When I was a graduate student in the early 1990s, I used to call on an older widower in my apartment complex, Gilbert. I found his stories captivating, and I know my visits were bright spots in his often lonely days. Gilbert told me of being raised in Carbondale, Illinois, marrying his high school sweetheart, and his long career with McDonnell Douglas.
One story stands out still. Gilbert told of watching veterans of the U.S. Civil War playing cards at the local VFW Hall when he was 10 years old. I traveled in time with Gilbert in these moments. Born at the start of the 20th century, his life’s path traversed an amazing swath of human history. Looking back, his stories almost had a quality of spiritual testimony–“This I have witnessed, this I have learned, and this I hold dear.”
Gilbert’s stories are part of a rich tradition of narrative gerontology: the uncovering and understanding of aging–individual and collective–through personal reminiscences. Stories passed between family and friends are part of this tradition, as much as are narratives collected for academic purposes (e.g., qualitative research) and for preservation in socio-historical repositories (e.g., NPR’s StoryCorps). Our stories define us as individuals and as collective witnesses to our life and times.
I have been passionate about history for as long as I can remember. I still have the illustrated report I wrote about Egyptian mummification in the 3rd grade, believe it or not. I inherited this interest from both parents, but especially my mother. She traced her family history back to a Thomas Macy, born in 1608 on Salisbury Plain, near Stonehenge, in England. There is a whaling ship captain in the Macy line, along with many other interesting characters. In retrospect, I think I enjoyed talking with Gilbert so much because time travel is part of my DNA.
It was an easy choice to make aging a focus of my career as a clinical psychologist. Now, an educator in gerontology, I strive to make the lived experiences and developmental processes of aging accessible to my students through stories. Scores of seniors have volunteered their reminiscences since I founded the University of Missouri–St. Louis Life Review Project in 2008. Interviews are recorded as digital video, edited to enhance flow, and provided as “Keepsake DVDs” for our interviewees to share with family and friends. In turn, these interviewees become co-educators with me and my colleagues as their videos are shown for student learning.
One such interviewee is Fay Badasch. Fay, now age 86, and I, 52, met eight years ago when she volunteered for a focus group on driving safety in aging–another interest of mine. I was struck by her thoughtfulness and flexible attitudes about advancing age. “When you are a child, you can run through the grass with careful abandon and fall without worry … ,” she shared, “but not in your 80s. You adjust your expectations to fit the circumstances of your age throughout your life.” This is easier said than done in a society that values youthful fitness of mind, body, and spirit.
Our stories are only part of the equation. Each moment of life plants seeds for future stories; a few will take root, while others wither naturally.
Fay and I have collaborated many times since, including in the sharing of life stories. She has allowed a number of students to interview her over the years. Fay’s willingness to give of herself is an example of generativity–a critical developmental task postulated by famed theorist, Erik Erikson. The perspective gained through decades of lived experience motivates, in many, a desire to give back and make life better for generations to follow. It is often through generative acts that we leave our most lasting and meaningful legacies. Fay is generative in her support for my teaching and research.
When I was invited to write this article and told I could have a co-author, Fay came to mind immediately. How we would write together was not at all clear in that moment, but I knew that her voice would be important. Fay’s three stories—“Wires,” “Returning Home,” “Edge of Wellness”—are both journeys in time and reflections of her narrative identity in her ninth decade.
• • •
When school started my friends talked about getting part-time jobs. Everybody needed spending money. At the same time rumors were rampant that the telegraph office was hiring for after school. I felt embarrassingly childish when I had to stand around waiting for my Dad to dole out some spending money. A job sending wires would be a perfect solution.
My youthful confidence made the bus ride downtown to the telegraph office seem short. But it wasn’t long before my hopes were cut off at their roots. Federal laws required that communication employees be 16 years old, I was told.
It wasn’t easy. The first lesson in finding a job taught me that it wasn’t easy. The next six months dragged on and on. Men were being called into the military services and housewives were going back to work. Wouldn’t they grab these jobs? With WWII raging all over the world I would be lucky to be hired at all.
Encouraged by her willingness to support me, I shared my wavering hopes with my mother. Together we counted the days. Finally walking into the now familiar office on my birthday I saw other girls waiting to be interviewed. Wires were forwarded through plugs into large switchboards; the room was filled with the sounds of repeated clicking. They were read on narrow paper tapes. Clerks pulled big round plugs from their holders and inserted them across large switchboards. No reason I can’t do that, I thought.
Finally 16; interview day came quickly. It was the first step toward earning my own money. My mother met me that night at the bus stop close to home. Now I began my first real job.
