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Memories & Keepsakes

"The only true gift is a portion of thyself."

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Memories make up the story of our life that exists in our mind. They help us make sense of our life and find meaning in it. Memories can give us comfort, direction, inspiration, and hope. Said Grandma Moses, the popular painter untrained in art who began painting in her seventies: "What a strange thing is memory, and hope; one looks backward, the other forward. The one is of today, the other is of tomorrow. Memory is history recorded in our brain, memory is a painter."

Something to Remember Me By is a book inspired by my own memories of my grandmother (see the Something to Remember Me By: Start With Story section in this kit). I remember a reading I did with a group of children and adults. A little girl asked, "What's a memory?" An older man answered by saying, "It's something warm in your heart." Then everyone, young and old, started talking about what made their heart warm.

By the age of three or four, children start using memory scripts to help them act appropriately. They know the steps to ordering a hamburger at a fast-food restaurant or what happens at a birthday party. Scripts do a curious thing to memory -- they help determine what we'll remember. As we hang memories on the hooks in scripts, specific experiences tend to run together. Instead of remembering what happened at last year's birthday party, we remember what generally happens at birthday parties. When we try to retrieve a memory of a particular party, we may add some things that didn't happen and omit some things that did happen. Because of scripts, most recollections of events are in many ways inaccurate. Yet without scripts, remembering any event for long is probably impossible. By the time we're adults, we're making sense of our experiences with a story that's more or less integrated. The opening scene of the story takes us back to our childhood, to our very first memory. We then weave together bits of information, guesses, faded snapshots we've seen in albums, stories we've heard from others.

Memories do for individuals what stories of the world's creation do for groups: they explain and legitimize the present by relating it to founding events that took place "in the beginning." We become biographers of the self -- a self with a beginning, a middle, and an end. But the story we tell ourselves, and others, is limited. It is based on selective memory. We choose what we pay attention to and what meaning, positive or negative, we give it. How we choose to give meaning to which memories determines our life story. Memories can free us from the present by making it possible to revisit the past for a while. By selecting and preserving events that are especially pleasant and meaningful, we can "create" a past that helps us deal with the future.

Modern education favors lists, labels, theories and numbers more than information shared through memory and story. Grandparents, in particular, can balance this by offering grandchildren the magic of memories. Your memories, the mental story you tell yourself, affect the quality of the life you create for yourself, the hope you have, and the legacy you pass on. Think about what makes your "heart warm." Celebrate your memories; treasure them. When you do so, you create good things in your life and, in turn, create good memories for your grandchildren. Make the most of the moments today that will be tomorrow's memories. When you consciously create loving memories with your grandchildren, you create a loving life story for yourself and them. Your grandchildren's memories then become part of their life story, and you build a connection that truly transcends time.

Memories of our personal experiences help us create who we are, but memories in the bigger sense -- family history as well as world history -- help us create who we are too. All too often children look at history as a series of dreary events and dates to memorize, something created by other people for their own enjoyment and the child's torment. Grandparents can often bring personal significance and meaning to "history" for children through their memories of the past. They can spark a child's curiosity so that knowledge is no longer seen as being forced on them from the outside. Then learning history becomes a treasured experience. Personal and collective memories help us create ourselves, our relationships, and our world.

Creating a legacy is in part about leaving memories for the people we love. While the most important legacies are memories of happy times shared together, tangible things like letters, photographs, scrapbooks, audiotapes, videotapes, and mementoes can reinforce these happy recollections. These items allow us to remember more vividly. You know when you hear a favorite song on the radio and your mind goes right back to a special memory? Keepsakes have that same kind of power. People collect keepsakes and mementoes to store in their home to build what is, in effect, a museum of their family's life. A visitor may not know that the figurine on your mantle is from your honeymoon, or that the painting on the wall was done by your grandmother, but you know.

