Story and Why
by Tom Gilbert, © June 21, 2012
you reflect on your life you will find there are different
periods that bring up varied memories and associated emotions.
Sometimes those emotions cloud your recollections. You’ll be
thinking about one thing that reminds you of another time and soon you
are off-track and derailing your train of thought.
Preserving our life story requires chronicling the events of our lives,
but not just by listing them. We want to tell of the key experiences
that have been significant to us. How we were raised, where we lived
and the important life events all contribute to our story. This can be
a very great undertaking.
Many personal historians will encourage you to create “Memory
Lists”. I think it is an excellent idea. Writing short phrases
that help you remember certain times and things in your life are a
great way to develop topics for your life story. After you’ve
come up with a fair number (it is not unusual for a memory list to grow
to over a hundred items or more) you will begin to see patterns in your
life and these can become chapters in your story.
Keeping a focus and developing these themes is not easy when your life
story project is spread out over a long period. But that is the nature
of life story writing. You are not always going to be writing about the
same time period or events. It is common to skip around. One day it is
about summer camp when you were eleven and jumped off the cliff into
the lake the first time. Next time you might be writing about a
business turning point during a midlife crisis. Another trip down
memory lane finds you fondly recalling your grandparents. In a more
somber moment you are reflecting about the death of your mother.
The end result of your life story may be linear, but not always told in
that fashion. Keeping your train of thought can be a challenge.
Train of thought has become an apt metaphor for me of late. I decidedrecently
to take a long train trip to visit family in Kansas City.
I’d done the same train ride from Albuquerque to KC and
back some 32 years ago. Then I was young and poor and my parents
fare so I could come for a visit. Now that both my parents have passed
away I wanted to revisit memories by taking the same train trip. It is
a long adventure, more than 18 hours. The train travels north through
New Mexico, past Lamy (outside
of Santa Fe), Las Vegas (New Mexico, folks, not Nevada) and Raton
before crossing the border into Colorado. The tracks continue up
through parts of Colorado before heading east across Kansas to Kansas
City, Missouri, once the historic “Gateway to the West”.
My plan was to absorb the scenery; people watch, read, write and
contemplate my life journey. Yes, personal historians need to do that
as much as the clients we help. My life is my story and not unlike many
other people I’ve lived in numerous locales and worked many jobs.
This diversity helps me relate to others. And I enjoy learning about
the fascinating life adventures of my fellow life travelers.
Arriving in Kansas City in mid-June was good timing for honoring my
parents’ legacy. They were married on June 14. Plus, my mom
passed away six years ago on June 15 and since my Dad died this past
January and Father’s Day was coming up on June 17th it seemed
like all the stars were aligning for a personal history event.
As a passenger in my own story I found myself doing a lot of
reminiscing about growing up. Dad was a lifelong Air Force pilot. Mom
was the one who stayed home with the kids and much of the parenting
responsibilities fell to her. Military men are out on assignment a lot,
and as a result the moms have a heavy schedule. Through it all, good
times and bad, they did a pretty good job. At this point in my life I
can look back and see this truth. My sister, brother and I all turned
Riding the rails is a great way to slow down and savor life. My long
train ride allowed for that. It wasn’t always comfortable; I
couldn’t afford a sleeper car and it wasn’t easy catching
shut eye in the coach seats. Tossing and turning while the train cars
rolled back and forth made for some interesting and sometimes fitful
dreaming. On the other hand, I spent a good deal of waking time in the
lounge car gazing at the passing scenery and journaling.
When I was probably seven our family took a long Amtrak train ride from
Arkansas to California. We went to visit our cousins and it was a great
vacation. The California experience for a young kid growing up on
mostly southern air bases was exhilarating. We went to Disneyland, the
beach and even a swimming pool at a movie star’s house (my Aunt
and Uncle had some friends in the business). But I also recall the long
hours on the train. I am sure we were driving my parents batty out of
boredom or our youthful neediness. We had coach seats on this long
ride, too, but on the way back my dad sprung for two sleeper cars. It
was more than he wanted to spend, but worth if for us to all get some
much needed rest. My dad had a saying after this trip, “If you
can stand the strain, take the train.”
Both legs of my train journey this time around afforded me time to
ponder life and my parents. I am grateful for all they did. Growing up
I was often neglectful in expressing gratitude. Heck, much of the time
I was too self-centered to recognize just how good my life was. But I
see it now. I know they wanted the best for us and made many
This weekend I will take a shorter train ride, this time with my wife, son, grandson and several in-laws. We will ride the New Mexico Rail Runner
to Santa Fe and back. Train travel is not as in vogue as bygone eras.
But it is romantic and worth doing if you get the opportunity. I wonder
what new joys, surprises and memories will be made on this next
“train of thought”.