Keeping Memories of War

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This is my Dad’s cousin Howard, who was almost like a brother to him. He was a pilot whose plane went down over the Adriatic Sea during World War II. His body was never found.

One of the tag lines for our book, and for this blog is: “Keep the memories, get rid of the stuff.” And as Memorial Day draws near, it seems to me a good time to think about keeping memories of war.

Memorial Day is often thought of as a day of picnics and the beginning of the summer season. But at its heart, Memorial Day is really about remembering those who died at war. That is why I’ve put a picture of a member of our family who lost his life in World War II above.

But I think it’s a good time to also remember those who came back from war, and what they went through.

But do we really want to keep war memories? And do the people who lived through war really want to talk about it once the war is over, or at least over for them? Isn’t war something that people would rather not remember?

There’s no one answer to these questions, of course. It depends very much on the person who is answering the question.

I am of the generation of children of World War II veterans. Although I knew that my Dad and most of my uncles had been involved in one way or another in the war, the impression I had when I was growing up was that no one really wanted to talk about it. They wanted to move on.

And yet when–many years later–I began to ask one of them some questions about his experiences during the war, and he said he’d never really talked about it much before, I asked him why. “No one ever asked,” he said, and it seemed to me there was a tinge of sadness in his voice as he answered.

The number of World War II veterans still around is becoming smaller and smaller as the years go by. Unfortunately, that was not the last war, and there are still plenty of war veterans among who us who could talk about their experiences–if they want to do so. And if someone asks.

Listening to those who have been through war can be healing for them, and enlightening for the listener. In the right circumstances, and done in the right way, it can perhaps be a way of sharing the burden of those memories, or at least lightening the load for those who carry them.

For those who are willing to tell their stories, and wouldn’t mind sharing them with others, there are a number of ways to capture them so that a wider audience, and future generations, can learn from them. Story Corps is one organization that is involved in helping people record oral history of many kinds, including war stories.

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Another way of keeping memories of war is preserving war letters. The Center for American War Letters is a relatively new organization that is dedicated to doing just that. You can find out more about that here.

If there’s a veteran in your life, why not consider asking them if they would like to talk about their wartime experiences. Not everyone will want to do so, and of course, the right to refuse with no explanation should be respected and honored.

But my guess is most people wouldn’t mind at least being asked.

 Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher. She is coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Family History Month: Spotlight on the Center for American War Letters

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“Tucked away in attics, closets, and basements throughout this country are millions of letters written by men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces….” says the opening line on the “Letters” page of the website for the Center for American War Letters.

A relatively new entity, the Center  for American War Letters was established in 2014,  when  Andrew Carroll  donated  the vast collection of war letters he had started in 1998 (known as The Legacy Project), to Chapman University in California. The Center is performing a valuable service to the nation by preserving letters from soldiers, and their loved ones, from the nation’s earliest days to the present.

It is also providing people who are downsizing their homes and don’t know what to do with the stashes of old letters they find in the process with a wonderful solution to the problem, by providing a home where they will safely preserved, and can contribute to a better understanding of our history, especially as seen from the point of view of the “ordinary” men and women who have served the nation in times of war.

If you think you might want to donate letters to the Center, you can find out more about how to do so here.

The Center also has a page with helpful tips about how to properly care for old letters, for those who wish to keep them.

October is Family History Month, and Veterans Day is coming up soon. Wouldn’t it be a nice way to honor the veterans in your family, or among your friends, to find  a way to honor and preserve their documentation of their wartime experiences, their thoughts, feelings, and perspectives–and to safeguard them for future generations?

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Remembering Memorial Day

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The French do not forget.

What do we remember on Memorial Day? Do we remember the lives that have been sacrificed in service to our country? Or do we remember the Memorial Day sales? Or do we think of it just as a three-day start to the summer ahead, and a great day for a barbecue?

How can we restore meaning to this national holiday?

