Keeping Memories of War


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








Five Tips for Getting Started with Your Family History

1. Be prepared. How many times have you been sitting and listening to an older relative tell a story, or talk about the past, when you find yourself wishing this conversation were being recorded?

Today’s technology makes recording so simple that nobody who really cares about capturing their family stories should have to feel this way anymore. Digital recorders the size of cigarette lighters, available in variety of styles for under $100 at your local electronics store (or online) make it easy for you to always have the equipment needed at hand. And operating them is simple enough (trust me, if I can do it, so can you!), and their tiny size is unobtrusive enough, that the technology doesn’t take over the show, or get in the way of the conversation.

Of course you don’t have to have a recorder at all. But capturing the voice of your interviewee as well as the stories is a really nice addition, and it’s easier to get the whole story that way too.

2) Be curious. My own tiny, unscientific, totally anecdotal survey has revealed that one of the most common regrets among surviving family members about departed loved ones is that they didn’t think to ask certain questions of those loved ones before they passed away. So why not try to think ahead to what some of those questions you will regret not having asked are–and ask them now, while you can? (What is your earliest memory? What was your grandmother/grandfather like? Where did you go to school (and how did you get there)? What did you and your friends do for fun? What was your first job? How (and where) did you meet Mom/Dad?  What do you remember about the day Pearl Harbor was attacked? What do you remember about the day I was born? and so on…)

Most parents (or other relatives) will be pleased to know you care, and will feel good about contributing to the capturing of family memories. And even those who are gruff, or at a loss for how to answer at first may come around when they see you are truly interested, and that you’re not looking for anything earthshaking, just some of the details of daily life that would otherwise disappear into the unremembered past. (Having a few pictures on hand to help prompt memories may also be helpful for those who are reluctant or who have trouble answering very general questions.)

3. Be organized. Once you’ve got the material captured, make sure you take the next important step: put it into a form and in a place where you’ll know it is, so you can find it again and share it. (In fact, sharing the gathered material with someone else in your family right away is a very good idea, so that if it gets lost from one place, it can be found in another.)

4. Be imaginative. Sometimes the information is gathered, but then nothing is done with it. How can you use the material you have gathered to help bring your (extended) family closer together? A transcription of some of the material shared on a family website or blog, or photocopied and distributed, along with pictures, might be one way.

Also, how can you engage your children and grandchildren in this process? Some of them may be fairly uninterested at least in the beginning: but once you start showing pictures and telling them specific stories you’ve gathered, their interest may be ignited. Maybe you can even try to get them to do some of the interviewing. It’s a great way to bring generations together in a common enterprise, and teach the younger ones some valuable interviewing skills as well.

5. Be community-minded. Is the material you’ve gathered material that would be of interest to your local historical society, religious organization, or other community entity? It’s always important to respect the privacy of the people you interview, as well as anyone who may have been discussed in the interviews, and to gain permission for sharing it (even, perhaps even especially, within the family!) But, that caveat aside, think about sharing the history you’ve gathered with a larger community. You will be adding to the store of the community’s history, and maybe inspiring others to capture their own family stories as well.


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