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Saturday, 01 January 2000

The Treasure Chest: Creating a Family Memory Book

Written by  Shari Davis

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The Treasure Chest: Creating a Family Memory Book

I always heard little snippets of stories from my mom -- sharing a bed with Aunt Sadie, who lived with them until marriage, the time her fearless brother Harvey got caught clinging to the back of a moving trolley car, memories of her father bringing home autographs of celebrities who bought fabric from him at Lord and Taylor's Department Store...

I always enjoyed listening to Mom's recollections of growing up in Brooklyn. Her life was fairly ordinary, yet as an adult I appreciated how they shed light on the particularities of the generation and place where she came of age. I suspected my own children would enjoy hearing her stories too.

I felt my own children would be more interested in Grandma's response if they came up with the questions and they created the book.

During the past few years my parents and I have lived on different coasts. When Mom comes to visit she shuttles between her seven grandchildren. I often think, "This visit I'll take out the tape recorder and finally record those stories," but during our hectic visits we never seem to find the time. When her visit is over I regret that once again I failed to preserve her stories. So I decided to try a different approach.

Mom has no grandchildren to occupy her attention in Florida, where she lives. Why not ask her to take some time during a quiet evening and record, at her own pace, her stories on paper. She enthusiastically agreed.

Personal Stories Build the Series

There are many "Grandparent Books" which can be bought in bookstores containing relevant questions and space for replies. But since I wanted to include my children in this long-distance, intergenerational dialogue I decided we would create our own memory book for Grandma.

I felt my own children would be more interested in Grandma's response if they came up with the questions and they created the book. Moreover, I felt my mom would appreciate the participation of her grandchildren

I decided to focus on a segment of her life -- from childhood through her marriage to my father when she was nineteen. I'd leave her more complicated adult years for the next volume.

My children and I typed a list of questions into the computer. I helped them put the questions into the right form, ensured there was continuity and added additional questions, as needed, so we could get a complete picture of her young years.

Then I started thinking about the other grandparents on my side of the family. Since my parents are divorced there are four of them. I began to remember my stepfather's stories about growing up amidst his five Italian aunts in the Bronx, each of whom cooked better than the next. "OK," I thought, "Volume II is Boyhood in the Bronx."

Then I recalled my stepmother growing exuberant at a car museum in Los Angeles when she saw the classic 1950's Cadillac. She went into that fuzzy zone of nostalgia as she recalled her family outings in a similar car in the Long Island suburbs of her childhood.

I considered my father, growing up in Brooklyn too, but with parents who were politically active and took him to picket for workers' rights. I began to envision four volumes of these Coming of Age in New York Tales, each grandparent contributing a different perspective on the same decade and same city. Between the four of them we'd get a marvelously diverse picture of growing up in New York in the 40's and 50's!

The WholeFamily in on the Act!

We got to work on the books. My sons, ages 8 and 11 produced the pages, since they enjoy creating computer graphics. They typed in the questions and decorated the pages with fancy borders and clip art. We allowed one page for one or two questions and printed out one for each grandparent.

We placed the pages in a three ring binder. We made one for each grandparent. We decorated the covers together. (I decided to use a binder so pages can be added, or easily removed for photocopying. I envisioned copies being made for each of my siblings!) We decorated the binders, titled each book, wrote the grandparent's name on it, and sent them off. For special occasions we can send new pages, with new questions, and over time they can record the next chapters in their continuing life story.

