YMCA course teaches how to preserve family history

YMCA course teaches how to preserve family history

SMITHFIELD - Memories are so elusive, any new way to preserve them always seems welcome.

Jennifer Shaker, a town resident and mother of three, has come up with a new way to preserve life's memories by creating what she calls "memory lifebooks" that tell the life story and family history of an individual, such as a dearly beloved grandparent, complete with words and pictures.

Starting May 8, Shaker will present at the Smithfield YMCA an eight-week course where she will teach people how to make memory lifebooks, guiding those who want to create their own autobiographies or biographies of their loved ones.

Shaker will offer two free information sessions about the program at the YMCA on Wednesday, May 1, at 10 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.

"Studies show that the single most important thing you can do for your child's well-being is to have a strong family narrative," she says during an interview at her Smithfield home. The way that memory lifebooks can strengthen a family is a key selling point for Shaker.

"Here I am, raising three children, and I wanted to show them how different it was" for their ancestors, Shaker said. She is especially close to her own 91-year-old grandmother, Dorothea Mary Thurber Palmisciano, her mother's mother, who was born and raised in Smithfield. "She's definitely my role model," Shaker says. "She is an extremely generous person and she always put her family first and I try to follow that."

Shaker began this work in 2010 when, as a tribute to her grandmother, she audio-recorded the older woman's life story and turned it into a book, "Dorothea." It's a solid volume that to a layman's eye looks as professionally made as any commercially published, with attractive graphics and design work. The book tells, in Dorothea's own transcribed words, her life story, amply illustrated with old-time black and white pictures as well as more modern color ones. It includes an extensive family tree that Shaker researched, from Dorothea's great-grandparents to her great-grandchildren.

The memory lifebooks can be published hard-cover, soft-cover or iPad-mounted. In the latter case, the push of a button triggers an audio recording of the book's subject reading the text scrolling along in front of you. The latest technology, which also allows you to make as many copies as you want, means it is "a wonderful time to be involved in this," Shaker pointed out.

Once she made a memory lifebook for one grandmother, of course, Jennifer had to make one for her second grandmother, 94-year-old Bella Octeau, her father's mom, titled "Bella." Then she went ahead to make a lifebook for herself, to make sure she fully understood the process. It was when friends and family members began asking her to make them lifebooks, too, that she started her own business this year, Memory Lane Lifebooks.

The work requires considerable editing skills, knowing what photos would look good in the book and knowing how to use words to best tell the story of a person's life, its ups and downs. As well as the experience, Shaker has the credentials. She holds a bachelor's degree in fine arts and a master's in library sciences from the University of Rhode Island.

She also holds a certificate in guided autobiography from the Birren Center for Autobiographical Studies at the University of Southern California, after completing a six-week online course. She is a member of the local chapter, based in Franklin, Mass., of the worldwide Association of Personal Historians.

Shaker explains that she can help people in two ways: she can audio-record them telling their stories, transcribe the copy and design a book for them; or, if someone wants to write his own story, Shaker said, she will work with them one-on-one to help create the book.

"It's a wonderfully validating experience," Shaker says of compiling a lifebook. One of her clients is the mother of a cancer survivor in his 20s, an only child who was just 17 years old when diagnosed, with the story told from both the mother's and son's points of view. "There is nothing more powerful than sharing your story with people," Jennifer said.

At the YMCA, Shauna Lewis, senior program director, said she welcomes Shaker's program because it is unique and completely different from anything else the Y now offers. "It's a great opportunity," she said, for the agency to reach a wide range of people who may not know the YMCA now. It appeals to all ages, from senior citizens to young parents, Lewis noted, and it can be a "cathartic" exercise, contributing to the Y's health and wellness goals.

Shaker, 42, is married to Steven Shaker and has lived in Smithfield most of her life. She is the mother of two teen sons and a 12-year-old daughter, Violet, who she notes can now read stories about her own great-grandmothers. Her classes at the YMCA will run Wednesdays from May 8 through June 26, two-hours each, at a cost of $175 for members, $200 non-members.

Call the YMCA at 401-949-2622.