A keepsake is an object that has a personal or emotional connection. It is something that evokes powerful feelings. It is a source of remembrance, a symbol of a bond. A line that's repeated in Something to Remember Me By by the grandmother to her granddaughter: "Someday, that cedar chest at the foot of the bed will be yours." My grandmother picked out a piece of furniture to give each of her children and grandchildren. From the time I was five years old, I knew the cedar chest was mine. Today that cedar chest sits proudly at the foot of my bed, a treasured keepsake.

Adults need keepsakes. For older people, as you change over time, the concrete material objects in your life do not. We keep them for their personal significance. The meaningfulness of the possessions we identify as cherished resides in their legacy. We choose from a lifetime of objects those possessions we wish to save for ourselves as a kind of bequest to ourselves. Adults also have a need to give keepsakes as "something to remember me by." And children have just as much of a need to receive them.

Children like the hottest "new" stuff, but they also have a real need for "old stuff" that connects them to their family and its history. In the short term, keepsakes create an immediate sense of connection. Over the years, they become a powerful symbol of that connection. Keepsakes evoke memories and feelings. They also make us feel part of something bigger. They are a critical part of a living family legacy.

A recent Ann Landers' column had a particularly poignant letter about keepsakes. A woman's grandmother had died and the woman discovered drawers and boxes full of clippings and other memorabilia. She could hardly wait to go through everything. But her father and brother asked her to wait until they sorted through things first. After three weeks, they asked her to come over. The house had been completely cleaned out. She was in shock to see only a few items left. "Where was my grandmother's old housecoat that smelled of her cologne?" the granddaughter asked. "Where were the tapes of songs my grandfather used to sing off-key? The history of my family was missing. My father said he threw out all the 'junk' and saved only what they thought had value. I was heartbroken. No one can put a price tag on memories."

Wrote another reader to Ann Landers: "Every time I handle my mother-in-law's apron, my daughter's red robe, my mother's costume jewelry, and my grandmother's postcards, I remember the love of the person who first held them. They are treasured beyond words." And another reader wrote: "When a relative of mine died, I was given some cash and told to select an item as a keepsake. I chose her beat-up old potato masher. The cash is gone now, but every time I use that potato masher, I think of my relative and smile."

Keepsakes can be big or small, expensive and inexpensive. A keepsake's value isn't intrinsic, but is tied to the meaning we give the object, the precious memories we associate with it.

Some storybooks about memories and keepsakes: Something to Remember Me By by Susan Bosak; The Memory Box by Mary Bahr; Dear Annie by Judith Caseley; Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox; Great-Grandmother's Treasure by Ruth Hickcox; A Birthday Basket for Tia by Pat Mora; The Always Prayer Shawl by Sheldon Oberman; The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco; This Is the Bird by George Shannon; Selina and the Bear Paw Quilt by Barbara Smucker; The Language of Doves by Rosemary Wells.

Activities: Grandparent Certificates; Guess the Memory; Memory Bag; Keepsake Placemats; Keepsake Bookmarks; "Happy Grandparents Day" Photo Keepsake; School Year Keepsake; Classroom Family Quilt; Keepsake Showcase; Family Newsletter or Website; Family History Museum; Family Time Capsule.


Grandparent Certificates

Suggested Activity Timing: Before a Grandparents Day event, or any time.

Curriculum Connections: Language Arts; Art.

What You Need: Copies of "Grandparents Are VIPs", "Greatest Grandparent", and "Grandfriends Are Great" certificates provided; pen. Optional -- pencil crayons.

Doing It:

As far as I'm concerned, grandparents are VIPs -- especially on Grandparents Day, but also everyday (see the Why Grandparents Are VIPs section in this kit). Use the "Grandparents Are VIPs" certificate as a way to honor grandparents.

For a more personal certificate, use one of the "Greatest Grandparent" certificates. There's a version you can use to share your best memory, and another for the most important thing you've learned from your grandparent. Children can color in the border of the certificates if they wish.

There's also a certificate you can use to honor a "grandfriend" -- any special older person in your life.

