Life in Print
The art of telling life stories is as old as writing books. That is, if you believe that perhaps the Epic of Gilgamesh, often believed to be the oldest written story on Earth, is biographical. But as you live and breathe each day, it’s often quite daunting to think that your entire existence could be captured between two pieces of heavy card stock. Unless, of course, you’re like Justin Bieber. He had lived enough life by the age of 16 to publish First Step 2 Forever: My Story in 2010.
The good news is that Americans are still reading; they’re just reading differently. According to the Association of American Publishers, from 2010 to 2011, sales of eBooks were up a whopping 117%. By comparison, adult mass market printed books were down 36%.
Did you keep a diary as a child or young adult? At first, it was fun to write down stories of school crushes in a hardcover book, secrets protected by a ridiculous lock of stamped metal that surely would keep nosy parents and siblings out. But then it became a chore to fill the pages day after day. Then maybe once per week. Then once per month as playing outside or homework took precedence.
The most famous diary of all, The Diary of a Young Girl, told the story of a life ended way too soon. Anne Frank started writing at age 13, in the form of letters to an imaginary friend named Kitty. She was wise beyond her years and unlike many teens who never want eyes to befall their writings, Anne actually hoped her words would see a greater audience. Because her father, Otto, was the only family member to survive the Nazi concentration camps, the responsibility fell to him and he delivered.
Adults often consider the practice of writing in a diary more soulful or at even pretentious. We call them journals. For a price, the books come leather-bound with gilt edges. However, I didn’t while away hours in coffee shops jotting down deep thoughts. The same patterns returned from childhood. I have many unfinished journals, not from 30 years ago, but just from 15 years back. I found I kept journals when faced with some strife, typically tied to relationships. After venting to girlfriends and deciding against their sage advice, pages were the perfect places to expel emotion. When the relationships were going well, I found less time to write.
Writing was always tied to professional responsibility, but that kind of writing never felt like a chore. The thrill of deadlines, the passion tied to getting the story right, and the satisfaction in knowing people learned something from my work all make it worthwhile.
Then the ultimate story dropped in my lap—the chance to write a life story. It was a combination of all the things I love: research, history, biography—and the opportunity to put it all between two covers. And there were all the things that came from professional writing too. It seemed less daunting to consider I wasn’t going to be writing about me. Just another labor of love. So I thought.
In 2012, my grandmother turned 80 years old. In preparation for a family celebration and reunion of sorts, I endeavored to write her life story. Six months earlier, my uncle’s wife had given her a cassette recorder. This was technology she was willing to adopt. The plan was that she could tell a story whenever she wanted to. Grandma loves to tell stories. The order didn’t matter; we would deal with that later. My uncle’s wife, a legal secretary, transcribed the hours of tape to a document that was 50 single-spaced pages.
Grandma told stories of her parents coming to America that pre-dated her, all the way through 9/11. There was a lot of material. With a lot of holes.
When the 80th birthday celebration rolled around in June of 2010, all I was able to compile was a pamphlet with some excerpts. And Grandma made sure to let me know about the errors in the stories. It looked like I had some serious fact checking to do.
But life got in the way. While some professionals rise at 4 a.m. to write before their day jobs, I was training for triathlons at that hour. My job as a television producer was hardly 9-5. The little time I had after work was dedicated to socializing so I would not be an 80-year-old television producer with a houseful of cats for company.
Ten years later, plans were in the works for another party. That lit the fire under me to finish the book as a living tribute to my living grandmother. In the mean time, Grandma had organized hundreds of photographs into albums, often depicting her stories.
Fact-checking the life of a 90-year-old is interesting. Often, few family members could corroborate accounts. Some people in photographs remain unidentifiable. Finding photos of places long gone at Ohio State, my grandmother’s alma mater, was rewarding. Even more fascinating was seeing how certain places have not changed in decades, including Columbia University where she earned a degree and the Brooklyn house in which she grew up. Tracking down other 90-year-olds from Grandma’s James Madison High School class was fun—one woman is currently an award-winning poet and professor who constantly updates her web page! This last bit was particularly poignant since one of my grandmother’s peccadilloes is that she refuses to adopt most modern technology. She doesn’t even have a dishwasher, and the first patent for a dishwasher was issued in 1850!
According to Grandma, New York City and Brooklyn in the 1940s was quite a time to experience. Movies cost a quarter. Milk and vegetables were delivered to the front door. Summers meant camp or Coney Island. It was a sweetly simple life.
She lived during incredible times with a childhood during The Great Depression and college during World War II. While her husband and brother were serving the country at different times, Grandma didn’t seem passionate about these history-making events. She lived in Levittown, America’s first suburbia, but to her at the time, it was just a new place to live. I think she was like most Americans—just trying to get through their days. Priorities were getting to work on time, getting kids to school, and dinner on the table. But to hear Grandma tell it, it was a great life that I wish I could have witnessed.
Over time, Grandma seemed to know many people who became “famous.” She went to school with Harvey Lembeck, an actor known for his role in Sergeant Bilko in the 1950s. Her cousin, Rabbi Balfour Brickner made a name in the fight for social justice and Zionism. Lucille Ball and Tom Selleck were her regular customers when she worked in retail in Los Angeles.
Her personal history-making event that determined “before” and “after” was the death of her husband when she was just 48. Her pharmacist, adventurist, fun-loving husband was the light of her life. After he died of cancer, life was pretty good, but not nearly like before. She made her way, but the photos of her love around her house serve as a constant reminder of what was, and perhaps reinforce why she doesn’t need “new.”
Many late nights later, a 150-page history was finished, complete with photos, newspaper clippings, wedding invitations, and a photographic family tree. Even though I wrote it, I have re-read it several times. I’ve read many life stories, but it’s different when you know the players. Seeing your own family experiences in print, even if you wrote them, is a little weird. But every time I pick it up, I’m proud of its heft.
Now, barely a month after it rolled off the presses in Ohio, it just sits on my bookshelf, alongside other treasured tomes by other writers. Is that all we can hope for with books? Maybe, but I know and my family knows that it will always be there to grab, leaf through a few pages, and live on. No technology necessary.