MEMORY BOX BLOG – ARTICLE #1
Introducing Memory Box.
This new venture is deeply meaningful and personal
I couldn’t be more excited about the launch of Memory Box. It’s the culmination of almost two years of research, planning and preparation. It’s a deeply meaningful, purposeful service through which I aim to help people capture and share their life stories.
At Memory Box, we create full-length biographical documentaries, in podcast and film, of everyday people, capturing the lives, stories and legacies of the people our clients love most. We can help to celebrate milestones, commemorate relationships, record families as they grow, showcase family businesses or look back on entire lives. I’ve built a team of experienced documentary filmmakers, movie editors, journalists, podcast producers, communications professionals, and expert project managers who work together to produce truly beautiful films and podcasts that honour their subjects’ stories and legacies.
An Idea Takes Root
The idea for Memory Box had started to develop as my national PR firm (Broad Reach Communications) built up a growing executive profiling practice where we helped share the untold stories of Canadian CEOs and their companies to strengthen their corporate brands, showcase their successes, and in some cases drive sales. Some were exclusively focused on business growth, successes or market leadership positioning. Others, surprisingly, were very personal. We work hard to get all of them right to position each individual and their organization in the way they want to be seen, to influence the audiences they want to, and to achieve their business goals and objectives. And its been so satisfying and rewarding to do so.
A Deeply Personal Executive Profile
Just one example is Gillian Stein, CEO of Henry’s, a fourth-generation business. We helped craft her LinkedIn profile to showcase her as the incredible retail industry leader she is. We then worked with her to share stories on LinkedIn about her strategic decisions as CEO during COVID and about how her family’s business kept growing stronger through multiple generations. The most resonant story we worked on with Gillian revealed that just like her father, and likely her grandfather, she lives with bipolar disorder. She would be the first CEO in Canada to share publicly that she had bipolar disorder, and we knew we had to celebrate her bravery and tell the story in the right way. We secured an incredible feature story in the Financial Post Magazine, and then also in the Ivey Business Journal, about how living with bipolar disorder is part of why Gillian has built the highest levels of governance in the retail industry into Henry’s operations. As a result of our work with Gillian, she was named one of 2022’s Top 25 Women of Influence.
That, along with a few other things I’ll talk about below, got me thinking about how everyone has a story to tell. We usually share our stories verbally, not in a meaningful, lasting way that carries on into future generations.
Several important events and developments in my life seemed to converge over the last year or two, which spurred me to dive into this long-simmering idea.
One is my deep wish that I had video footage of my grandparents. How wonderful it would be to see them again, to hear their voices, to remember how they laughed wholeheartedly or how they smiled lovingly at us as children. To understand who they truly were, which was not something that interested me or that I thought was important when I was a child. To introduce them to my kids, who never got the chance to meet them at all.
I’ve been keeping what I’ve always called “memory boxes” for my kids for years, in which I’ve saved meaningful childhood toys and clothing, heartwarming cards they’ve given me, school and artwork and more. I’m hoping to set them on the path to preserving their own legacies over time. The things in these boxes will surely bring back all kinds of cherished memories one day, not just for them but for their own children and grandchildren.
Another event that helped bring this idea to life is seeing my parents get older—they’re in their eighties now. I feel very lucky that they’re still around, and in the last few years (particularly during COVID) I started making a point of asking them about their past. They’ve been telling me all kinds of new stories that I’d never heard. I’m also surrounded by friends who have aging parents and grandparents and are looking for ways to capture all of their stories, mostly in written form, so they can be remembered for generations to come. As I talked to friends and acquaintances during my research, everyone’s eyes lit up when I mentioned this idea, because they hadn’t heard of a service that would capture the lives of their loved ones like this.
And frankly I’m thinking about my own mortality. Someone I know, who was my age, died quite suddenly last year, which is heartbreaking and scary. I’ve been showing (okay, maybe forcing) my kids to look at my old photo albums from before they were born, and I’ve been going through all my old belongings and reaching out to all kinds of people from my past to reconnect. And it made me start thinking about how I would be remembered if I were to die suddenly. What would happen to all my stories?
Stories Are Key
This is not just about tracing family trees or listing who did what when; it’s truly about honouring a person’s legacy, having them recount the stories, the emotions, the events—big and small, in their own words—that shaped their life and are most important to them. It gives future generations something to hold onto and allows them to peer into the lives of their ancestors so that they can better understand where and who they come from.
Through stories, we can see our past in a new light, especially as we age. I aim to give families the chance to get to know each other better. When a celebrity dies, there’s usually lots of available footage to draw from to create a beautiful montage of their life and their achievements. But most of us don’t have our lives captured or documented in much detail (beyond the multitude of photos and short video clips that live on our phones and are often forgotten), and certainly not in a professional, compelling way. In a safe and caring environment with Memory Box, people get the chance to share their own stories—a process that can be immensely rewarding and joyful, as well as therapeutic and even cathartic—with the people who matter most.
Documenting Families, Businesses, Events and More
As I explored this idea, it grew. I realized how much value there is in capturing people’s stories when they’re still young and vibrant—what a beautiful gift for themselves and their family, even if they live for decades more.
I knew Memory Box could go way beyond remembering people after their deaths. Parents these days have thousands of video clips of their kids on their phones—wouldn’t it be great to create a full documentary of a family at a point in time, and even to update it as time goes on, showing their children and pets as they change and grow? How about documenting the story of a family business as it grew from the ground up or was passed down through generations? Anniversaries, bar and bat mitzvahs, retirements, graduations—so many important, meaningful events happen in our lives… and they usually live only in our memories or hidden among thousands of other photos on our phones. My goal is not to freeze events in time, but to help people tell the stories that lead up to those events over the course of years or decades.
With Memory Box, I’m setting out to help people create a lasting record that will live on, that people can enjoy again and again and keep those memories alive.
A New Entrepreneurial Challenge
Why am I doing this now? I already run a PR agency… why do I need to do something new?