As if it was yesterday, I still remember an operator calling out that an important wire was coming in. Our president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had died. It was April 12, 1945. Stunned by what she was reading she called to our supervisor in disbelief, “Can this be true?”
The supervisor patiently explained that if it came through this office, it was true. “Send it on right away. The newspapers will want that immediately.” Everyone converged on her station to listen and watch while she plugged into the St. Louis newspaper connection. Quiet settled over the room. I was in awe. It wasn’t just the money. I realized then that the only president I had ever known was dead. As small as my job was, it mattered.
The same day the new president, Harry S. Truman, was sworn in. When he began speaking it sounded different. After four terms, FDR’s greeting of “My Friends” at the opening of his speeches had been comforting. That was gone now. With war storming across both oceans, men were called into service when they were eighteen. Women filled their jobs. Now I knew the answer to my question.
During the summer when we worked until 11 o’clock my mother met me for our walk home. Pay day was an event. Tearing the small envelope open I poured the coins into my lap and pulled paper bills out to count them. Finally, this was mine. Though it was only one year and through the summer, I learned valuable lessons about getting a job, earning my own money and some independence. When my senior year started in September there were more new experiences waiting at the threshold.
• • •
Most life review interviews follow a chronological path, at least to start: birth, early family life, school, etc. Common life experiences, like a first paying job, provide triggers for recall and a ready scaffold for the life narrative. We all have stories to tell–we are narrative beings after all–but our stories are only part of the equation. Each moment of life plants seeds for future stories; a few will take root, while others wither naturally. What sticks is meaningful or charged, in some way, through emotion or poignant impression. These special events are encoded into long-term memory and join with other memories to form a narrative structure. In this way, the stories we repeat to ourselves and outwardly to others define us as persons, ensuring continuity with our past selves and direction for futures yet to be.
The practiced life review interviewer knows to listen not only for the “facts” of a given story, but also for the deeper meanings, enduring beliefs, and personal values. What about a given story defines the teller and gives meaning to his or her life today? Guidance to identify and give voice to such meanings is essential to a successful life review interview. What I hear in Fay’s first story are themes like: I was part of something bigger than myself; I am proud to have served my country; My President died and my sense of security was shaken; I am resilient. You may hear other meanings. Our stories are like that–rich, multi-layered, and sometimes enigmatic until explored further.
We learn about ourselves in the telling of stories we value, and these stories take on new attributes and meanings over time. Our stories evolve as we grow and gain new perspectives. Narrative identity is fluid in this sense.
Neuroscience research tells us that our brains are mysterious, too, and unlike any computer yet (and, perhaps, ever to be) made. Memories are not written sequentially to spinning disks or solid state drives, but rather zapped into neuronal connections and electrochemical firing patterns, prioritized by their adaptive value or meaning, and strengthened through later recall and reconstruction. In other words, our stories are not written and simply played back, but put together in the recalling and the telling. We learn about ourselves in the telling of stories we value, and these stories take on new attributes and meanings over time. Our stories evolve as we grow and gain new perspectives. Narrative identity is fluid in this sense.
Psychologist and developmental theorist, Dan McAdams, has devoted his career to understanding this process of self-narration and identity formation. As we grow from childhood through adulthood, our images and characterizations of ourselves mature, and we form personal myths that define our private and public selves. At midlife, our self-narratives look to the future while also beginning to address the finite nature of life. Personal legacy becomes important. What mark will I leave on others to follow?
“… the stories that adults make and tell to provide their lives with unity and purpose are not mere psychological musings, but instead influence deeply the stories and the lives that other people make, for better or for ill. And those stories give rise to still others, in a continuous process of individual and cultural evolution. From one generation to the next, people find meaning and connection within a web of story-making, storytelling, and story-living. Through life-stories, human beings help to create the world they live in at the same time that it is creating them” (McAdams, 1996, p. 148).
• • •
After the holiday dinner with the GIs, rumors of the war’s end continued. We read about the mysterious bomb being dropped. Large black headlines announced peace. Our family waited for the military units to release my cousins, uncles, and brother.
In Berlin, where my boyfriend served as an interpreter for the Army, an apartment provided some comfort and privacy. He had given up hope for his parents’ survival but spent his free time searching for information about them and looked for the childhood home he remembered. He was only 12 when his father succeeded in his struggle getting him to the United States before the borders closed. What he didn’t know during this time was that for years his parents had been forced to work for the Nazis. Periodically they had to inventory their disappearing belongings, which were used to fund Hitler’s war. In time his mother and father were crowded onto a train along with thousands of other Jewish people who were sent to the horrors of Auschwitz, while he was among the forces at D-Day and fighting across Europe. I waited for him impatiently, unaware of how much his family history would color my life.