As an alternative to the certificates, you could do a "best memory" note on a pretty sheet of stationery. Have you ever really thought about the BEST memory you have of each of your grandparents? Maybe it's something they said to you, something you did together, or some important advice about life they've given you. Maybe it's a family trip or tradition, or something they taught you like how to bake cookies or how to fish. Often, people are surprised at what you feel is the most important thing they're passing down to you or the best memory you have of them (they may not even remember the exact moments that you remember). Whether you do a certificate or a "best memory" note, you'll be surprised at how much sharing these kinds of thoughts can mean to grandparents.

Note: The certificates provided with this kit are in black-and-white and can be photocopied. If you have a color printer, you can download free full-color certificates from www.somethingtoremembermeby.org.


Guess the Memory

Suggested Activity Timing: During a Grandparents Day event.

Curriculum Connections: Art; Language Arts.

What You Need: Paper; markers or pencil crayons.

Doing It:

Guessing memories can be a fun game for young and old.

On a sheet of paper, a grandparent draws a sketch of a favorite memory they have of their grandchild. At the same time, the grandchild draws a picture of their favorite memory of their grandparent. Each keeps their picture hidden from the other.

When both are finished drawing, they hold up their picture to the other person to "guess the memory." Hints are allowed if required!

Once each person has guessed the memory, talk about why it's a favorite memory.


Memory Bag

Suggested Activity Timing: During a Grandparents Day event.

Curriculum Connections: Social Studies/History.

What You Need: No materials.

Doing It:

Before a Grandparents Day event, in the invitation, ask grandparents to bring in a keepsake hidden in a bag. The keepsake could be personal (e.g. their baby shoes, a piece of jewelry) or it could have historical significance (e.g. military medals, a World's Fair souvenir).

The keepsakes should be kept "secret" until the appropriate time during the event. Each grandparent then "unveils" the keepsake and explains the story behind it.

Children can also bring in their own family keepsakes and tell their stories. Grandparents will often be surprised at some of the things their grandchildren hold on to as keepsakes.


Keepsake Placemats

Suggested Activity Timing: Before a Grandparents Day event.

Curriculum Connections: Art.

What You Need: 11 x 17 inch construction paper; 11 x 17 inch white paper; ruler; pencil; scissors; marker; clear contact plastic; leaves and flowers; wax paper; big books; poster paint; brush. Optional -- paper napkin; pen.

Doing It:

Items made by grandchildren often become grandparents' dearest treasures. Making a keepsake placement also has a practical purpose -- it can be used for a meal or snack during a Grandparents Day event (the placemats can even serve as place markers on tables).

There are several different kinds of placemats children can make (always add the child's name and date somewhere in a corner for posterity's sake):

  • Weaving: Start with an 11 x 17 inch sheet of construction paper. Measure, mark, and cut parallel, straight, 10 inch lines at 1 inch intervals across the 11 inch width of the sheet, leaving 1/2 inch all around the sheet. Cut 10 strips of construction paper 17 inches long by 1 inch wide. Weave the strips in and out of the slits cut into the big sheet of paper to create a woven mat. Write the grandparent's name along the edge of the mat. Carefully place the mat on the sticky side of the clear contact plastic. Place another sheet of clear plastic covering on the other side of the mat. Smooth out any wrinkles, and cut off the excess, leaving a narrow edge of plastic. This makes the placemat somewhat durable and wipeable. If you don't have clear contact plastic, just glue down the ends of the strips.

  • Leaves and Flowers: Sandwich assorted leaves and flowers between two sheets of wax paper and put them between the pages of a heavy book for a couple of weeks. Remove them from the book. Arrange them on the sticky side of an 11 x 17 inch sheet of clear contact plastic. You can also cut out letters from construction paper to spell the grandparent's name. Carefully lay another sheet of contact plastic on top, sticky side down to create a clear placemat.

