Seniors spend quarantine putting memories on paper

Holly Stein, photographed by Howard Stein.

During quarantine, people have had a lot more free time, and a lot more time to think.

Some members of Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, in Bethesda, have used this as an opportunity to record their memories for younger members of their family to read in a book called “Grandparents Memory Book for Jewish Families.”

The book, created by the Conservative congregation’s sisterhood, is filled with prompts for the writer to answer, from family history to holiday traditions to the Holocaust. In includes statements such as: “I was born in…” and “My Hebrew name is…”

The sisterhood first published the memory books in 2006. There have been a few more editions, most recently for people to fill in during quarantine.

Bethesda resident Patricia Danoff was on the committee that wrote the book. She says she bought a copy many years ago, but didn’t start filling it out until she was stuck at home during the pandemic with time to spare and mortality staring her in the face.

“The onset of the virus and thousands of sudden deaths motivated me to begin documenting the major events in my life, my values, and how being a Jew-by-choice shaped who I became and who I am in so many ways,” she says. “The thought that I might die without leaving a written legacy was something I could not accept.”

Like Danoff, congregant Holly Stein bought an earlier version of the book. Over the years she has written in it, but she’s been inspired to write in it more during quarantine.

“You’re not running and doing all the things that you’re normally doing, so it really just gave me a chance to say life has continued and I think I need to add to the book,” the Bethesda resident says.

Having extra time is one motivation for filling out the book. But the pandemic has also made some people take stock of their own lives, which made it seem imperative for them to record their memories.

Hanna Gutmann, a Bethesda resident and Congregation Beth El member, had been giving the memory book to friends, but had never bought a copy for herself or her husband. Then the lockdown came.

“When the pandemic hit, there’s two things we did, because it really scared me and it still scares me. Number one was to contact a lawyer and we finally got our will and trust together. And the second thing is to get the grandparents books so that if we don’t make it through, at least there’ll be something for the kids to look back on, God willing.”

Gutmann never knew her grandparents and had to do a lot of research on her family history. She didn’t want her children and grandchildren to have to search for information in the same was. That’s part of why she filled out the memory book.

“I thought I needed to leave something, in case future generations want to know something. And it gives me the chance to not only talk about myself, but also my parents and what little I know about my grandparents.”

Congregant Leah Bradley, of Olney, bought copies for several family members and one for herself. She uses hers to prompt conversations between her children and their grandparents.

“It’s a great time to learn more about family history when we have more time on our hands,” she says.

Bradley is also the executive director of Empowering the Ages, which focuses on intergenerational engagement. She says sharing memories is very important for seniors, especially now.

“Right now, with COVID and the loneliness and the isolation that many people feel, especially older adults, to know that family members care to hear their story, that someone wants to listen and someone is valuing them, is really, really important.”





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