affection, the respect paid to him. No, this was the launch party for his recently published memoir, and when he finally took a turn at the microphone, it was to read an excerpt about his childhood, more than eighty years ago, amidst the farmlands of upstate New York.
And it was one of his oldest friends who voiced the comparison that I always keep silently in my mind. As she began her tribute to my memoir client, she spontaneously burst out, "Oh, I'm so glad this isn't your memorial service!" The sixty or so assembled guests laughed -- but we also all agreed with her. So often, the unexpectedly interesting and colorful details of a life emerge for public consumption only when that life is over. So often, we gather at funerals or memorial services only wishing that the person being honored could hear the words of his friends and family members.
But this time, he could. The client was the Minister Emeritus of our small-town church, and several parishioners had urged me to help him with a memoir project. We finished it in June and held the celebration five days before his 87th birthday. In fact, before we broke for lunch and to form a line for book signings, we all sang happy birthday to him.
I'd like to think it was indeed a happy birthday. He deserved it. He has lived a long and complicated life, his early years marked by challenges that most of his current friends haven't heard much about, and his later years full of intellectual growth and spiritual quest that he was happy for the chance to articulate more fully in the pages of his memoir. It was a good project, one that I felt privileged to help produce.
But most importantly, he was there for the celebration. Unlike a memorial service, the guest of honor didn't have to miss out on all the fun. Sometimes I say this to the adult children who approach me about helping an elderly parent with a memoir: it gives them a chance to tell the details of their life in their own words, and to hear people respond to it. And sometimes I even say to seniors who approach me about a project for themselves: Yes, do this now, tell the story your way, so that it isn't up to your children to try to remember it all later.
Let’s tell your story in your words, not other people’s words. Let’s give you the chance to see people learning about you and responding to your story.
Memorial services can be wonderful events, but book launch parties are even better. No matter who you are, no matter how old or how young, now is a good time to start committing your memories, anecdotes, and reflections to paper.
Need help starting – or finishing – your memoir? I’d welcome the chance to talk to you about it! Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org !