  • Hand Prints: Brush poster paint onto your hands and cover an 11 x 17 inch sheet of white paper with hand prints of all colors. When the prints are dry, carefully place the sheet on the sticky side of the clear contact plastic. Place another sheet of clear plastic covering on the other side of the sheet. Smooth out any wrinkles, and cut off the excess, leaving a narrow edge of plastic.

A nice addition: Using a pen, a grandchild can write a short, special message to their grandparent on the inside of a napkin (e.g. share a "best memory"). Fold the napkin back up and put it out with the placemat. When the grandparent unfolds the napkin to put it in their lap, they'll find the "surprise" message.


Keepsake Bookmarks

Suggested Activity Timing: Before a Grandparents Day event.

Curriculum Connections: Art.

What You Need: Construction paper; markers or pencil crayons; scissors; hole punch; brightly colored yarn. Optional: small school photo or color photocopy of head shot of grandchild; glue.

Doing It:

Grandparents appreciate anything special a grandchild makes for them. A bookmark is a nice memento from a Grandparents Day event, and a useful item.

Cut a long rectangle from construction paper approximately 2 1/2 inches wide x 6 inches long. Punch a hole near the top of the bookmark and tie a piece of yarn through it as a decorative tassel. The yarn will hang out of the top of the book making it easier to find the exact page.

Decorate the bookmark with some colorful drawings and the grandchild's name. The grandchild can also glue a small school photo or color photocopy of their face onto the bookmark.


"Happy Grandparents Day" Photo Keepsake

Suggested Activity Timing: Before a Grandparents Day event.

Curriculum Connections: Art.

What You Need: Inexpensive, 4 x 6 inch picture frames from a dollar or craft store (IKEA also often has good deals); camera; film; large, brightly-colored "Happy Grandparents Day" sign. Optional -- items to decorate frames like noodles, sparkles, or other items from a craft store; glue.

Doing It:

Grandparents can never get enough photos of their grandchildren -- for displaying in their home or proudly showing to friends and neighbors. A special photo also makes a nice memento from a Grandparents Day event.

Purchase a bunch of inexpensive picture frames large enough to hold a 4 x 6 inch photo. If it's a plain frame, decorate it with glued-on noodles, sparkles, or other colorful little items from a craft store.

Take a photo of each child holding a big sign that says "Happy Grandparents Day" with the year. Each child then puts their photo into their frame to present to their grandparents.


School Year Keepsake

Suggested Activity Timing: Throughout the school year, to be given at the end of a school year.

Curriculum Connections: Language Arts.

What You Need: Pen/pencil; markers or pencil crayons; a folder (with pockets to hold memorabilia) or a spiral notebook.

Doing It:

Grandparents can be involved in their grandchildren's education on an ongoing basis if parents and teachers encourage children to keep a "grandparent folder" throughout the school year. This is especially good for long-distance grandparents. The folder becomes a keepsake of the entire year that grandparents can hold on to and then return to grandchildren when they're older so that they have a record of their school years.

It's easy to forget all the things that happen throughout a school year. Label a special "grandparent folder" (or you can use a spiral notebook) with a child's name, grade, and year. Then, each week or two, have a special "grandparent session" during which children make a drawing or jot down some notes for their grandparents. Each session can have a theme topic. For example: favorite subject; worst subject; nicest teacher; best friend; book enjoyed reading; funniest moment; most embarrassing moment; proudest moment; fondest memory; most challenging project; new things learned; most important lessons learned.

If you're using a folder, you can fill the pockets with achievement awards, graded papers, art projects, a class photo, the program from a school play or recital, etc.

Many children visit with grandparents over the summer holidays. That's the perfect time to give the folder to grandparents and explain its contents.


Classroom Family Quilt

Suggested Activity Timing: Before a Grandparents Day event or after; a variation can be done during a Grandparents Day event.

Curriculum Connections: Art; Language Arts.

What You Need: Construction paper; small school photo or photocopy of head shot of grandchild; photocopies of photos of other family members; magazines; glue; markers and/or pencil crayons; tape. Optional -- a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes of sticky-backed paper (or cut shapes from construction paper and use glue).

