You could call it her mission, or you could call it her passion. Whatever you call it, Pacific Beach resident Patricia Benesh is determined to change the face of aging through her company, 7 Memories.
Benesh has written three books on the subject and started the company to get more senior citizens to turn their lives into legacies by writing down their personal stories.
Benesh started her writing crusade in the late '90s, helping authors such as Thomas Steinbeck (John Steinbeck's son) write manuscripts and articles. But it was the sudden death of her older brother in 2002 that sparked the idea for 7 Memories.
"In the last photo of him, he was holding the first great-grandbaby in our family," she recalls. "I felt compelled to write the story of my parents for that great-grandchild. And now, I'm honoring my parents by following my passion — to help people turn their memories into memoirs before it's too late."
When asked why she chose "seven" as the "magic number" of memories, she explains, "It's a workable number in terms of starting a memoir. The thought of writing a memoir can be daunting, but if you start with just seven memories, it becomes do-able.
"Plus, it requires you to decide on the significant experiences in your life, and that gives you focus and direction."
Benesh uses "It's About Time" as the program tagline, and with good reason. "There does come a time when the window for capturing memories closes. So it's critical to make that happen while it's possible. I cannot stress that strongly enough. All of these amazing stories are lost to us unless we take the time to encourage and help older adults write down their stories. A memoir is a lifetime of experience and learning passed on to future generations. Otherwise, it's a lifetime lost, like a library burning to the ground."
• BJ Strong's story
One of the seniors Benesh has worked with is BJ Strong, a Mission Beach resident who was 83 years old at the time she wrote her memoir. It tells the compelling story of her childhood on a farm in Nebraska with no electricity or running water, while attending a one-room schoolhouse until the eighth grade. Strong is most proud of being among the first female Marines in World War II, and is now a volunteer at the USS Midway Museum, where she regales visitors with her memories and autographs copies of her memoir.
Strong remembers how much she loved the writing process.
"At first I thought it was dumb to do it. Why would my memories be important to anyone?" she recalls. "But then I realized it was really a different culture when I was a child. It changed so much, since I became an adult."
The memoir helped Strong look back on her life with a new-found perspective. "I don't know that I ever did anything spectacular, but I didn't make many mistakes. I chose my friends well. I think that's the secret to happiness. Writing my memoirs also made me realize things and think more. Gosh, I've gotten so old, you forget about your mom and dad and grandmother ... that's one thing I liked writing about."
Today, Strong is 97 years young. She still does yoga or Qi Gong five days a week and navigates the stairs to her second-floor home several times a day. "I'm not sure which is harder," she says. "I think it might be the stairs."
And when she looks back at her life, she has no regrets.
"I've had a good life. I've been one of the most fortunate people in the world. I count my blessings every day."
• Establishing Memoir Partners
Benesh is not only offering her program to seniors; she's also teaching a class to young college students next semester at UC San Diego's Life Course Scholars program. Using her "7 Memories" books, she'll show students how to act as a guide for older adults to partner with them in the memoir-writing process.
For Benesh, it's the beginning of a vision she sees extending far into the future. "I would love to have a legion of Memoir Partners whose mission is to capture the memories of older adults. I'd like to start it here in San Diego, then expand it to California and the United States. It would have a strong inter-generational component and national visibility, perhaps endorsed by AARP, with its own day of celebration. Memoirs galore!"