Simply put: I thrive on starting new things, managing many moving parts and challenging myself with ambitious and sometimes scary challenges. When I launched Broad Reach, all I needed was a laptop. For Memory Box, I needed to build a crew. I needed to call on all my business knowledge and schooling to build a strategy, to do market research, to learn how to serve this market. I had to figure out how to position this new idea in the market, and how to make it compelling and meaningful to the right people. I’m putting systems and structures in place to make the whole process a great experience, and also efficient. I love and am good at what I do at Broad Reach; this takes so many of the skills I have honed for decades to a whole new level, and allows me to make a real, lasting impact on people’s lives and in the world. What could be better?
This new challenge is also purely for me.
When I launched Broad Reach, a major goal was to support my family financially as my then husband was working in a start-up. Yes, I was starting a business, but I stuck strictly to my comfort zone—public relations. I played it really safe so I could pay our bills, buy our house, and renovate it twice—I took as few risks as possible. I grew it into a successful business in its own right, but that’s how it began. Now that I’ve been on my own for almost three years, I feel the need to start something new again, to be creative and give birth to something new that is heartfelt and impactful.
As I evolve into the next chapters of my life, I look forward to the combination of the important work we do at Broad Reach and this new type of storytelling at Memory Box that will be meaningful to so many people, including me, in all kinds of new ways.
It’s something I’m truly proud of, and its my hope that it will bring great meaning and joy to many.
I’ll be back here every two weeks or so with a new blog post, sharing thoughts, information and research in areas of family, legacy, storytelling and more.
The lost art of family storytelling
Family storytelling is becoming a bit of a lost art. When I was a kid, and certainly when my parents and grandparents were young, telling stories was just a natural, regular part of family life. People had to make their own fun, so they relished any opportunity to hear stories from previous generations—perhaps gathering around grandpa’s chair while he spoke about his time in the war, or peeling potatoes with grandma while she waxed nostalgic about what she thought were her rebellious teenage years.
Today, we have seemingly infinite options for entertainment and distraction. I worry that with so much of everyone’s attention and time being occupied, we’re missing out the storytelling that was so much a part of previous generations’ existence. Life goes by so quickly. Before we know it, my kids will be grown and busy with their own adult lives.
So it’s incredibly important to seize the opportunity now to tell our kids about where and who they come from, to make sure every family’s legacy carries on to future generations.
Embracing busy lives, but not at the expense of personal connections
Don’t get me wrong: I love all the entertainment options we have at our fingertips, and my kids and I take full advantage of them. I’m all for a guilty Netflix binge or a long walk with a funny or enlightening podcast in my ears, and my kids and I really enjoy snuggling on the couch in front of a good movie.
I also love that my kids have so many interests and hobbies—it makes for a busy life but it means they get exercise, they socialize, and they’re developing into wonderfully well-rounded people. I have lots of positive things to say about our modern world and all the opportunities it affords my kids and me, and everyone else in our community.
But it often means our lives are more about logistics than anything else. Parents race from work to drive their kids to activities, maybe grabbing a drive-thru dinner on the way. When everyone gets home, we’re exhausted, but we still have to attend to homework and showers and whatever else is on our plates.
What can so easily get lost in all that is the idea of being intentional with our relationships, of making thoughtful choices to help kids learn from us and our history.
Why family stories are important
Hearing about previous generations and learning my family’s history was how I learned to make meaning of the world I lived in. It taught me who I was and gave me context for my place in the world.
Hearing your parents’ and grandparents’ stories can also help you understand where your best traits come from. There’s evidence that someone’s experiences and environment can change how their body reads a DNA sequence, and those changes can be literally passed down the family tree. Are you strong and resilient? That could well be a product of the strength and resilience your great-grandmother developed through tough times. Knowing her story could help you lean into and embrace those traits.
In the same vein, learning about what might be driving subsequent generations’ strengths and weaknesses can help you better understand other family members, perhaps strengthening your relationships with siblings, aunts and uncles or other extended family members.
Even more important, kids need to hear about the mistakes their parents and grandparents made. As a family and as a society, we can learn from those who came before us and hopefully not repeat their missteps. The more we can share what others have learned, the better equipped the next generations will be to navigate change and shape the world into a better place.
Finding commonality through storytelling
Our country is special because of its tremendous diversity and the millions of stories that make up our collective history. And we’re also special because of what we share.
I started Memory Box out of a desire to help families preserve their stories and legacies, and we do this one family at a time, creating beautiful, lasting mementoes in the form of documentary-style family videos or podcasts. But what’s also been fascinating to me is to see the common threads woven through different families’ histories. I’ve met and spoken with people across the country, and so many of them share similar dreams for themselves or perspectives on life.
If everyone had a stronger appreciation of their past and was able to share those stories with others—even just among friends over coffee, say—I think we’d all be amazed at the commonalities we’d uncover.
Bringing generations together
At every chance I get, I encourage my mother to tell my kids about her youth. Sometimes I have to give her prompts, and that’s okay—I’m lucky that I have heard these stories before so I can pick out the best ones.
“Mom,” I’ll say, “tell Dylan and Thea about the time you squirted a hot pepper into your eye by accident when you were in a street fight as a kid.”
That kind of teaser makes my kids’ eyes shoot wide open. “What?!”
My mom grew up in an immigrant family in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood near the stockyards (which today is a bustling area with a Home Depot and a PetSmart, among other shops, but back then held actual stockyards where animals were bought and sold). Everyone who lived nearby was European, and they all had these great big vegetable gardens. For fun, the kids would sometimes sneak into those gardens to steal “ammo” that they would throw at other kids—pure childhood fun. And indeed, one time, my mother grabbed what she thought was a tomato, getting ready to lob it at some unsuspecting food-fight participant, but it turned out to be a hot pepper and she somehow squirted it right into her own eye. She had to rush home to wash it out.
When my kids heard that one, they laughed and cringed, sympathizing with their Baba (grandmother in Macedonian) and fully appreciating how easily such a thing might happen. Stories about people their own age, even if it was seventy years earlier, really resonate with them and help them develop a deeper understanding of one another.
Changing their view of “old people”
Lots of kids see their grandparents simply as old people. (My kids see me that way too and remind me of it daily!) That’s natural—they are old people. But they weren’t always! Encouraging grandparents to talk about their youth can really bring them to life for younger generations and turn them into whole human beings in their grandkids’ eyes.