Doing It:

Memory is made like a quilt -- a scrap at a time, a moment at a time. A classroom "quilt" is a way to compare different families, a decoration that can be put up for a Grandparents Day event, and a source of pride for children after an event.

Start with some stories to get everyone in a quilting mood: The Patchwork Quilt by Valerie Flournoy; Luka's Quilt by Georgia Guback; The Boy and the Cloth of Dreams by Jenny Koralek; The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco; Selina and the Bear Paw Quilt by Barbara Smucker.

To make a classroom "quilt," each child gets a different colored sheet of construction paper. In the center, they glue a small school photo or a color photocopy of themselves (head shot). They can then decorate the rest of the sheet with things that represent their family: smaller photos of other family members; drawings; pictures cut from magazines; any mementoes of past family times and travels; symbols that represent key family events, activities, or values; and other words and images that evoke their family heritage.

When everyone is finished their "patch," tape all the "patches" together to make a "quilt" which can hang on the classroom wall. Talk about what's in each person's square, what makes each family unique, and the things all families share.

A variation you can do during a Grandparents Day event (especially appropriate for younger children): Give each grandparent/grandchild pair a sheet of construction paper and a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes of sticky-backed paper (or cut shapes from construction paper and use glue). Each pair can then create their own "patch" in whatever design they wish. Sign the sheet at the bottom and include the date. When everyone is finished, tape all the "patches" together to make a "quilt" which can hang on the wall as a keepsake of the event.


Keepsake Showcase

Suggested Activity Timing: Before a Grandparents Day event, or any time.

Curriculum Connections: Language Arts; Social Studies.

What You Need: Paper; pen/pencil; markers or pencil crayons.

Doing It:

Children often have a lot of pride in special items that have been passed down in their family. Even young children can appreciate the significance of a keepsake. There was one precocious little girl who told me, "My Grandma gave my Mom a very beautiful ring, and someday she's going to give it to me, and someday I'll give it to my daughter. That's the way you make history."

Start by sharing some of the storybooks about keepsakes suggested at the beginning of this section, like Something to Remember Me By by Susan Bosak, The Always Prayer Shawl by Sheldon Oberman, and This Is the Bird by George Shannon.

Then encourage children to share their own stories about keepsakes in their family. If they don't know the story behind a keepsake, have them ask their parents or grandparents. It's the story behind a keepsake that's especially important. Whenever a parent or grandparent gives a keepsake to a child, it's important to explain the story behind it, perhaps in a note given with the keepsake. Is it a ring your father gave to your mother? A quilt your great-grandmother made? Where did the item come from? Why is it important? Stories are what bring objects alive. That's the real power of a keepsake -- not necessarily what it is, but what it means in the context of your life story and family history.

Children can draw a picture of their special family keepsake and write the story behind it underneath. The sheets can be put on display as decoration for a Grandparents Day event. You can also have a special "family keepsake show and tell" day when everyone brings in their real keepsake.


Family Newsletter or Website

Suggested Activity Timing: Any time.

Curriculum Connections: Family Fun "Homework."

What You Need: A computer makes this activity much easier.

Doing It:

A parent or grandparent can take the lead in maintaining a family newsletter or website. For a free, easy-to-use template for a private family website, visit www.myfamily.com (see the website listing at the end of this kit).

A newsletter or website is a great way to encourage and build a connection between all generations. Everyone keeps up-to-date on the family news, and everyone gets the news at the same time. Some ideas for content:

  • Share happy events in your life, your children's, and your grandchildren's.

  • Use headlines that proudly proclaim young children's achievements: "Ben Hits Home Run" or "Sarah Loses First Tooth!"

  • Cover the results of whatever children are up to -- from the latest "toilet paper tube" bowling tournament to a Scrabble contest.

  • Encourage young children to write stories or draw pictures. Older children can write articles, perhaps surveying family members for their opinions about "hot" issues (like family meals, toys, recycling projects, etc.), or interviewing parents and grandparents to collect family stories.

