Word from your grandmother

A lost diary inspires a Linden Hills woman to teach families to write their histories together

Director Shau-di Wang’s 1998 animated film, "Mofa ama" ("Grandma and Her Ghosts"), tells the story of a young boy who learns about afterlife and death when he moves in with his grandmother. She performs Taoist rituals for the dead, helping them find their way in the next world. The Taiwanese film echoes around the world for Valerie Borey, a Linden Hills woman who heard from her grandmother in a very real way after the Norwegian woman’s death seven years ago.

"It was like getting a phone call from the dead," Borey said of reading her grandmother’s memoirs.

Her immigrant grandmother, Solveig Bjermeland, had written her life’s story down in Norwegian, blue ink and a stately, old-world cursive.

"My mother was sorting through her things and found a notebook that [Bjermeland] had hidden under the bed," Borey said. "It turned out to be a memoir of her life that she had written back in 1976 and kept secret all these years.

"I stayed up all night reading it and it just felt like I was sitting in the room with her, listening to one of her never-ending stories — digressions and all. It was amazing and gave me so much insight into who she was as a person."

The discovery opened a window into Borey’s grandmother’s life, and now Borey wants to help others open similar portals. Rather than counting on a loved one to leave secret memoirs behind, Borey urges people to take the step of creating life stories now, together, in an exercise she calls intergenerational writing.

Borey is teaching a class called "Writing: Intergenerational Memories" as part of the Minneapolis Community Education program at Southwest High School, 3414 W. 47th St.

Time trek: the next generation

The discovery of her grandmother’s hidden words inspired Borey and her mother to write about their own lives. As they each read what the other had written, they quickly realized that their memories of events didn’t always mesh.

"We figured that we could either spend hours bickering over facts that would be impossible to verify, or we could recognize that our differing memories were an important piece of the puzzle," Borey said.

As with film director Akira Kurosawa’s classic "Rash™mon," the value in the family stories lies more in the telling and sharing than in making sure all difference are nicely bound up in ribbons of agreement.

"Our memories, our interpretations, were a result of growing up in different times, different places," Borey said.

Borey’s mother grew up in Nazi-occupied Norway and moved to the United States, with her mother, in 1955. The 28-year-old Borey grew up a stone’s throw away from the apartment overlooking "downtown" Linden Hills, where she lives now.

Those worlds couldn’t be much further apart, yet they’re bound together by the ties between a mother and child.

The Thais that bind

The experience of writing and sharing memories with a family member isn’t new to Borey. She did it a dozen years ago when she dropped out of high school at 16. Back then, she and her half-brother — then 28 years old — traveled to Thailand for six months, faithfully keeping journals of their separate, yet shared experiences.

"His experience there was totally different than mine," Borey recalled with a laugh. "I was little bit wild. I got into a lot of trouble when I was younger, so he found himself, at 28, in sort of the parent role. He all of a sudden realized the magnitude of it."

The magnitude was driven home when his little sister took off for a weekend to hang out with friends without letting her brother know about it. Borey said her mother got about 20 calls over the next day or two as the frantic young man looked for his adventurous sister.

Naturally, those are the kinds of shared memories are recalled from very different perspectives — differences that can help family members understand each other better.

The doing of it

The first thing students in Borey’s class will do is to decide how to separate their lives into chapters. One chapter might be on childhood, another on the college years, another on getting married, getting divorced, starting a new career, etc.: the big, defining moments in life that forever change everything that follows them.

Then, important people are identified: teachers who made an impact, perhaps, or friends and family, mentors, etc. Borey helps folks to identify the significant places in life, too. Not just childhood homes or the like, she said.

"Take a place like the movie theater, common to different generations, but the whole role of the movie theater has changed over the years," she said.

Families can document memories of the grand, palatial theaters of the past and contrast them with the cineplexes and home theaters of today.

Borey said that habitual events — the repeated moments of day-to-day life — can also highlight the differences and commonalities in generations. "Coming home from school: What was that like for someone who’s born in the early 1900s versus the 1930s versus 1960s? That’s a different experience."

Those kinds of divergences crisscross and blend with other stories with a familywide perspective, creating a tapestry of very personal history.

Excuses, excuses

Borey thinks there’s more to gain from intergenerational writing than documenting memories and differences.

"Part of it is that it gives people an excuse to be together," she said. "Families, I don’t know if they get sucked into television or whatever, but they sometimes have a tendency not to talk together. [Intergenerational writing] gives people a structured setting in which to actually sit down and talk about the things in their lives, their experiences. In a sense, it’s a way of saying ‘OK, we’re detaching ourselves at this point from being mother and daughter.’

"People tend to think of the sensory experience of life. ‘What am I doing next?’ This lets you step out of this for a moment and say, ‘Where have I been, where am I going?’"

"Writing: Intergenerational Memories" will be taught on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. April 14-May 5. Call 668-3100 or go to www.mplscommunityed.com for more information.