I also made sure my mom shared the story about how the women used to pile manure several feet high in their kids’ wagons to take it home for their gardens, and one day someone’s wagon toppled over in the middle of Keele Street and they sent all the kids to go shovel it up.
And the one about when my mother, then a teenager, stuffed her mother’s old purse full of manure and left it on a sidewalk to see what passersby would do. One person came along, looked left, looked right, and then stuck their hand right into that purse, elbow deep, presumably to steal whatever was inside—they got quite the surprise!
At first, my kids couldn’t believe all these funny stories came from the older woman they knew. But over time their view of her has shifted—they can now picture her as that mischievous little girl she truly was. It’s been a beautiful way to build a connection between them. They love to hear stories like these.
On top of that, telling these family stories has broadened my kids’ view of older people in general, helping them look past aging faces and into the very essence of a person. It’s making them into more empathetic, relatable people, which is a pretty incredible by-product.
Share the tough and shameful stuff too
It’s important to recognize that families have all kinds of stories. Not all of them are funny anecdotes like those. Each person’s life holds a whole range of memories, happy and sad, and many families have secrets that they never talk about.
Luckily, we’re reaching a point in our culture where people are much more forthcoming about the difficult and even shameful parts of their lives. There’s a much greater acceptance of hardship and struggle than there used to be, and the more people share of themselves, the more we’re all realizing that our difficulties are also things we might have in common with others.
I used to think I was protecting my kids by keeping hard things from them. Now that I’ve been through a divorce, which I obviously couldn’t keep from them, I’ve seen how truly resilient and capable they are. They deal with difficult things better than many adults. I now believe that exposing them to all sides of our family history helps prepare them for the future.
I want my kids to be open with their friends and future partners. I don’t want them to ever feel too ashamed of something to share it. By sharing the good and the not-so-good in our family history (and in an immigrant family like mine there have been all kinds of difficult times, as I’m sure you can imagine), I hope I’m helping them to see that it’s okay to not be perfect all the time.
My daughter in particular seems to be absorbing this message. She can talk to her friends about almost anything. When I was a kid, we didn’t talk openly about our weaknesses or about what was upsetting us. We didn’t talk back to a friend or let them know when they hurt us, even inadvertently, with something they said. But by having open conversations with our kids, we can help them know that negative or difficult feelings are a very normal part of life, and that the more we talk about them, the more we can deal with them and help others who are suffering. I’ve also been really encouraged by the discourse my kids are seeing on social media—kids today are much more open to discussing all kinds of topics, from smaller things like disagreements with friends, to much bigger and more consequential topics involving mental and physical health and beyond.
The hard stories that I especially love to share with my kids are those about people overcoming adversity. My grandparents came from Macedonia with nothing. Over time, they built a beautiful life, and when they died they left behind three incredible children that they had raised, they owned property and had money in the bank, and they were loved and respected by so many. None of us today can even fathom how hard their lives must have been. For my own kids, I can only ask my parents about their parents (which I did when I interviewed them on video for the Memory Box pilot documentary), and share the high level details I do know and try to fill in the blanks as best I can.
How to create storytelling moments
It’s not always easy in our busy lives to slip a story into conversation. Sure, you could pile Grandma into the car to relay a story from her past on the way to hockey practice, but I suspect that would feel a bit forced—not to mention that your hockey player will surely have their mind on other things.
Instead, I suggest creating some kind of family ritual. Find a dedicated time when everyone commits to sitting together without distractions. It could be a monthly thing, or even just once a year—whatever works for you.
You could keep a list in the intervening time of all the stories you want to tell or want to have others tell. Share the list beforehand so the storytellers have the opportunity to think about the details in advance or even dig through memorabilia for old photos or other keepsakes that might enhance their stories.
When we do this in my family, and I look around our family room at the collected relatives, I see smiles on everyone’s faces. My parents are happy about reliving their youth and about passing down a part of themselves to the next generations. The kids are laughing, eyes wide. And I personally get a tremendous feeling of joy and pride, having facilitated this time of connection and legacy sharing. It’s truly worth doing, and I plan to continue doing it for decades to come.
Why it’s important to preserve our memories
When your kids only live with you half of the time, you can find pockets of spare time to do things for yourself that you might not have done otherwise. One of the things I’ve found myself doing lately with my kid-free time is reading through old letters. I’ve kept just about every meaningful letter I’ve ever received.
Like some of you, I grew up in a world without email or texting, so if you wanted to reach someone who was far away, you had to either phone or write, and writing was a whole lot cheaper. Exchanging letters was fun, too—I miss the little rush I’d get whenever a new envelope would arrive in my mailbox, addressed in a friend’s familiar handwriting.
I also lived away from Toronto for six years in my twenties. I was a nanny in Paris for two years, and then I spent four years working at the Canadian embassy in Washington, DC. Many of the letters I’ve kept over the years come from that time, when I was far away from so many of my friends and family members.
Rereading these old letters has prompted me to reach out to a number of people I haven’t seen in years—some old boyfriends and a good number of dear friends. Some haven’t answered, as you might expect, but many have, and it’s been really wonderful to reconnect.
Looking back on my day-to-day life
Here’s another cool thing I’ve kept that feeds into my nostalgic tendencies: For that entire time I was living outside of Canada, I took the time each night to write down, in a physical day timer (again, this was before we all had electronic calendars and notes apps in our pockets), what I’d done that day and who I saw. I’m incredibly glad I did that—I’ve come across all kinds of things in there that I didn’t remember at all, but once I see them I’m flooded with memories.
The wildest part is when I come across a name in those journals that I have absolutely no memory of. There’s one guy in particular who is in my calendar ten times one year, and I just can’t call up a memory of him at all. The mind is a strange thing sometimes.
One friend I reached out to as a result of all this reminded me that he’d stayed with me for a full week in Washington, and I’d blocked that out entirely too! Having letters and my day timer notes is great, but sometimes it’s only through talking with others that I uncover specific memories.
Recapturing who I was, and connecting for the future
Reading those day timers and letters, and connecting with people from long ago, has awoken something in me. It reminds me of who I used to be, the adventurer and world traveler I was in my 20s, and of the deep friendships I forged everywhere I went.
