Could you write your life story in just three pages? Try it. It’s a wonderful exercise to help you come to grips with what your story is all about. It requires you to focus on what’s essential for your readers to know about you.
One of my students, Dawn Peck, wrote a three-page life summary after a class discussion about tailoring your personal history for your intended audience. She decided she was writing her story for her grandchildren and considered what she wanted them to know about her. As she put it, “I want you to know me as someone besides your mother’s mother, gray-haired and getting shorter.”
What she accomplished is quite impressive, as you’ll see. Notice how her grandchildren figure in the familiar, conversational tone of her writing and in her word choices, which come from the personal relationship she has with them. Dawn read her story in class and it was a big hit. Some felt it would serve as a good introduction to her more expanded personal history. Or it could stand alone.
What wouldn’t we give if our ancestors wrote three pages describing the highlights of their lives? Maybe you’ve been nagging your parents to write their stories and they keep dragging their heels because it’s all too overwhelming. Instead, ask them to write just three pages, summarizing their lives by decades, as Dawn does here. Show them Dawn’s story, to inspire and teach them how to do it.
My Life in Fast Forward
by Dawn Peck
Recently I had a milestone – my 80th birthday. That made me ask, “Just why am I writing this ream of memoirs?” The answer: I was already past 60 when all six of you, my grandchildren, began to arrive. I want you to know me as someone besides your mothers’ mother, gray-haired and getting shorter. After all, I had six decades of being someone else before you ever arrived.
The first decade was pretty uninteresting. The Great Depression may have started almost on my arrival but I was completely unaware, brought home from the hospital in a warm new blanket to a life as a cosseted, protected only child. Great-grandma Baker, a well-bred English lady brought up in the reign of Queen Victoria, never got used to hearing the harsh accents of Detroit children calling, “Daw-w-nee! C’n you c’mout ‘n’ play?” However, I now realize I got to do something really important. I grew up happy, healthy, and educated. Many children of that era didn’t. Many worldwide still don’t.
That next decade I grew in many ways. With my English background and as one of four non-Catholics in an all-girl Catholic high school, I was a minority. At 17, a few years later, I was one of very few women in each night class of a university saturated with returning veterans. Minority again. I also began to realize that although virtually all my high school friends were in college too, they only wanted to work until they got married – and soon. I wanted more. I wanted to travel and maybe, gasp!, have a career!
The next decade, my 20s, broadened my life and, amazingly, brought all of the above. On my own, I sailed to England to my parents’ families, a horde of aunts, uncles and cousins I’d never met. With my cousin Colin Seaton I biked over 500 miles through England, then capped that by flying from London to Paris for several days on my own, not knowing a word of French. I was a real innocent abroad.
Job-hunting, I realized that all the jobs that interested me were in those columns labeled, “Help Wanted, Men.” I became Production Manager on a technical magazine., but only because I agreed to be listed as A. D. Baker. As the publisher said, “so my competitors won’t think I can only afford to hire a woman.” A year later I moved on to a publisher with two magazines. When the company moved to Denver, Colorado, I decided to move even farther, to Los Angeles. Colorado had snow. California had snow and sun.
It also had Hughes Aircraft Company, where I became a technical editor in the Guided Missile Systems Department. I learned flight and weapons systems concepts I had never dreamed of. Soon after, and far more important to all of you, I went on a company Ski Club trip and met your grandfather. We were married in 1958. Without that ski trip you all might not even be here.
The next decade was a whole lot more traditional. We soon had all three of your mothers and your uncle and I became a stay-at-home mom. We bought a house, then sold it and bought the house you know in Fountain Valley. The town was so small then that it didn’t even have a traffic light yet. I joined the PTA, baked cookies, cooked for potluck dinners, supported Brownies and Cub Scouts, and saw your parents and Uncle Dave through injuries and illnesses, including life-threatening allergies and asthma. We went camping in summer, skiing in winter and had Thanksgiving and Christmas with grandparents, a very typical 1960s suburban California lifestyle.