Two days after graduation I went to work as secretary to the sales manager at a major company. Air conditioning was rarely used at that time. Open windows brought an occasional summer breeze through the sweltering offices. Being located in the midst of an industrial area, like many others, I found it easier to carry my lunch from home than to find an outside place to eat.
Just before noon one day the sound of stomping shoes echoed through the building from the wooden stairway. Two fat sweaty red faced men appeared in front of my desk in their shirtsleeves. I knew they were the father and son who owned the business. Hateful discriminatory words spewed from the father’s lips carrying on about a businessman who had displeased them. Even at 17 I had heard those words before and understood the intent. Ending his diatribe he pointed at my note pad ordering me to take a letter while he dictated the most vile words he could bring to his mouth. Then he shouted for me to bring it to his office.
A surprising calmness had settled over me. Ordinarily frightened by yelling, I was unaffected by his anger. No pounding heart. No trembling. Not even my lifelong shyness. Quietly sitting at my desk calmly staring at him make a scene, I knew that other employees could hear the entire dialogue.
Silence permeated the building. Downstairs in his empty office, I put the letter in the middle of the clean desk and calmly walked back upstairs. Obviously the cowards had made themselves scarce. I felt indescribable pleasure at maintaining my composure. The next morning I was at my desk knowing that a strike was threatened by union members and the job would be short term.
Weeks later, pacing between the kitchen and the living room, I stopped to push aside the curtains and caught sight of a uniform. He was walking up the front porch steps–taller, bigger, older–smiling. Calling to my parents, “He’s here,” I rushed to the door into his outstretched arms. Standing on the porch we had a moment I have never forgotten. The autumn sun warmed the air as it swirled around us. A long voyage in the ship’s hospital and a stint on shore helped him recover from the pneumonia he contracted in freezing weather and wet foxholes. We had eight weeks before he had to report for duty.
A flurry of weddings kept the family happily busy. Shopping for a bridesmaid’s dress for my uncle’s wedding felt like a rehearsal for the future. Another uncle returned safely from Alaska, and later my cousin married when he came back from the Far East. My best friend asked me to be the maid of honor at her wedding. Those occasions marked the beginning of new families and ended months of worry.
Weeks later he left for his assignment, and I went to work for the housewares manager at a department store. My parents breathed deep sighs of relief when news came that my brother would be home in three weeks. Finally peace had come to our house.
• • •
It helps to be a student of history when doing life story work with older adults. An event that sounds common or innocuous may hold deeper personal or collective significance or both. Such meanings are easy to miss without background knowledge. One theme in this story from Fay—anti-Semitism—can not be missed. Here, Fay, as a new secretary, confronted her boss’s hate with a quiet dignity. He knew she was Jewish, but her feelings did not matter to him in that moment. Perhaps they never did. Something about the irrationality of this hate, I believe, struck a chord in this young woman. She chose to remain calm, take his dictation, and move on. “I will give you a letter,” she may have said to herself, “but never in those words. I am better than that.”
James Birren, founder of the Guided Autobiography movement, a group-based approach to reminiscence, emphasizes the importance of turning points in reviewing one’s life story. The letter incident was a turning point, I believe, for Fay. While she may have heard such statements before, they became deeply personal in that moment. A new aspect of her identity emerged. I can see her carrying herself with a more erect posture on her way home that night, saying with a quiet firmness: “I matter. My heritage matters.”
Two other themes in Fay’s second story are less obvious or, perhaps, easier taken for granted: (1) expectation, and (2) reality of homecoming following war. The end of WWII was a joyous occasion and rightfully so; we had defeated tyrant regimes in both Germany and Japan. Our military did the fighting, but this was a total war in all respects—everyone did something to help the war effort. Soldiers were welcomed home as heroes, and their stories literally defined a generation—the “greatest generation” to coin a popular phrase. The trauma of war was over; let normalcy begin again, they said.
The problem, of course, is that war is anything but normal. It is full of unspeakable horrors. Prisoners of war, especially those in the Pacific Theater, often experienced unimaginable brutality and deprivation. The men and women who came home were changed individuals. Looking back years later, many would say that the war made them who they were and are. Many would also say they wished it had never happened; it took too much from them. My uncle Ken earned a Purple Heart on Iwo Jima, yet never spoke of it. His daughter, my cousin, found the medal upon his death. It was common for men of this generation to build walls—whether through denial, alcohol, or other means—to cope with the “normalcy” of daily life back home.