It’s amazing to me how easily a friendship can fall back into place, even if decades have passed. I’ve now connected with many of these people on social media, too, which will allow us to better keep in touch in the future.
Stories we tell ourselves
It’s incredibly important to nurture our memories, for a whole host of reasons. Of course there are good and bad memories, so the very concept can be a double-edged sword. I’ve actually done a lot of work in therapy to restructure some of my memories so that I see the good in them or heal from them, rather than look back on them negatively.
Every memory contains an emotional component that influences how we interpret it. Something I’ve learned through therapy is that often our memories morph over time into stories we tell ourselves. What you think you remember might not be the whole truth, or it might be a distorted version of a situation.
A positive memory of a vacation might inspire a lifelong love of travel, for example. But if you have a negative memory associated with that same vacation, even a small one, it could turn you off of travel in a subconscious way that you’re not even aware of. I am a huge believer in therapy to help move past negative memories. I’m very glad I’ve done this work, because now as I dig through my past I can truly appreciate the immense positives in those memories, and in the entire process of remembering.
A view to our past
Memories are a reflection on our experiences, and they shape our perspectives. Going through my old day timers has given me a glimpse into my history and helped me to really appreciate how fortunate I am to have started out on such a beautiful life journey so young in life.
My journey through my letters and day timers then prompted me to unearth my old yearbooks. That led to a whole other wave of reaching out to people, going even deeper into the past to my high school and university days, and again I’ve reconnected with all kinds of people that I hadn’t even thought about in years, given how busy I’ve been building a business and having kids. When we connect, it’s almost like time hasn’t passed (although it has been decades). Inevitably we find ourselves sharing memories with one another, and each story sparks another one. It’s like we’re reigniting brain cells and firing new synapses moment by moment—it’s an incredible feeling.
Looking back on our memories, and talking through them with others, can help us learn from our experiences, and put both our successes and our failures into perspective. Sometimes a chat with a high school friend has helped me reframe a situation in a new light, which gives me a better understanding of it or changes how I look at it or even myself.
Memories provide comfort
Another thing memories can do is provide us with comfort. I recently reconnected with two amazing women who were on residence council with me when we lived in Delaware Hall at Western University. We spent a weekend together up north at the Muskoka Bay Resort, and we spent a lot of that time reminiscing about the great times we had in residence.
All the while, we were building new relationships with one another as adults. It was clear to me that our shared history is what made it so easy to reconnect. Telling those old stories, sharing thoughts about who we were back then, gave me an incredible feeling of joy and comfort. It’s hard to describe exactly, but I just felt I could sit and talk with them forever and never be judged, no matter what I said. Having shared those formative times together helped strengthen our bond, even thirty years later.
Memories can also bring a similar comfort when you’re going through a tough time. Looking back on happier times can help remind you of things you’re grateful for and show you that you’re capable of coming through difficult situations.
Memories preserve legacies
I started Memory Box because I believe very strongly in the importance of preserving legacies. Nobody lives forever, but memories can, if we take the time to share them, write them down, or make video or an audio recordings of them.
Thinking back on memories of a loved one can help you feel a deep connection to them, even after they pass away. Through storytelling, old photos and videos, or just reminiscing with someone else or on your own, you can relive memories and feel closer to someone you’ve lost.
Memories can set you on a path
Stories from your past can also give you a deeper understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, and help set you on a path to self-improvement. Looking back on who you were, and on who and what was important to you, can really help you plan your journey forward.
At the end of each year, I look back on the year and reflect on what I’ve accomplished. That allows me to put together a list of goals or things I want to achieve in the coming year. They’re not always specific; often they’re more just intentions. It’s a directional list of aspirations that helps me stay on course for the year and reminds me of my purpose.
Looking back on the past year, I craft new intentions for the next one across all parts of my life, including health, how I want to spend my time, mindset, finances, work, kids, home life, travel, community/giving back, relationships. Being very intentional about how I want to spend my time in each of these areas helps me create the kinds of memories that I want to take with me into the future.
I try to look at this list at least once a week. Sometimes I’ll wake up early and just sit for a while, thinking about how I’m doing on each of my intentional areas and planning for the coming day or week. Just having that list gives me comfort. It serves me well, allowing me to imagine a rich future for myself and to bask in the possibility of it all.
Whatever your reason, nurture your memories
If it’s been a while since you’ve pored over old photo albums, or you haven’t sat with your parents in a while to ask them about their childhood, or you’ve simply been too busy in the present to spend much time thinking about the past, I encourage you to make the time for it. If you haven’t shared stories with your kids about your life before they came along, about who you were, what you did, and what you learned—do it. It doesn’t have to be an ongoing project like mine seems to have become, but any time spent combing through memories in any way is well worth it.
You might surprise yourself and remember someone you hadn’t thought about in decades. You might take a further step and reach out to them, and maybe you’ll reconnect in a new and surprising ways. Or maybe you’ll just sit with your memories by yourself and quietly reflect. There’s no right way to walk down memory lane. But for so many reasons, it’s a lane worth walking down.
The importance of telling children their family’s story
I was really touched by the article Why children need to know their family history by Guardian writer Rebecca Hardy. In it, Hardy examines how learning about the lives of their ancestors can enhance children’s understanding of their place in the world—something I have long believed and that certainly seemed to be true anecdotally in my own children. The article reinforces the idea by looking at research done in the late 90s by psychologists Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
Research confirms the importance of family stories
As Hardy explains, the researchers asked 48 families 20 questions about their family history. What they found is rather amazing: the more the children knew about their ancestors, “the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”
The researchers found that hearing stories about their family’s past gave the children a strong sense of their history and a view of their own “intergenerational self.” Even if a child was only eight or nine, say, their identity might stretch back 100 years, giving them a feeling of connection, strength and resilience.
“Negative” stories are important too
Hardy tries to test the researchers’ questions out on her own kids. She’s quite pleased with herself as she discovers they do have a decent grasp of the stories their family’s past—but she’s a bit surprised to realize that over the years she has even shared some of her more embarrassing or negative stories with them. She wonders if she should have done that; shouldn’t she have shielded her kids from those bits of her past?
But she spoke with one of the researchers, and he reassured her that “negative stories can be even more important than positive ones for fostering emotional resilience.”
