PEOPLE : Minister Teaches Family Members How to Share Their Pasts in Heirloom Memoirs

There's a book in all of us, so the saying goes, and as many ways to write it. For several years, the Rev. Craige LeBreton, minister of pastoral care at the United Methodist Church in Camarillo, has encouraged members of his congregation to write their stories in the form of memoirs.

In his previous post as an interim minister for churches in Southern California, LeBreton was often called upon to perform memorial services for people he did not know. When he requested background information, family members sadly realized that they knew very little about the deceased's life, or how he viewed it.

Now LeBreton usually holds a short course in reminiscing with the survivors to help them discover something meaningful to say at the funeral. And he is showing the living that perhaps the best guarantee they have that they will be remembered is to leave their own story behind.

Trained in social psychology and social ethics, LeBreton is a founder and participant in the volunteer chaplain program at Pleasant Valley Hospital and director of the board of Camarillo Hospice. Last April, he offered an in-service workshop on memoir writing to hospice volunteers.

"In helping a person facing death, we teach the volunteers how gently to help the person reminisce in formal or informal ways. This gives the dying person an opportunity to reflect on the good things and deeds in his life rather than on the sadness of the illness and leaving," LeBreton said.

Although no statistics are available, it is known that life story writing and the related activities of oral history talking and reminiscing are used a great deal by clergy, therapists and counselors in hospices, bereavement groups and nursing homes throughout the country.

According to Andrew Parker, director of development and membership services at the National Hospice Organization in Virginia, "it is a process which is on an upward trend and we do encourage it."

Between 1983 and 1988, nine related workshops on the topic were presented at the organization's national meeting.

Jane Rozanski, executive director of Camarillo Hospice, recognizes the benefit of life story writing to patients and their families. "Most of our patients are between ages 30-59, with a prognosis of six months to a year to live," she said, adding that attendance at the hospice Bereavement Groups is up over 50% since 1987-88. She views LeBreton's memoir writing workshop as the first step in implementing a program which they hope will be a model for the county.

In writing memoirs, any format or level of formality is valid. "A book may not be a memoir and a memoir can just be a page," said LeBreton, adding that it can consist of random thoughts, proceed chronologically, or focus on special events. Chapters can be numbered or have descriptive titles. One woman, he recalled, wrote a series of appreciative vignettes for architecture and museums she had most enjoyed.

Anyone can use this technique of oral history or memoir writing. To get started, LeBreton suggests labeling family photos. There are books on the market that make writing an autobiography easy. For those who prefer social contact and structure, some senior citizens' organizations offer classes in life story writing. Millicent Coleman attends a weekly class at the Bernardi Multipurpose Senior Center in Van Nuys.

"I have written one chapter a week for two years and I'm up to age 12. I figure as long as I keep writing, I can't die," she said with a laugh.

For his workshops, LeBreton uses "Hints for Writing Memoirs," a tip sheet prepared by friends Mary and Donald Decker of Laguna Niguel. Authors of books on diverse subjects, the Deckers have offered a memoir writing service and workshops for years.

Mary Decker worked with dying patients on two occasions and found the friendships rewarding. After helping a patient for a year and a half, she was called to the woman's hospital bed to help her tape the final chapter.

"She was very anxious to finish because it dealt with her closest sibling. The doctor said she had just hours to live but she survived a couple of weeks--time to rush the material to family members and get a response back. She was very happy."

LeBreton affirms that "everybody has a story. Folks who haven't felt at ease with the idea of writing begin to talk--get verbal--and they'll write it down later."

Ann Reisner, 73, has been taking senior volunteer Sally Cole's memoir writing class in Ojai since its inception in February, 1989. After reading 10 pages of her stories, Reisner's daughter commented, "Mother, I didn't know you ate that way when you were a child."

Reisner explained, "I'd written about drinking watered-down cocoa and bread and butter for breakfast. In today's age when you have french fries and you mention cabbage soup, bean soup, mush--it's a surprise.'

She is pleased that it affected her daughter enough to ask her own 16-year-old daughter, Camille, "to read what Grandma has written, but I don't want you to skim through it."

A grandmother of seven, Reisner gained a great deal of self-awareness from writing. She explained her motivation for preparing the memoirs.

"You realize that your grandchildren will only remember you, if they remember you at all, as an old woman who kind of hobbles around and is cross. They won't know you as a little girl who had dreams, hopes and was a young woman who wanted to do so many things, and did a lot of things." While parents and grandparents are alive we feel that we have access to their memories and traditions. When they are dead, that precious link is irretrievably gone. Did we understand their life? Did we listen carefully enough? Were there any last memories to elicit or questions to ask?

"Getting started is the hardest part," said LeBreton, but, he would agree, man's experiences are indeed the literature of life.

AN EXCERPT Although familiar with the events of her mother's life, Ann Reisner, 73, of Ojai, hadn't realized the hardships she suffered until she began writing. Her mother died when Reisner was only 9 months old. Here is an excerpt from her memoir:

"She left Germany with her first husband in 1904, leaving a 2-year-old son in the care of her mother. Both she and her husband had high hopes of having the two join them in a year or so. Unfortunately fate had different plans. My mother's husband developed mastoiditis (inflammation of the ear) and in those days when there were no antibiotics, it was a death sentence. My poor mother, left as a widow, pregnant with a second child, in a foreign country, not knowing the language, having little money, and it was during the great depression 1906. What should she do? How could she and her unborn child survive? Yet she did."

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