We often talk about leaving a legacy, and the opportunity that a memoir provides to leave something of value to family and even to the world.
My book, Life is a Story: How to write your memoir, talks about creating your ‘greatest gift’.
Sometimes one of my LifeStoryWriting clients will ask how their story can possibly make a difference in the broader sense. ‘How can I hope to leave my mark to more than just a small handful of people? I am not famous, not a published author. Who would want to hear from me?’
Yet it happens. Miraculously and magically it happens. Especially in the technological age. The playing field for information in the age of the internet is now much more level – it means a small voice can now be heard.
Here is an example.
In 1966 a Scottish geriatric nurse penned a poem which has since become an international sensation. It was originally called Look Closer, and was a plea from an elderly patient to her nurses.
The old lady was not well-known, and it was felt that among her meagre possessions there was nothing of any value. That is, until the nurse, Phyllis McCormack of Montrose (near Dundee) came to the scene with this beautifully eloquent poem.
It urges the carer to see beyond the frail and confused old person before them and to consider the life they’ve lived, full of hopes and dreams, triumphs and tragedies.
The nurses were so impressed that they made copies and gave one to every carer in the hospital.
Her words have now travelled to many continents, and been reproduced in a host of ways, from cards to variations on the story and the poem, most notably a version supposedly emanating from Australia called “The Cranky Old Man” poem.
The word ‘crabby’ in the poem was originally ‘crabbit’, Scottish for grumpy. Here is this simple poem – in its original form – winging across the internet which demonstrates the power of words and how they touch hearts. It shows how our footprints are left in the sand, to live on.
What do you see nurses, what do you see?
What are you thinking when you’re looking at me?
A crabby old woman, not very wise,
Uncertain of habit, with faraway eyes?
Who dribbles her food and makes no reply
When you say in a loud voice, ‘I do wish you’d try!’
Who seems not to notice the things that you do,
And forever is losing a stocking or shoe …
Who, resisting or not, let’s you do as you will,
With bathing and feeding, the long day to fill …
Is that what you’re thinking? Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes nurse; you’re not looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am as I sit here so still,
As I do at your bidding, as I eat at your will.
I’m a small child of ten … with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters, who love one another.
A young girl of sixteen with wings on her feet,
Dreaming that soon now a lover she’ll meet.
A bride soon at twenty – my heart gives a leap,
Remembering the vows that I promised to keep.
At twenty-five now, I have young of my own,
Who need me to guide, and secure a happy home.
A woman of thirty, my young now grown fast,
Bound to each other with ties that should last.
At forty, my young sons have grown and are gone,
But my man’s beside me to see I don’t mourn.
At fifty once more, babies play round my knee,
Again we know children, my loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me, my husband is dead;
I look at the future, I shudder with dread.
For my young are all rearing young of their own,
And I think of the years and the love that I’ve known.
I’m now an old woman … and nature is cruel;
‘Tis jest to make old age look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles, grace and vigour depart,
There is now a stone where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass a young girl still dwells,
And now and again my battered heart swells.
I remember the joys; I remember the pain,
And I’m loving and living life over again.
I think of the years … all too few, gone too fast,
And accept the stark fact that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, nurses, open and see,
Not a crabby old woman. Look closer, see ME!
I hope you found this as touching and inspirational as I did.
Not having the honour of knowing the ageing Scottish lady,
I have inserted a photo of my dear 94 year-old mother,
Iris Koehler (a living treasure).
Mark Koehler, founder LifeStoryWriting