  • You can have an "I remember when..." column in which you share reminiscences.

  • You can have an advice column -- "Ask Grandma."

  • You can include contests, jokes, and a "quote of the month."

  • Also include tidbits about family history or important dates in the family (e.g. September 20 is Janice's 4th birthday; June 25 would have been your great-grandparent's wedding anniversary).

Keep a copy of your printed newsletter for posterity or, if you're doing a website, do regular hardcopy printouts and store them for posterity.


Family History Museum

Suggested Activity Timing: Any time.

Curriculum Connections: Social Studies; Family Fun "Homework."

What You Need: Family keepsakes and mementoes; shallow, decorated box; small pieces of paper; pen/pencil. Optional -- notebook.

Doing It:

Children can do this activity in the classroom, or as a family activity at home.

Create a mini-museum of keepsakes and other objects that represent your family history. You can even do a theme, like "Basketball Rules in This Family" or "Our Chinese Heritage." Start by collecting objects, photos, newspaper clippings, family documents, ticket stubs from special events, and other important mementoes. To protect originals, photocopy papers or photos that are precious and use the photocopies for the museum.

Set up your mini-museum on a table with a nice cloth draped over it or in a shallow, decorated box. Arrange items attractively and in a logical order. Use small pieces of paper to label each object with a brief description of what it is, where it came from, and/or why it's important.

Take your family or classmates on a guided tour of your mini-museum. You can even make a catalog of the items to accompany the museum and as a permanent record.


Family Time Capsule

Suggested Activity Timing: Any time.

Curriculum Connections: Family Fun "Homework."

What You Need: A collection of items that represent your family in the present; a container with a good seal, or specially-designed time capsule.

Doing It:

A time capsule is a sealed container that holds items to give people in the future a record of a particular time period. It's like sending a message into the future.

A huge time capsule was placed under the administration building of what was then Oglethorpe College in Atlanta, GA, in 1940. It's not to be opened until 8113! It contains microfilms, miniature models, and films dealing with all aspects of life at the time. The vault's location has been recorded in libraries, universities, and temples across the world so that everyone knows it's there and when to open it.

Parents, grandparents, and children (even if they live far away from each other) can collect items to put into their own family time capsule. You can do a time capsule that your family can open at a reunion in the future to share old memories, or a time capsule for your great-great-great-grandchildren to open and find out all about you. There are time capsule societies you can contact (search on the Internet or go to the library) that can give you information and advice on doing a time capsule to be opened many years from now -- 50, 100, or even 1,000 years from today. You can even register your time capsule so that there will be a record of it.

In general, collect personal items like family photos, school artwork, greeting cards, letters, clothing, family stories, even some favorite music (with a note about why you like the music or the memories it evokes). You can also clip out current articles from magazines and newspapers, include clothing catalogs with the latest fashions, current postage stamps, and make a list of popular movies, celebrities, and expressions. Don't use paper clips or staples because they'll rust on your materials.

If you plan to store your time capsule for a long, long time, keep in mind that newspapers are often highly acidic and can quickly deteriorate (as well as contribute to the decay of other items in your time capsule). To prevent this, photocopy the newspaper article onto archival quality paper.

Make some video or audio recordings and include those. Talk about yourself and what's happening in your life. Again, if you're going to store your capsule for a long, long time, keep in mind that magnetic tapes, for example, when stored at room temperature are only designed to last for 25 to 30 years.

Put everything into a sealed storage container (you can purchase specially-designed time capsules) with the current date. Set a date to open the time capsule some time in the future. For example, if the purpose of the time capsule is to evoke memories for your present family, a date of five to ten years is nice because it's long enough but not too long. Mark the container, "Do not open until...". Store it in a safe place. Now everyone has something to look forward to! Your family can plan to get together for a big party to open the time capsule.

From Grandparents Day Activity Kit by Susan V. Bosak ©2001, www.somethingtoremembermeby.org

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