The phone was the source of my example as well, though from a time not as far back as party lines: “Calling a friend and being expected to make polite small talk with her mother or father before they’d put her on the line.” I watch my own kids call or text directly to their friends’ private phones and silently bemoan the fact that they’ll never have to practice the basic courtesy of chatting on the phone with random adults.
Some examples of bygone circumstances that our elders remember reach the rank of cliché: the familiar “walking ten miles barefoot through the snow to school, uphill both ways” is the obvious one. But others are subtler and more elusive. Examples come up all the time when I’m working with my memoir clients – and they aren’t necessarily the ones you’d think of first. Yes, some of my clients in their eighties and nineties remember war rationing, missing school to help with the harvest, hearing the news that a friend had polio. But sometimes examples arise in their narrative that I have to remind my clients will be interesting and novel to their grandchildren. In a project I’m working on now, a client told of arriving at a resort in Tahiti in the midst of a three-week vacation to find a letter from her father awaiting her. Though my client was more focused on describing the beaches and villages of Tahiti, I reminded her that for the benefit of her fourteen-year-old granddaughter, the excitement of arriving somewhere far away and finding a letter awaiting you merited some explanation. Now, communications from friends and family ping in on our cellphones at any time and any place, I reminded her, but before cellphones – only just over twenty years ago or so – it was still common to leave an itinerary with folks at home when you traveled, hoping they would take the time to write you a letter and figure out when to mail it by so that it would reach you at your destination.
Another client described a family vacation in the mid-1940s on which the African-American nanny wasn’t allowed to join the family in the hotel dining room because they were visiting a segregated southern city – something we can only hope would be so foreign to our children now as to require explanation. Even stories about playing in the woods with friends, unsupervised for hours on end, might have an exotic ring to a child now in grade school – or the description one client gave of visiting her fiancé at college and bunking in a professor’s family’s guest room for the sake of propriety.
These are the most interesting aspects of our memoirs, I often remind my clients. Not just the most dramatic images: the heart-stopping moments of military warfare or the long overseas journeys by boat before airline travel was available. The moments as small as calling a friend on the house phone and chatting with her parents. The moments that simply don’t happen anymore: these are what we preserve when we write our memoirs.