Apparently, there are three types of family stories: the ascending one (“We built ourselves up out of nothing”); the descending one (“We lost it all”); or—the most successful—the oscillatory one (“We have had our share of ups and downs”). I grew up hearing stories like the latter: how my grandparents’ house was bombed in the war; how my grandma saw her husband die of a heart attack in the pulpit, while she sat in the congregation with her 15-year-old son; how my great-grandfather-in-law was killed in the first world war, leaving his wife and two young children behind.
I am pleased to learn that the children remember these stories; that my son knows his great-grandad was a coal miner and sent down the pit at 14, that my daughters know their great-great-auntie went into service when she was a teen.
The spark for Memory Box
I’m pretty sure that Hardy’s children are the exception rather than the norm in knowing so much about their parents’ past. I have found that many families don’t make a point of sharing their family’s history with their kids. Whether it’s done intentionally to protect them from hearing about “difficult” things, or it’s just not a focus because life is so busy, many families don’t take the time to tell their ancestors’ stories. And that, as this research shows, is truly unfortunate.
This is one of the ideas that sparked the founding of Memory Box. I’ve always made a point of telling our family stories to my children, but I am also realistic: I know how easy it is for stories to fade from memory over time and over generations.
So I wanted to create something tangible and meaningful, going beyond a bunch of half-remembered stories told at bedtime to an actual recording of what I genuinely see as our family’s legacy—something that I can leave behind not only for my own children, but for our family’s future generations, to give them a deeper connection to their past and help them understand that they belong to something greater.
It was a direct line from deciding to do this for my own family to realizing that there are many others out there who would surely want to do the same. I saw that I could give people a platform to capture their legacies for their own families.
Memories handed down through many lifetimes
At Memory Box, we believe it’s incredibly important to build that awareness and connection to our ancestry, particularly for the younger generations who are bombarded by fleeting social media content that is here one moment and gone the next. Just as Hardy explains in her Guardian article, it can help kids grow more confident and feel connected to something bigger than themselves.
The work we do goes far beyond the home videos or Q&A sessions many of us have recorded on our cellphones (and that are so easily lost among the thousands and thousands of other photos and videos we’re all constantly taking). We use professional interviewers, filmmakers and editors to create full-length documentaries and podcasts that will endure, to be handed down from generation to generation. They will allow grandchildren and great grandchildren to truly experience a first-hand connection with their family members from the past, and grow stronger and more resilient from their connection to their roots.
The documentary we made of my own parents is now one of my most prized possessions. My kids and I have already watched it together, and I can’t tell you the joy I feel when I see them laugh at one of my mom’s stories or sympathize with my grandparents’ struggles. I only wish I had thought to do this sooner so that I could give them a similar recording of my grandparents, who are no longer with us and who my kids never knew. But I’m so glad we have this one of my parents, so my kids will always be able to come back to it and feel that connection, and can also show it to their kids, and grandchildren.
“We all feel stronger if we are part of a tapestry,” says Stefan Walters, a family therapist who’s also quoted in Hardy’s article. “One thread alone is weak, but, woven into something larger, surrounded by other threads, it is more difficult to unravel.”
What I uncovered about myself and my past using a DNA testing kit
In the last several years, there’s been a great deal of interest in understanding our ancestry and health through DNA testing. The number of companies offering this service has exploded—you have likely heard of several, such as 23andMe, AncestryDNA, FamilyTreeDNA, Nebula Genomics or MyHeritage.
I’m a big proponent of DNA testing. It can help you uncover specific genetic markers that you carry, leading you to frank discussions with your doctor about preventive measures you might pursue. It can lead you to relatives you didn’t know you had. And it can give you insight into your family’s past that you may never have known otherwise.
Personally, it’s helped me learn a great deal about where I come from, as well as about my health.
My family tree was largely lost
I’m deeply interested in learning about my past, and I make a deliberate point of getting my parents to tell family stories as often as I can, to make sure we don’t lose them. But when it came to looking further back into our family history, we didn’t have much.
My grandparents on both sides came from Macedonia in the early 1900s. I had always been told that we could not trace our ancestry any further back than my great grandparents, because Macedonian records had all been destroyed in the 1940s. When I was growing up, this was just a stated fact, and I was told there wasn’t much we could do about it.
I visited Macedonia with my cousin Sarah when I graduated from Ivey Business School in 2001. We wanted to see if we could find anything more about our past or our ancestors. We wandered into these tiny villages that literally had tumbleweed blowing around. Using English, my French, and the few dozen words we knew in Macedonian, we actually managed to find some people who remembered our grandparents.
They showed us the school my grandfather had attended (my grandmother had to work and did not have the privilege of going to school), and took us to what they were pretty sure was the house they’d lived in. We were thrilled. How incredible to find people halfway around the world who shared this connection with us and could show us these relics of our family history. I only wish we’d been better able to share a language (if only we’d had Google Translate at our fingertips like we do today!) so we might have heard some actual stories. But overall it was well worth the trip, and it sparked a desire in me to learn more.
It would be nearly twenty years before I found a way to get any further information—that’s when DNA testing really started to increase in popularity and data quality.
How it works
At-home DNA testing kits are very easy to use. You simply spit into the test tube provided and ship it to their lab. The lab extracts your DNA, and proceeds to compare your genetic information to other people from all around the world.
All humans’ DNA is nearly identical. But there are the smallest differences—called variants—that make each of us unique, based on a number of factors including our ancestry and our health conditions. Lab technicians are able to separate out these variations using chemical enzymes, and then compare yours with those of the other people in their database. The database includes their own customer base, and usually some other set of public genome databases and reference information sources.
Naturally the results you get are only as good as what’s in the company’s database. Luckily, these services have become extremely popular, so as long as you’re using a reputable company like one of the ones listed above, you can be reasonably confident in getting fairly comprehensive results.
Tracing my family’s history
When these ancestry tests began to emerge, my curiosity about my past was reignited. I wasn’t sure I’d find anything useful, but what did I have to lose? So I subscribed to 23andMe and sent off my spit to be tested. Here’s what I learned.
