February 10, 2004 
Reflecting on a lifetime of memories 

Robin Edgar begins her reminiscence workshops by asking participants to tell stories from their pasts. Often, silence follows. People are shy about speaking first. But Edgar gently prods, as she did at a recent workshop with residents of The Laurels in the Village of Carolina Place, an assisted-living center in Pineville. Think of a smell that brings back memories, she says. A certain food. Coffee. Cod liver oil.

In a moment, Dorie Neff, 86, has one. Chili sauce, she says. The season is fall, in Buffalo, New York. Every autumn, her mother cooked and canned the sauce. She kept the windows open, so the pungent smell blanketed the neighborhood.
Once Neff breaks the ice, others offer stories -- about playing football at recess, making soap, pumping water. Ladora Vaughn, 81, recalls the smell of baked ham wafting from her house as she walked home from church, holding her dad's hand.

Before long, people are talking at once. This is the way it often goes, Edgar says. At first, they don't know where to begin. Then you can't stop them.
Often, people tell their life stories to preserve family history for descendants. But reminiscing also helps people work through grief and loss and reflect on the meaning of their lives. "They realize they have made an impact and had a good life," she says.

Edgar recently began offering reminiscence workshops to groups in Charlotte after moving from Ohio. A writer and storyteller, she says she discovered the value of reminiscing almost accidentally. In developing a "Writing Your Life Story" course, she decided to include examples of her own stories, especially memories of her mother, who had died of cancer a few years earlier. As Edgar recalled hours spent watching her mother cook or sew, she realized she'd never taken time to grieve following her death. Those memories helped her both grieve over and celebrate her mother.

Edgar uses those recollections, plus tips for writing your own story, in her book, "In My Mother's Kitchen: An Introduction to the Healing Power of Reminiscence," ($11.95, Tree House Enterprises).