As one in millions of women who labored on the home front, Fay’s expectation of normalcy is understandable. Her man came home, but was he the same man who left? How had his narrative—and so hers—been molded by the traumas and realizations of war? What did he learn of the family he left behind as a child? Many Jewish American soldiers fought with an added sense of urgency and historical purpose: they knew the darkness of the Nazi regime and the peril facing their people.
While many surely came home from war and achieved tangible normalcy and peace, probably just as many did not. Laura Hillenbrand’s book, Unbroken (2010), about famed Olympic athlete and airman, Louie Zamperini, who survived two years as a Japanese POW, tells this tale better than most. Tortured to the brink of death on multiple occasions, Zamperini, too, wanted normalcy on his return home, but his narrative veered wildly into booze, self-pity, and post-traumatic flashbacks, until he eventually found a solid path through his Christian faith. The student of history knows to peer behind the story as told, reflect on key elements, ask questions, and illuminate deeper personal meanings. Hillenbrand did this for Zamperini in a big way.
While not addressed directly in Fay’s story, I know that her boyfriend, and later husband, was haunted by a deep sense of loss. A Jewish American soldier fights for his country abroad, helps to defeat the Nazis, and returns to a loving welcome—all true, yet only part of the story. He lost his parents and extended family to genocide, and his once coherent life story became a jumble. His story would become part of Fay’s story, too. The Holocaust is a defining event for all Jewish people, and especially for those touched directly like Fay’s husband. Now, years after their divorce and his death, Fay still strives to find meaning from events of the 1940s. She’s made contacts in Europe, recorded dates and names, and supported their son to visit the places of his family’s roots. There’s an urgency to make sense of this now, given where Fay is in her life’s journey.
Even terrible events can take on new and important meanings when explored in older age. For Fay, the specific events of the early 1940s are less important from a life review perspective than how her Holocaust story framed her life’s journey and shaped who she sees herself as today.
Sense making is important in the work my students and I do. We are not mere listeners—although we do a lot of it—but also active participants in the process of narrative recall, reconstruction, and expression. We endeavor to practice “integrative life review” in which elements of narrative identity—defining events, personal values, beliefs, lessons, accomplishments, regrets, perceived legacies—are elicited with a goal of enhancing self-understanding and well-being in the present. We want our interviewees to feel whole and acceptable, even if some tears are shed along the way.
Stories are windows into the self. I used the term “testimony” to describe Gilbert’s stories earlier. A complete life story interview is not just about facts or what happened moment to moment, but also what an experience means, especially when looking back after years of maturation and experience. Even terrible events can take on new and important meanings when explored in older age.
For Fay, the specific events of the early 1940s are less important from a life review perspective than how her Holocaust story framed her life’s journey and shaped who she sees herself as today. Some manage trauma through denial—not Fay. For her, honesty and truthfulness are essential to her character. She does not shy away from pain, but rather finds a way through it in a way that reflects her values and inherent dignity.
Teaching about integrative interviewing is challenging, especially when it comes to past trauma. An example I use with my students is that of a girl, 12, who was raped. Interviewed decades later at age 90, she recalls the rape and tells of it in the context of her life review. While she may tell of the specific painful details, any facts of that time are less important than the perspective she has in the present about this early trauma and how it shaped her identity. As an interviewer, I might say, “Thank you for sharing about this. I’m sure this is not easy for you to talk about even after all these years. Still, I wonder if this trauma also helped make you the person you are today? You have lived a full life these intervening years. How did and does this memory define you now?” This question refocuses on the essential integrative element of life review—present understandings and values.
• • •
“Edge of Wellness”
Twenty-two years later, I locked the door to my home for the last time and with our two family dogs followed the moving van to the apartment. My son had been away at school for a month. Three years before my husband chose to carry his suitcase with him when he left for his office one morning.
For the next five years I felt my way along blindly, making friends and changing jobs, looking for a career path. The details of my husband’s family’s life, permeated with the history of the Holocaust, had become part of my life. Until people asked questions I hadn’t realized how much the way we lived was influenced by this history. On my own for the first time I was challenged to make my own way.
Eventually at a career management course at a university I absorbed everything I could in an effort to become the person I wanted to be—a successful, confident business woman. Discouraged by the recommendations of the counselors who wanted me to stop working, I trained at a women’s center to be a non-professional counselor, co-facilitating groups and answering the hotline. I continued working and took two classes a week at night. Along the way I watched my son mature and took responsibility for my mother as she moved through the aging process. To meet her needs I quit school more than once and enrolled again three times over 10 years. Would I ever get there?