My ancestry is 96.9% southern European, which is described as Greek, Balkan and western Macedonian. Not a huge surprise there, but it’s pretty cool to confirm that my family’s ancestry goes back a long way in that same area of the world.
I am also 1.5% central and south Asian, which includes northern India, and 1.5% western Asian/north African, which happens to include Egyptian ancestry. History buffs are surely perking up here, noticing that this combination seems suspiciously close to the path of Alexander the Great, the king of the ancient kingdom of Macedon who conquered both Egypt and parts of India. Having done exactly zero further research, I now proclaim to anyone who will listen that I must be one of his direct descendants.
The test also connected my DNA with 1,500 relatives, including 647 third or fourth cousins. That’s pretty incredible considered this can only include people who have actually done this testing themselves.
Uncovering health traits and predispositions
When I log in to my 23andMe account, I find an overview of my health results, along with a more comprehensive report and set of data that I can download and send right to my doctor. It contains sections covering my health traits, predispositions, wellness (how my DNA might affect my body’s response to changes in sleep, exercise and diet), carrier status (whether I carry any genetic markers for known illnesses or conditions that can be passed down to my children), sleep quality, and heart health.
Now, it’s important to be level-headed about whatever you uncover. The report may tell you that you have an increased likelihood of developing a certain condition or disease, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily will. It simply means you are in a category of people who might benefit most from taking preventive measures against those conditions or diseases. Helpfully, the report provides a health action plan covering any lifestyle changes you can adopt to help keep those conditions from developing.
For example, I learned that people of European descent, like me, have a 39% chance of developing type 2 diabetes at some point between the ages of 53 (my current age, as it happens) and 80. I tend to have fairly good health habits anyway—I’m a big proponent of functional medicine and an avid follower of Dr. Mark Hyman’s advice, which is strongly focused around the concept of food as medicine. But this knowledge provides an extra incentive to continue eating well and exercising, which I know are key factors in type 2 diabetes.
So this report isn’t a comprehensive guide to managing your health, and it definitely doesn’t replace ongoing medical checkups and screening, but it is helpful and interesting.
I even found people I’d heard of
What’s most amazing to me is that the report lists those 1,500 relatives, including 647 third and fourth cousins, by name. Sadly, my DNA didn’t link me with any celebrities. NBC did a whole series in collaboration with Ancestry.com, which was later picked up by TLC, called “Who Do You Think You Are?” where it tested the DNA of a series of famous people to help them find long-lost connections—so we know there are definitely celebrities in these databases. It would’ve been quite a trip to discover that, say, George Clooney was my long-lost fourth cousin, or that Gloria Steinem and I shared a great-great-great-great-great grandmother!
But what is neat is that there were people on the list whose names I recognized because they’re people my parents have actually mentioned! One is a first cousin twice removed (i.e. a first cousin of one of my grandparents) who I have never met but whose name I have heard since I was a little girl. I’m not in touch with these people, but I love the idea that they are also interested in their ancestry and are doing this testing too, even though we’re generations, and an ocean, apart.
Testing my kids (and your dog)
When I went to test my children, my son asked why we needed two kits—couldn’t we just test one of them, since they have the same DNA? But a fascinating thing I’ve learned through this process is that grandchildren don’t always inherit their DNA evenly from all four grandparents. So I wanted to test both kids separately to see what different results they might get.
I chose AncestryDNA for my kids’ tests, as it’s a few years later and I’m now working on building a family tree in Ancestry.com. Ancestry also has one of the most extensive databases of all the providers.
We’re still waiting on those results, but I can’t wait to see what turns up. We’ve been told that their dad’s family is English, Irish and Italian, but it’ll be great to see what else is in them, as well as how they differ from each other.
Did you know you can even do DNA testing on your dog to find out what mix of breeds they come from? What a world we live in.
Worth the small investment
If you’re interested in where you come from, as well as in what your DNA might predict about certain health conditions, then I can’t recommend this process enough. It’s a small investment, and it’s a really fun and interesting way to get to know your family history a little bit better. It has sparked some great discussions with my kids, and prompted us to do some further digging into our history.
Maybe we’ll even find some further evidence of our direct line to Alexander the Great.
Why Memory Box supports Alzheimer’s research: A tribute to my Baba.
At Memory Box, we donate a portion of the proceeds of every documentary we make to the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada. Our decision to support this organization is a personal one: My grandmother, the selfless matriarch of our family, died of Alzheimer’s. Her name was Margaret Tamo.
Her illness developed in the early 1990s, when little was known about dementia, and it was very hard for my family to find the right care and treatment to give her comfort as her health deteriorated.
Alzheimer’s took her life. It took all of her stories and memories with it.
Her legacy is one of love, generosity and kindness. I don’t just mean she was a sweet lady. Kindness ran deep in my grandmother. If you’ll indulge me a moment, I’d like to share a little of what I know of her story.
A poor childhood led to a vow to help others in need
My grandmother grew up very poor in Macedonia. She often went hungry, and she didn’t have the opportunity to attend school. Her father had gone to Canada in 1901 to try to make enough money to bring the family over, so except for occasional visits from him, her mother was essentially a single parent most of the time. To make ends meet, her mother sent her to a neighbouring village to take care of a family’s new baby at the age of six (really!). When her father eventually brought the family to Canada in the 1920s when she was 13, my grandmother worked to put food on the table so her brother could go to school.
Her difficult childhood stuck with her. So no matter how much or how little money or food she had for herself, for the rest of her life she was committed to helping others in need. She always found a way to feed anyone who asked and help anyone who needed it.
My mother remembers coming home for lunch in the 1940s to their house on Mulock Avenue in the Junction area of Toronto, a block away from the stockyards and train tracks, to find her mother feeding homeless men who were “riding the rails” across the country. Their laneway gate was marked to tell others “kind woman lives here” (which, as I’ve learned, was indicated with a drawing of a cat). This happened regularly.
This story is a proud part of my family’s legacy, one that we tell again and again. Hearing about my grandmother’s selflessness has taught both me and my kids a lesson of love, generosity, empathy and kindness that we will carry with us always. It’s an important part of who we are.
My grandmother’s selflessness continued throughout her life. She cared for three elderly family members at the same time (her mother and both of my grandfather’s father and grandmother, who all lived in the house with her and her family), all while managing her household and raising her three children. She always put others first.
