Grandparents, Tell Your Personal Story: I Wish I Would Have Asked


In a funny way, I feel I know as much about Baskin Robbins’ ice cream as I know about my grandmother.

I loved her completely and have wished a thousand times that I knew much more about her life, and especially, about how she felt. I loved her the way grandchildren often love their grandparents. Without question. Now all these years later, I wish I’d asked more. And because I am a grandmother now, I’d like to write down my own story.

All these years I’ve had so many questions about her — questions she’s not alive to answer. What did she think of the path she’d chosen? What were her parents like? And her siblings, people I never got to know? What is it she would have liked to tell us about her life?

English wasn’t her first language. Rumanian was. And, of course, she spoke Yiddish.  But still. I wish she’d written it all down.

So many of us feel that way. We want to leave our families with the stories of our lives. But how? How do we write them down?

We all have stories to tell, especially now that we’re not young anymore, and we’ve actually lived rich real lives, full of problems, and memories, of relatives, of happiness and of stories, so many stories.

There are so many ways of telling the same story. The teller is always in charge. There are no rules for how good stories happen.

Start your story any way you want.

Beginnings are absolutely everywhere. Even the great storytellers tell us that where we begin doesn’t matter at all.

Sometimes it helps to consider the questions that you yourself wish you knew.

Questions about what really happened, and how you felt when it did.

Maybe start with your own childhood.

What do you remember from when you were young? Who were your neighbors? What did you do with your childhood friends?

My childhood took place in a house on 43 Holbrook Street, a long straight street with sidewalks and Peck school, a public grammar school, across the street.  I can still see my neighbors and hear their voices. My father used to say this about Ida Gordon who lived next door and always knew everything that was going on: “If I sneeze,” he said, “Ida says gesundheit.”

Some people like to include conversations.

“What My Grandmother Told Me” might be a good prompt to use if that’s the approach that works for you, and you know. You can describe what she looked like, how she sounded, what foods she liked to cook, who her friends were. Details are always what makes a story, but the choices we make are always up to us.

What makes your story different from other people’s?

The great master storyteller Isaac Bashevis Singer said, “The greatness of art is not to find what is common but what is unique.” So much of the answer depends on you. Some of us like to describe what we see: what a room looks like, or a home. How people sound. What they walk like.

Our stories can be about anything.

Of what we did right, and what we did wrong. Of what we learned, and what we know, and how we lived, and What Happened. What Really Happened.

How we write doesn’t much matter either.

I use a pen and a notebook (and spend a lot of time finding the right pen, finding the right paper). Most of my friends write their stories on the computer.

Whatever way the story happens, it’s yours to tell.

And meanwhile, here’s a poem about how to begin.

A question people often ask:
where does a story begin.
Anywhere is the answer
We all know that.
A story can begin on a park bench
in a city familiar or unfamiliar
deep in the woods
or with the description
of a relative or someone entirely
fictitious, someone very tall.
A story can begin with
a stranger I think he is a dogwalker
ageless man wearing bright red glasses.
who said yesterday to me:
Would you mind
telling me what it is you do?
Or with these words, always good:
This is a story I want to tell to you.

Click HERE to read Esther’s personal story.

Educators, click HERE for a guide to using this experience in intergenerational programs.

Esther Cohen teaches writing Good Stories. She writes a poem a day at

Photographs courtesy of Pexels