My mother graduated from pharmacy school in 1952; at the time, women pharmacists were rare, a fact that made my mother a professional trail-blazer – something she never wanted to be. Having graduated from high school at age 16, she was exceptionally intelligent and just wanted to use that intelligence to earn a good living and provide for herself and her family.

As it turned out, equal pay for equal work was a concept not yet accepted (or even aspired to), so earning the good paycheck that would lead to a good living eluded my mother for a very long time – a fact that sometimes filled her with anger and sometimes with despair. 

My mother often told the story of her first pharmacy job at a hospital; when she left that job after three years to get married, she was replaced by two men who were each paid twice what she had been paid. After marrying in 1955, she was again paid a fraction of the salary the male pharmacists at the drug store where she worked were paid because she was not considered a “bread-winner” - just someone who worked for "extra money". Even years later, when telling these stories, my mother would still become angry at the injustice of what she had experienced.

In the 1970s, my mother applied for a job at Milwaukee County Hospital as she knew equal pay for equal work was now guaranteed under a recently enacted county bylaw.  And she knew the county was under pressure to hire women.

"I thought finally I’ll be taken seriously," my mother often said. 

Unfortunately, she soon learned that laws can force economic change but not a change in attitude. In the interview, the man who was soon to become my mother’s boss asked her, “If one of your children gets sick are you just going to leave work? Can I depend on you to stay and do your job?" 

My mother found herself responding, "Would you ask that question of a man?"

To which her soon-to-be boss smiled and replied, “Answer the question.”

So my mother did, realizing that in order to get the job she wanted she would have to play a game she did not want to play. Again. And realizing she was willing to do it for the sake of her family.

Telling a Loved One’s Life Story

How can you go about writing a loved one’s life story? The prospect of doing it might seem daunting. Here are some guidelines to help give organization and structure to the writing process:  

Begin by narrowing down your focus. One way to do this is to first break down possible story subjects into specific themes or categories, such as family; work; value and belief systems; passions or free time activities; periods of life (single, army, married, childhood etc.); locations (family farm, summer cottage, first house, second house etc.); family events (births, weddings, funerals, vacations etc.); and acts of courage. 

Further narrow down your focus. Next chose a category and within that category a story you would like to write about. Keep in mind: is this story just for me or will I be sharing it with others? This will help determine how much depth of detail to put into your story.  

The above story illustrates how zeroing in on one subject - my mother’s work life - and then one theme within that story - a lack of equal pay for equal work - shaped my mother’s work life. This theme was important to my mother which is why I chose to share it; it conveys the drive, courage and perseverance it took for a woman to work in a traditionally male profession in the 1950s through the 1970s.  

I chose not to share details of some of my mother’s emotional struggles related to dealing with unkind comments and behaviors from male co-workers who felt she had taken a job away from a “breadwinner.” I might include that depth of detail if I was writing the story to share with my sisters but necessarily with the public at large.

Use prompts to aid in memory recall. Old photos and portraits; official family documents; letters and journals; bibles and baby books; old books and magazines; and progressive emails can all help jog loose seemingly forgotten memories. Creating a timeline or chronology of events can also help memories worth writing about float to the surface. Additionally, diagramming neighborhoods, locations and even rooms can help bring seemingly forgotten memories to mind (remember how Dad loved to sit in that awful, green battered recliner in the living room and watch Seinfeld! ).

Give your story a beginning, middle and end. 

Some questions to consider.  Writing a narrative of your loved one’s life can be enriched by asking yourself these questions in the writing process: 

How did I hear about this particular story? (For example, did you hear the story by accident? If so, this can sometimes be a story within an intriguing story, etc.)

How do I know if this story is true? (And does it make a difference? When it comes to family folklore, sometimes why the story was told is much more interesting than whether or not the story is true.) 

How did my loved one feel about the events I am relating?

Give your stories context. Time period, location, ethnic heritage, family traditions and more can give context to the stories you tell. 

Context helps convey why something was important to your loved one and why it is important for you to share a particular memory. For example, the story of my mother’s work struggles would not make sense without the context of the time period in which events happened as there is now salary parity within the field of pharmacy.  The story was important for me to share because it highlights the challenges many brave women like my mother have faced as trail blazers in a chosen profession or field of work.