Support for her in her time of need
When she began to lose her ability to be independent, the family didn’t at first understand what she was going through or why. But what mattered was that she needed help, and the family was absolutely committed to supporting her, just as she had done for everyone else throughout her entire life.
My mother, my aunt and my uncle took her into their homes and cared for her for as long as they could, treating her with incredible dignity and respect. Only once a psychiatrist diagnosed her with Alzheimer’s, and it finally became clear that she required more support, did they move her to a hospital. Still, someone was there with her every day, talking to her, loving her, and telling her stories to remind her of who she was.
Since my grandmother never went to school, she died illiterate. Yet she was very smart, and she had a great sense for investing in real estate and growing what money her family earned. She was also happy, caring and inclusive, and she was one of the most loving, giving people I have ever known. Those values have been passed through our family from generation to generation. She’s an incredibly inspiring role model. I’m proud to be her descendant and to pass her legacy to my kids.
When I think of the love and kindness in our family, I think of my grandmother. Not a day goes by that I don’t tell my kids I love them at least 10-15 times. I say it every time I see them, or even if I’m just thinking of them I’ll just call through the house “I love you!” Okay, maybe that’s strange, but it’s truly a tribute to this amazing ancestor of ours, who had one of the hardest childhoods that I know of and emerged one of the kindest, most generous people you can imagine. She lives in me and in all of her descendants.
Honouring her legacy
So our commitment to the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada is about honouring her legacy, and knowing that she would want us to do everything we can to prevent others from suffering the way she did.
When she reached the point in her life when she might have wanted to reflect on the stories of her life, she was no longer able to. It gives me some peace to know that we are helping others preserve their family’s memories through Memory Box, and at the same time we are contributing to research that will help people living with dementia and their care givers.
Very encouraging advances in Alzheimer’s research
The knowledge that Alzheimer’s can run in families is scary for many people who have lost a loved one to the disease, myself included. But I’m very encouraged by the latest research into factors we can control in our own lives to help protect ourselves from developing Alzheimer’s. This knowledge is part of what has led me to adopt a healthy lifestyle and become so interested in the work of a number of doctors who are doing incredible work in this area.
I’m a big fan of Dr. Mark Hyman, a functional medicine doctor who’s done a lot of work on brain health (along with a great number of other areas). In this episode of his podcast, he talks about The 5 Main Ways To Prevent Alzheimer’s & Dementia. He explains that it’s never too early to start protecting your brain, and in fact the earlier you start, the better. And while it’s not a silver bullet, it’s also not rocket science: by deliberately making the kinds of lifestyle choices we already know to be good for us in so many ways—eating right, exercising regularly, reducing stress, sleeping well, and taking appropriate supplements—we can also improve our cognitive function and protect our brains, making them more resilient and, in many cases, helping to keep dementia at bay for as long as possible.
It may not be rocket science, but it is science. In that podcast Dr. Hyman explains the mechanisms, compounds, nutrients and bodily processes that are affected by those lifestyle changes and why they can lead directly to improved cognitive function. Researchers are learning more every day about what causes Alzheimer’s and dementia and what we can do to prevent it. Other popular health advocates that I recommend you check out to learn more about how you can take control of your brain health (and many of them have informative podcasts) are Dhru Prohit, Dale Bresden, and Dr. Lisa Mosconi.
Too late for my grandmother—but I’m hopeful for my children
It’s sad that my grandmother wasn’t able to benefit from all of today’s research. In fact, the life she led ran almost completely counter to the latest health recommendations. She had an incredibly stressful life, and she put everybody else ahead of herself. She worked difficult, physically demanding jobs—in a chocolate factory, then a furniture factory, turning table legs on a lathe—where she was surely breathing in toxic substances day in and day out. She didn’t necessarily sleep much or eat well, and she certainly didn’t exercise. That was normal in her time, and nobody knew then what we know now about how much we can control our own health.
But now we know better. I feel very privileged to live in a time where so much good work is being done and so much excellent information is available. I am teaching my kids the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, and with luck we will be protected from diseases that some of our ancestors suffered from—and if they do strike, we will have upped our natural defenses and positioned our bodies to better handle whatever health challenges come our way.
Launching Memory Box is about wanting to understand who I am through my past and helping others do the same. And it’s also a tribute to my four grandparents, who made the life-changing, stressful decision to emigrate to Canada. They might have done it out of necessity, as there simply wasn’t a future for them in Macedonia, but I’m very clear that I would not be the person I am today, with all the education and other privileges that I have had, if not for the choices of my ancestors. And for that, I will be forever grateful.
Family business: Sharing your story to preserve your legacy.
We owe a great deal to family businesses. They employ millions of people across Canada—from St. John’s to Victoria, on farms and in cities and everywhere in between—and they are truly the powerhouse of our economy. Found in every sector and every place across the country, family businesses play a major, multigenerational role in driving our global competitiveness and growing and sustaining our thriving communities here at home.
According to the Conference Board of Canada’s report “The Economic Impact of Family-Owned Enterprises in Canada,” family businesses account for nearly two-thirds of all private-sector companies in Canada, and they employ 6.9 million people, or 47 percent of all private-sector employment.
And yes, some of them are very large companies owned by wealthy families whose names we know well. But you might be surprised to learn that the vast majority of family businesses in Canada are not huge conglomerates; they’re small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The report, which is sponsored by Family Enterprise Canada and CPA Canada, reports that 99 percent of all family businesses in Canada have under 500 employees. Small and medium-sized family businesses truly power Canada’s economy.
The importance of sharing a family business’s history
Given the importance of the family enterprise to our country’s economic success, sharing and preserving the history of a family business is really important. As future generations come up in the business, it can be instructive and inspiring for them to look back on how a business began, to learn from their predecessors’ mistakes and understand their vision. Current employees also benefit greatly from getting a view into the purpose behind the company and learning what its founders were trying to accomplish when they started it. External stakeholders, especially customers, are often more inclined to work with a business when they know and can connect with their story, and when they understand the history that has gone into building it.