At one point I had my own business. Using that training, reading and the experience I gained, I moved through the structure of a major banking corporation, finding a mentor from time to time until I assumed more responsibilities. On evenings when I had no class I saw my mother or studied and wrote papers eager to be finished by the time I retired.
Sleep didn’t cure the intense fatigue I felt at the first class one September. Eventually the diagnosis erased my hope when I was told it was chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. I rejected the idea of incurability and analyzed what it meant for me. With my personal intensity, I would not give up. After two weeks at home and with my manager’s OK, I managed to work one or two hours a day. After four months I struggled through full days grateful for the support of my assistant. Social plans, inviting friends in created too much stress. Eventually everyone gave up. School was out of the question.
Doctors looked at me with blank faces. I followed the recommendations of a nutritionist. A small grocery store close to home made it easier. I tolerated blank stares from people who told me that I looked fine. Using cosmetics skillfully had them fooled.
Living with these diseases the past three decades has been and continues to be challenging. When I can be active I wonder how long it will last. A weakened immune system provides extra challenges for ordinary illnesses that others disregard. All of my life I questioned what makes us who we are but now desperation blossomed with more questions. What brought this on? Was it stress? Work and studies? I loved to dance. Can I overcome it? Where is the hope? I wanted my life back.
When I took early retirement I planned to be a consultant. I bought office equipment. Referring to a previously prepared business plan, a list of sources as well as the program to present for women attendees, I made plans for the workshop. By the end of the first month I had a relapse.
A year later I had learned more about myself. An occasional day when I feel almost normal was still a treasure. I have learned the meaning of pacing—heed the days when my aching body moves slowly. A sore throat can mean weeks in bed on antibiotics and sprays. Sometimes I don’t know which it is–illness or aging. After so long, I have gradually learned to filter the difference. Needless to say, my personality changed.
After years had passed, I could take a class now and then, volunteer for short term projects, say “yes” to an occasional study. At one time I was a research assistant where I could set my own hours. Later I taught an ESL class once a week. To try something new, I took a sketching class and another time studied a foreign language. A friend who was unaware of my illness urged me to go back to school.
Saying “yes” depends on my energy and feeling of well-being. All day shopping trips don’t exist. A trip to the mall is short if taken at all. A small store near my apartment works fine for groceries. As the years have passed I have learned to sense the difference between health and the process of aging. Cosmetics can work magic to hide a pallid complexion. Even the people closest to me don’t know how much it takes to maintain my home, go to a grandchild’s birthday party or have guests.
Aging has gradually crept into my days but curiosity about life urges me on to find ways of fulfilling the drive that keeps me interested.
• • •
Illness narratives are common in advancing age. Our body parts break down with long use. We become susceptible to new age-related diseases and functional changes. Frailty is common. Few live into their seventh or eighth decade without health challenges and the treatments that accompany them. Attitude makes a difference, of course. Knowing Fay as I do, I know that her flexible attitudes about aging, her deep commitment to honesty, and her resilient spirit are keys to her success in the face of chronic fatigue. She remains willing to say “yes” to what life offers, but with selectivity, too. She paces herself and chooses what matters most to her as she straddles the edge of wellness.
Older adults are more apt to emphasize positive emotions over negative, deeper relationships with a few over superficial relationships with many, and meaningful activities over just something to do.
Fay is a living example of Laura Carstensen’s Socioemotional Selectivity Theory (SST) in action, a helpful theoretical perspective for life story work. SST posits that understandings and priorities in a person’s daily life are shaped by perceptions of a personal future. Time influences perspective. Expansive views of the self in younger age give way to more selective views on what is important in older age. Through decades of research, Carstensen and her colleagues have shown that older adults are more apt to emphasize positive emotions over negative, deeper relationships with a few over superficial relationships with many, and meaningful activities over just something to do. There is a natural sharpening of focus on what is most important in advancing age which can serve to motivate a life review process.
Fay’s life story continues, and I hope she will be around to live and tell it for many years to come. As long as I am alive, her narrative will also resonate in and through me. As with Gilbert, she will continue to touch others in the impressions made on me and many others in her sphere. I hope the same for myself someday; that those who know me will share my story. This is what Dan McAdams calls “story-living.” We are all bound in a shared, living human narrative.
Some would say that we are in a golden age of narrative right now, due in part to digital media and also a cultural shift towards knowing and preserving our collective past. My students and I are doing our part. What about you? Do you make room in your life to share and receive narratives from those close to you? If not, try it. Time travel is always fun. Plus, you are sure to learn something and make a difference in the process.