And then came my 40s and the summer when Aunt Sue and Uncle Dave discovered the fun of being “on stage.” The only way to have children’s theater all year was for “mommy” to start one. Knowing little about theater production, I ran it like a magazine – and it worked. The theater is still in operation and some of you have seen its shows. However, after several years I realized that those children who wanted to be in theater were now teenagers in high school and while full-time volunteerism was nice, a full-time paycheck to help see everyone through college in a few years would be even nicer. I went back to the publishing world, as Advertising Sales Director for Computer magazine. Later, the company even paid for me to earn my MBA. Going back to night school after so many years while working full-time at a job that had me traveling here and there around the country every couple of weeks was a major challenge!
On to Decade #6, my 50s, and more changes. Remember, your grandpa was an engineer, specializing in weapons design. Well, he was offered a job as Vice President of Engineering for a small new company seeking a contract with the Republic of China (Taiwan) government. I was offered a job there too. After several investigative trips, the day of the company’s big move to Taiwan came and Grandpa went too. I had planned to stay here, at home with your moms and uncle and keep my job as “insurance.” Aunts Sue and Katie and Uncle Dave were now working or in college, but Aunt Jennie was still a senior in high school. However, after three months of Grandpa in Taiwan and me here, all of them said, “GO! We’ll be fine!” And they were.
Life in Taiwan and here on the home front during the next years are probably worth several pages in this memoir. Well, once again I was a minority, a “big nose” as the Chinese called us, in a land of tiny Asians. I did try to fit in, though, and one of the first phrases I learned was “meo wan ti.” It means “no problem” and all too often when we heard it that meant there was a problem looming on the horizon. Eventually the problems got too much for the company president and he took the company back to the States and closed it down. Grandpa and I went from being highly-paid expats (expatriates) to joining the ranks of the 50-something-year-old unemployed. Grandpa soon went back to work as a gun designer and we bought a travel agency for me to run. Meanwhile, your Aunt Sue started law school, then married your Uncle Ron; 19 months later Aunt Jenny married Uncle Paul. A few months later, in February 1987, the Computer Society publisher asked if I’d like to come “home” to my old job as Advertising Sales Director. By this time they’d grown to six magazines! The next day I had an offer to buy the travel agency. Recognizing a sign from Heaven when I saw one, I said yes to both offers and went back to the world I knew best.
Wow! Then came Decade #7 and it was a real roller-coaster! Grandpa and I both retired. Uncle Dave scared us all by having some major illnesses and surgeries (ever heard of Heinoch Schienlein Purpera? Well, neither had we.) Then Aunt Katie and Uncle Jeff were married. Grandpa and I bought a fifth-wheel trailer and a bunch of airline tickets and began to travel all over the country and the world. We even met Grandpa’s half-sister, whom he hadn’t seen since she was a baby. Your parents used to joke, “It’s 10 p.m. Do you know where your parents are tonight?” And then there were the first four of you – Anders and Brenton in August and September 1992, Celia in March 1993 and Kenzie on the way, due in March 1994. We thought life couldn’t get better.
But then the roller-coaster went downhill. I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and had surgery two weeks after Kenzie arrived. Just six weeks later Grandpa was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, both of them among the deadliest cancers. We went through surgeries and chemo together but in October 1995 that was the end of being together. I recovered. Grandpa didn’t. Oh, how I wish you had all had more of a chance to know him. The roller-coaster went up a bit in January, when Jack was born, down when I needed a second round of chemo, then up when I started to travel and volunteer again and pick up a few grandmotherly hobbies.
Along came the last decade, the one so far when you know me best. Colin, the last of you six grandchildren, arrived in February 2000. I discovered genealogy and writing about our family (like the piece you’re reading now), rediscovered square dancing, and kept on volunteering. I watched all of you from kindergarten graduations on up and saw you participate in more sports than my generation even thought kids could do. I kept traveling but the best two trips have been this past 12 months, to India with Aunt Katie and Uncle Dave and to England with Aunt Sue and Aunt Jenny. We finished up with all 14 of us together for a great birthday party.
Now, here I am at 80 and there’s a whole new decade out there, waiting for me to “c’mout ‘n’ play.”