Making A Memory Book of Your Own


  1. A three ring binder, 1/2" width -- preferably a binder with cardboard covers (which will hold glue better)
  2. A piece of fabric large enough to cover the binder (include a 1" border all around.) Chose a meaningful pattern or use fabric from something in your house that holds memories, like an old dress or tablecloth.
  3. White glue
  4. Stapler
  5. Hot glue gun
  6. Roll of colored cloth tape
  7. Central images for cover of your design.
    Some ideas:
    • Embossing metal (found at craft supply store). Draw an image on a piece of paper, tape the paper onto the metal and trace over the image with a pencil to "emboss" the soft metal. (While embossing place metal on a magazine for padding.) If desired, color metal with permanent markers such as Sharpees.
    • A color photocopy of a family portrait, a picture of a family memory drawn by a child, a collage of greeting cards received on special occasions, copies of family letters, etc. laminated and glued on.
    • A fabric collage or applique. Note: Some photocopy shops (and computer programs) can create an "iron-on" image of a photo or drawing which can be transferred to a piece of fabric.


  1. Open up the binder and place it on the fabric. Trace around the binder with a pencil, leaving a ? " border. Cut the fabric out.
  2. Apply a thin coat of white glue to the front and back cover of the binder. Use a piece of cardboard to smear it evenly over the binder.
  3. Lay the binder on the fabric, turn over and carefully smooth the fabric, easing out the lumps or streaks of glue under the surface.
  4. Warm up the hot glue gun (or use more white glue) and apply glue to the edge of the fabric extending beyond the binder's edge. Fold over the fabric to the inside cover of the binder. You'll need to make a small cut near the center rings of the binder so the fabric can be neatly folded. Do this on the top and bottom of the binder.
  5. Measure a strip of colored cloth tape so it extends from the center rings to the end of the binder. Apply tape around all the edges of the binder to secure the fabric and make a neat edge.
  6. Create a central design for the cover. See ideas above, under "materials." Be sure to give the book a title, i.e. Girlhood Memories and put the grandparent's name on it.
  7. To make the inside pages, sit with your children and create a list of questions they would like to ask. Here are some questions to consider once you've written your own:
    • What are some of your earliest childhood memories?
    • What games did you play when you were a child?
    • What kind of toys did you play with? Who made them?
    • Who were your most important friends?
    • Where in your neighborhood did you play?
    • Describe your neighborhood.
    • Describe you apartment/house.
    • Did you live with or near other relatives? Which relatives were most important to you and why?
    • Tell me about your parents.
    • Describe some special family days.
    • Tell me about a special trip or outing.
    • Tell me about your relationship with your brothers/sisters.
    • Tell me about some important possessions you had as a child.
    • How did you celebrate holidays and/or birthdays when you were growing up?
    • What foods did your parents like to cook?
    • What did you do for fun in the evenings before there was television?
    • Tell me about your responsibilities at home.
    • Can you remember your favorite songs or music?
    • Who were your heroes and why?
    • What schools did you go to and when did you graduate? Describe some memorable experiences at school.
    • Tell me about your best and worst teacher.
    • Describe some of the technological changes you have witnessed over the years.
    • How has the neighborhood you grew up in changed over the years? Do you remember any community celebrations or traditions?
    • What neighborhood stores, parks or other places were important to you?
    • Tell me about an adventure you had as a child and as a teenager.
    • What was the worst thing that happened to you as you were growing up? How did you overcome this adversity?
    • Tell me about something you accomplished as a child or teenager.
    • What advice or training did your parents or grandparents give you that you remember best?
    • Tell me about one of your happiest moments when you were growing up.
For the past fifteen years Shari Davis has been developing multi-cultural art programs, exhibits and educational resources that explore family and community history and cultural identity.

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Last modified on Thursday, 16 June 2011 15:00
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1 Comment

  • Comment Link Friday, 19 April 2013 02:28 posted by Toby Klein Greenwald

    Shari, this is even more meaningful to me now than when I first read it. Then I was a parent; now I'm a grandparent! Thanks!

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Shari Davis

Shari Davis

Shari Davis has developed multi-cultural art programs, exhibits and educational resources that explore family and community history and cultural identity. As co-founder of Creative Ways she has brought these programs to dozens of schools and museums. She has coordinated family education programs at numerous museums and has expertise in intergenerational learning. She is co-author of the book Nourishing the Heart: A Guide to Intergenerational Art Programs in the Schools.

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