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Families who capture memories

"At Birmingham, the bombing started in 1940 and that was the worst year As Doreen says, she spent three years living in an air raid shelter." - George Withnall R.A.S.C.

"At Birmingham, the bombing started in 1940 and that was the worst year As Doreen says, she spent three years living in an air raid shelter." - George Withnall R.A.S.C. The books are self-published, handsome, hard cover, full of photographs and text, but they will never be best sellers. In fact, they are limited editions, treasured by an audience of one or two people. They are memory books - episodes from a person's life set down on paper by those who remember or by their children or grandchildren. That was the case for George Withnall, formerly of the Royal Army Service Corps in Britain, now retired in Gibsons. His daughters wanted him to record his war years for the sake of their children. The result was a 25-page book of Withnall's memories, photos and illustrations, including one of an Anderson (air raid) shelter that gives some idea of how it must have felt to spend the war under that roof. "The book was done just for the family," Withnall says. "They were very pleased, thank you very much," he reports in his Birmingham accent. Much of his personality and manner of speech is reflected in the book's pages. In this case, Withnall's daughters decided to work with a personal historian, Carol Upton, whose service, Recollections, helps people capture memories through their family stories by taping the oral histories, then editing and organizing the material into a bound book. Upton, a former counsellor, first became interested in the process about five years ago when her mother showed signs of Alzheimer's. Suddenly, she knew how important it was to gather the family stories while she could. One of her first efforts showed up as an article and recipe in the Cup of Comfort Cookbook in 2002. The story, "First You Eat," describes her Polish grandmother in Manitoba during the depression years who always had a pot of borscht on the stove to feed the men riding the rails. It's the little details in the stories that make them so poignant. Upton's mother recalled how the women had no tools other than their hands to work the farm and how they had to walk six miles to buy flour to bake bread. Upton is comforted by the knowledge that she set down some of these stories while her mother could still remember. "The loss of memory is such a profound loss," she says. One man whose memory of family life remains undimmed is 74-year-old Bob Sullivan. His own mother and father were not good at keeping track, but three years ago, using an ancient word processor, he set down many of his memories, and a nephew has since stored the material by computer. Together, they have created a book that has been produced in such a way that it invites each branch of the family to add their own stories. Originally, Sullivan's two sisters and the nephew set out to trace their family tree. After visits to the Irish homeland, where every second name was Sullivan, and visits to the relatives in Idaho, Colorado and Washington, they discovered that the first ancestors arrived in Maine in the 1730s and one of Sullivan's family had been a general in George Washington's army. Though the genealogy was interesting to Sullivan, the real discovery was his mother's daily diary that she had kept for 40 years. "She never expressed her feelings in it," he says, "but she wrote how many chickens she killed that day, how many quarts she had canned and what relations had come to visit." He and his sister remember the stories behind the sparse diary entries and can fill in the emotions behind the notes. Sullivan's wife is a native woman, and he hopes to continue the memory process by working on her story along with his niece. "It's for their descendents," he says. "Some of them are not interested now, but they might be later." Upton says she has not met a person whose life is not interesting in some way. Her approach is not limited to seniors but includes producing a baby book documenting a child's first two years or a keepsake book for a bride and groom. Upton will lead a course in "Capturing Memories: Getting Started" on Feb. 7 and 14 at Chaster House in Gibsons. Registration is through the Sunshine Coast Regional District at 604-885-6801 or call her for more information at 604-886-8951.