Voices of Experience: Childhood Then and Now

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"My dad said we were his boys, since he didn't have any," 95-year-old Susie Majors told Jennifer Mobley, director of the FiftyForward Bordeaux Center. Susan had worked in the fields to help the family and didn't get to go to high school. Nonetheless, she returned to school and became an assistant social worker. Mobley's aunts had postponed their education, too, finishing high school in their forties, and their story caused her to appreciate the value of education. It also made her wonder: What other senior stories would be so different from those of today's childhood years?

Mobley's question became "The Memoir Project" documentary film, produced by Watkins Community Education with funding from the Tennessee Arts Commission. Megan Hardgrave, director of community education at Watkins, said the project would "show the importance of documenting memoirs for future generations. It's important to preserve, so that the small details and personal narratives that enrich history aren't lost." The educators taught community members how to write and document personal memoirs, using childhood experience as the central theme. Seniors at Bordeaux and children at the Looby Community Center worked in small groups to share and write, and then told their stories to a Watkins video crew. I have heard many examples from seniors about childhood's hard work and initiative in my own work with personal history, and I eagerly attended the documentary's preview to hear some comparisons of childhood, then and now.

Everyone talked about food! "Fried chicken for breakfast" from a senior had everyone laughing, either from fond memory or surprise, but Granville Brown's family ate meat only once a week. One long-ago-father had "cooked a 12-course meal every Sunday," and one taught his daughter to make biscuits. For today's children, strong memories were making fries and eating hotdogs at a birthday. "Some things change, and some things stay the same," observed writing teacher Gloria Ballard.

Activities have changed. "I didn't think I'd ever be able to forget the day I played laser tag," said Piper. Young Hannah told about skating and swimming at YMCA summer camp. John Woodson told of attending school due to a weekly gift of seven dollars mailed from his brother and said, "I'll never forget those people who helped me." Helen Lee heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor on the radio and read the newspaper every morning when she was eight. Hundred-year-old Rhea Johnson was influenced by her mother's daily Bible reading. "I want to do all the good I can," she said, "while I can." Educators, seniors and children strengthened knowledge and connection through "The Memoir Project." It will be posted for public viewing at www.watkins.edu/community-education. View for fun, and do ask your grandchildren to compare some experiences with you.

Deborah Wilbrink is a personal historian with PerfectMemoirs.com and author of "Time To Tell: Your Personal & Family History." She lives in Nashville with her husband Evert and enjoys gardening and guitar. Contact Deborah at (615) 417-8424 or deb@perfectmemoirs.com.

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