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“My cousin is convinced our grandmother was an evil witch, but Granny was always loving and generous with me.”

“My boss has won awards for leadership excellence, but you couldn’t prove it by me. As far as I’m concerned, he’s a Nazi.”

During the February NAMW Roundtable an anonymous guest (I’ll call her Becky) mentioned how differently she and her sister thought of their mother. This only became apparent when Becky gave Sis a draft copy of her memoir. “How can you talk about Mother that way? She wasn’t like that at all!” Sis objected. Becky was startled and puzzled by these vehement objections and stepped back to analyze the situation.

After considerable thought, she realized a significant difference in ages and family situations during the girls’ formative years could account for widely varying experiences with their mother. Becky was the oldest and constantly called upon to help with chores and childcare as the family expanded. Sis was the youngest of many, and Mom surely had more free time to dote on her. If Sis had not defended the Mom she knew, it’s unlikely that Becky would have seen this wider view and developed a stronger sense of compassion for her mom.

In a similar vein, some time ago I attended a Celebration of Life service for an in-law aunt. Those who spoke gave glowing testimony to her strength, wisdom, loving nature, helpfulness and dedication. She had been a powerful influence in their lives. The tributes showed a facet of her I’d heard about, but never seen. I had only known the private, sit-at-breakfast-in-your-bathrobe and chat-while-we-peel-potatoes side of her. I listened as she railed at ill health, bemoaned the fact that her sons seldom visited, and despaired over the state of the world. I knew her as a gloomy, melancholy person, and our roles were essentially reversed from those the others spoke of. She was their confidant and comforter, I was hers.

I chose not to speak, unsure how to celebrate that very human side of her. It seemed that in the overall scheme of things, her strengths and contributions were what deserved to be memorialized and remembered. In the face of that adulation, I wanted to leave her balloon aloft. Perhaps I did her and the others a disservice by my failure to anchor her feet to the ground, but I suspect that on some level they knew what rested inside her shoes.

I could not have seen such a full picture of her on my own. It took a village to describe her many dimensions, and from their tributes I gained a fuller appreciation and understanding of her larger role.

By exploring such 3-D images of other people, I can better assess the nature of my relationship with them, and how my own perceptions, judgments and values played a part in developing that relationship. More than once I’ve seen the error of my ways and corrected my course accordingly — unfortunately too late for “do-overs.”

Beyond enriching our lives, this sort of reflection and insight add significant interest and depth to a memoir. Jonna Ivin collected fragments of information from others as she strove to solve the riddle of her alcoholic mother’s life in order to free herself from following along the same path. Her reflections on this discovery process add huge impact to her recently released memoir, Will Love For Crumbs.

As you prepare to write, take some time to explore the thoughts others hold about central characters in your life and story. Reap the rewards of the collective wisdom of your village and watch your story take on added dimension and soar. After you write, share your draft ad remain open to challenges such as Becky encountered. You’ll be richer and wiser for the experience.

Photo credit: Bev Sykes

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