But sharing that history doesn’t always come naturally. So often, leaders are so busy running the company—operating it day to day while also trying to secure new business and grow—that taking the time to talk about the company’s origins falls way down on the priority list.
First-generation leaders may also simply take it for granted that everyone at the company already knows how it all began, since many of them were there from the start (despite the fact that the next-generation leaders are often their children, who could have been “there from the start” but were too young to appreciate many of the important details). Worse, they may think it’s not worth sharing. They might not realize how inspiring it can be for their successors to hear about their progress, struggles and success.
And even if they want to share their history, they may not know how to best do it for maximum effect.
Storytelling is the key to preserving a family business’ legacy
According to Jennifer Pendergast, the John L. Ward Professor in Family Enterprise at the Kellogg School of Management, “Families often share the ‘what’ but not the ‘why.’ We learn by understanding why choices were made and how they influenced the individuals involved.” Pendergast is quoted in a Kellogg article entitled “Storytelling: the Next-Generation Family-Business Educational Tool,” which goes on to say that the best way to pass down “existential questions and their lessons” is through storytelling.
As Ester Choy, Kellogg lecturer and president and chief story facilitator at Leadership Story Lab, says in that same article, “Recounting events is not telling stories. If I tell you I woke up, ate breakfast and started working, I didn’t tell you a story. I just told you how my morning unfolded.” She stresses that having an engaging and satisfying beginning, middle and end are key to a good story.
Telling a story beyond its basic events does not come easy to most of us, and leaders who are busy running a business don’t necessarily have the time or inclination to develop that skill. I think that’s why so many leaders find it helpful to seek external help to craft their story. That’s something we’ve done at lot of at my national PR firm (Broad Reach Communications) through our growing executive profiling practice, and for me, it’s one of the most personally rewarding things we get to do.
One of Broad Reach’s most inspiring client stories: Henry’s, Canada’s greatest camera store
I was humbled and honoured when Gillian Stein, CEO of Henry’s, came to us for help telling the story of her family business. Henry’s is a great Canadian success story: it was started by Gillian’s great grandfather as a single small repair shop on Toronto’s Church Street in 1909. Through four generations it has not only survived (when most family businesses don’t last anywhere near as long) but thrived, becoming Canada’s greatest camera store, with over twenty locations across Canada, a very successful online business, a large B2B segment, and an engaged community of photographers, filmmakers and content creators.
Those are the facts, but Gillian wanted to share the story. She realized that being a fourth-generation business was extremely rare, and that they’d never taken the time to properly document their history. Their path to success did not follow a straight line, as it just about never does in business, and Gillian wanted to make sure that the details—good and bad, up and down—were preserved and shared.
We helped her craft a beautiful story that highlighted the history in a compelling way and that can be shared with employees, customers and other stakeholders to instill pride in the business and keep the legacy alive. It was a beautiful tribute to her parents, who Gillian credits with building Henry’s into the household name that it is today. We also worked with Gillian to help craft the announcement that Henry’s recent acquisition by Lynx Equity Limited, with Gillian staying on as CEO—another major step in its evolving story.
People are the key to family business culture continuity
No business succeeds without people. As a business grows and changes, it’s really important to educate every person in the business on its story, because from that story comes its culture—and culture is what makes a business.
In their article “Family business culture continuity via storytelling” for Family Business Magazine, David Adelman and William Alexander say: “Telling and codifying stories can distinguish a family business and promote its longevity. Family business stories can share the folklore of the company’s founding. They can explore the rationale for critical decisions that shaped the company’s development. They can recount the achievements, and failures, of past business cycles. They can recount meaningful or silly events that led to employee bonding.”
They go on to say that sharing family history and culture has been listed by GenSpring as one of multigenerational families’ 25 best practices. Quoting another article, they add that “hearing and internalizing stories from a company’s past can fundamentally change the way next-generation members will act when confronted with difficult situations.”
Many ways to tell a story, with the most powerful being a documentary
There are lots of ways to tell the story of a family business. Written histories have long been popular, of course.
Today, however, we have so many more tools at our disposal than the printed word. Many companies are gravitating to a documentary format that captures not just words but people’s voices, mannerisms, and faces—giving future generations a much more personal view into a leader’s essence.
That’s why I started Memory Box. I saw that there was a real opportunity to help family businesses capture their stories. There’s so much value to be gained from bringing a company’s stories to life, showcasing their successes, growth, and struggles. Whether through video or audio (i.e., podcast) formats, we bring our team’s extensive experience in storytelling to really bring a company’s—and a family’s—story to life.
One of our extended goals is to enable businesses to do this over time as they change—not documenting a story one time, as if it’s over, but revisiting it from time to time, capturing new developments, tracking the company’s evolution over time. Some businesses change at such a rapid pace that this means coming back not a decade later but even every few years, to record additional episodes and track a company’s story as it evolves.
Appealing to customers’ hearts by sharing their values
More and more, customers are choosing companies not just because of their products and services, but because of their values. Consumers want to buy from companies that share their sensibilities, particularly around environmental, social and governance practices. But if a company doesn’t share its values publicly, how will a customer know what they are and whether they share the same ones?
Many companies will post mission/vision/values statements on their websites, but that’s not enough anymore. With all the technology and information sharing capabilities we have at our fingertips, leading companies are using storytelling to share their values in a much more compelling way, which allows them to express their values genuinely and connect with customers’ hearts.
Drawing out new perspectives and new stories
A final and perhaps most important reason for sitting down and talking through a business’s story is that, let’s be honest, sometimes the younger generations can reach a point where they feel like they’ve heard all the stories (again and again) and almost become immune to them. They feel like they know the history and don’t need to hear it again.
But we’re finding that a professional interviewer can uncover stories that have never been told, in ways that the current generation may never have heard. It’s actually quite lovely when we’re able to draw something out of a company founder that surprises or delights the next generation; I get a real kick out of that. I feel like we’re helping connect people, not just with their family business’s past but even with their parents and grandparents directly.
Helping family business leaders tell their story is a privilege
For all of these reasons and more, it’s an absolute privilege to help a family business tell their story. Multiple generations put in so much hard work to build a business and keep it going for years, growing and expanding and changing, and I could not be more thrilled to help them preserve that legacy for generations to come.