When I worked on my own autobiography several years ago, I used this technique which I sort of invented ( I say that because I’ve never heard of anyone else using it either in my background as a social worker or speaking with other personal historians). What I would do is to find an old picture of me from a time period that my memories were vague. I would look at the photo and start placing concrete things into my memory.
For instance, there is a photo of me taken on a piano bench when I was about 8. I began looking at the photo and remembering the room it was taken in. As I visualized the room, wall by wall, I remembered our kitchen on the other side of the dining room wall and how we had one of those cat clocks on the wall in there. Ours was black. There was also a wall telephone with a very long cord and I began to remember how every afternoon while I was practicing the piano, my mother would be in the kitchen preparing dinner and talking with her mother on the phone. They talked every afternoon for at least an hour because that is how long I practiced. I had completely forgotten about that and it made me realize how very close they were to spend that much time on the phone. I hadn’t remembered these things before really scrutinizing the photo.
I want to invite you to try that technique this holiday season. We spend a lot of time watching old movies like A Christmas Story and The Bishop’s Wife in order to create a feeling of old time nostalgia so I’m going to invite you to create some nostalgia with your own memories.
I invite you to picture in your mind’s eye, a holiday party at school when you were younger, perhaps 4th grade. Do you recall the student-made decorations that hung over the chalk board? What did the one you made look like? Did you have a gift exchange? What did you bring and what did you take home? Did you get a gift for your teacher? I remember in third grade, all the students chipped in and bought a puppy, dog house and supplies for our teacher Mrs Durocher. We wanted to surprise her but from this perspective, I sure hope the parents got some approval before we dropped that surprise! Did your grade put on a holiday play for the parents? What part did you play? How did you feel after the play was over? How did you feel when you went home from school that day? Do you remember everyone getting into the coats and boots in the cloak room? The smell of wet wool?
I hope you’ve created a memory that is peaceful and enjoyable and that you might consider taking the next step and writing it down. If you’re still friends with any of the kids you shared this day with, perhaps share your recollection with them. Maybe you or your parents have a few photos of that time period. Consider using this story as the basis of your holiday letter.
My best wishes to you during this holiday season.