I am currently in a little village in France, and in France they do not forget their war dead. The carnage of World Wars I and II left France devastated, a legacy of loss still very much in living memory, one that would be hard to forget. Every little French village has a war memorial, and the number of names etched upon these memorials, especially from the First World War, even in the tiniest towns, is sobering.

The French do not forget the millions of French lives lost in recent wars, nor do they forget those who helped them to win those wars. In the little village where I live, there were solemn, respectful ceremonies on both Armistice Day (which marks the end of World War I, in November), and on May 8, when V-E Day is remembered in France. On May 8, a small and stately parade of villagers met at the mairie and proceeded to the war memorial next to the church. There they laid flowers, played taps, read a proclamation from the Minister of Defense. As I struggled to follow the meaning of the words, among the phrases that stood out to me was one expressing gratitude for sacrifice made by the citizens of nineteen countries–nineteen!–who gave their lives in the struggle for France to win back its freedom in 1945.

They don’t forget in England, either, how could they? In both World Wars, before the U.S. joined the war effort, many thousands of British lives were lost in France.

In the U.S., Memorial Day used to be called Decoration Day, because it was a day when families and friends decorated the graves of the loved ones they had lost through war. In the U.K., the analogous day of commemoration is called Remembrance Day. Perhaps that is a better name. Perhaps it would be harder to forget the real meaning of the day if it were called Remembrance Day.

As Memorial Day approaches I hope we will remember American lives lost in past wars. But I hope we will also begin to think of ourselves more as part of a global community, just one nation among many on this earth. It is the only way we will ever find our way to peace, that seems pretty clear. It seems pretty clear that good people everywhere have to work together to stop bad people from doing harm. Preferably sooner rather than later. That is one of the lessons handed to us through history.

In 1994, usmemorialday.org was established to help remind Americans of the meaning and intent of Memorial Day. And in years past we have published posts here and here, offering ideas for a few ways to make Memorial Day more meaningful.

Here’s one of those ideas, right here: if, in your downsizing, or moving, or spring cleaning, you come across some old war letters, we hope you will consider donating them to the newly established Center for American War Letters, so that the history of war, as seen from the point of view of individual soldiers, and their loved ones, may be preserved.

Is it too much to hope that future generations may learn from the bitter lessons of the past not how to fight better wars, but perhaps a way to end them?

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Preserving War Letters

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This week has been National Preservation Week, a week when libraries and other institutions call attention to what we can do, both individually and collectively, to preserve our personal and shared collections of various kinds.

It’s also spring cleaning time, a time when we try to “get rid of the stuff” while “keeping the memories.”

And of course, in less than a month we will celebrate Memorial Day, honoring those who have given their lives in service to our country.

So this seems like an appropriate time to address the question of what to do with old war letters we may be keeping–or finding–in boxes or drawers, on shelves or in files, in our homes.

Clearly, old war letters are not just “stuff.” They’re an important part of our collective history. They can be valuable to historians–and to the rest of us–in trying to help us understand wars as they have been experienced by those who lived through them, not just as they have been written about in history books. They should be honored, and preserved, as valuable documentation of servicemen and women’s lives: of the sacrifices they made, the fears they felt, the difficulties they overcame, the pride they felt in serving their country.

Keeping old letters in homes, especially in rooms where they are subjected to extremes of temperature and humidity, or to dust, is not a good idea. But how should they be kept, and where?

The good news is, there’s a whole new Center for American War Letters being created to provide just such a place. The Center is directed by Andrew Carroll, who in 2013 donated his entire collection of 100,000 war letters to begin the Center. The touching story of how he came to this work is told in a Washington Post story here. “Every day, letters get thrown out,” Carroll says, in the interview. “When people move or pass away, they get lost.”

That is really just a shame.

So, as you work on downsizing or spring cleaning this year, you should know that if and when you are ready to find a safe home for any family war letters you may be holding onto, that now there is a safe place for them to be.

And if you’re not ready to give them up yet, you can find good advice about how to keep them safe for posterity here.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

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