Kerry Hughes wastes no time in getting to know Ruth and Chuck Coe well.
Toting a red pen and yellow highlighter in one hand and a voice recorder in the other, she asks a series of questions, covering a lot of ground.
Where were you born? How did you meet? … Tell me the names and ages of your children, your grandchildren and where do they live? Describe a fond childhood memory. … Do you have any regrets in life?
And so it goes on a recent evening at the Roswell home of Ruth, 93, and her husband Chuck, 97.
Hughes, still dressed in black slacks, heels and a pink blouse from her demanding corporate job, quickly switches roles as she pulls up a chair close to the couple. They reminisce, reflect and often mentally stretch themselves to remember the details of their younger lives.
Hughes, 48, volunteers with Evercare Hospice & Palliative Care capturing stories — “Life Stories.” They are family histories. Sometimes, they may take the form of a scrapbook or typed journal. Other times, they are videos, audio-recorded stories or photo albums.
Ruth Coe, suffering from congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), has been receiving hospice care the past few months, but her condition has stabilized. Her larger family eagerly accepted Evercare’s offer to help record their family history. The Coes’ daughters tried before but the recorder didn’t work the project never came to fruition.
The youngest daughter, Linda Coatsworth, said her parents’ life story will help the family hold onto warm memories “with our very cool and loving parents.”
Hughes, warm and patient, vacillates between the jotting down dates, places and names of relatives with questions that included: What year did you move to Florida? How many grandchildren do you have? How old are they and are they married?
In some ways, Hughes is a dogged reporter gathering facts. But while a reporter may pick and choose what to focus on, Hughes reviews everything from place of birth to parental careers to questions like, “Were you ever the teacher’s pet?”
During the probing, a date in time often gives way to favored memories, even funny moments.
Such was the case in 1972, when the Coes moved to central Florida and happened to stumble upon a square dancing presentation at their Methodist church.
“They looked like they were having so much fun,” said Ruth. “We asked about lessons and within months, we were dancing on a regular basis.”
They were called the “Groveland Squares.” She wore brightly colored crinolines and skirts in purples, reds and yellows. Chuck wore matching shirts and ties.
“I remember once my crinoline was sliding down and there was nothing I could do except let it slide down and it was the funniest thing: I kicked it and it landed on some lad,” she said.
The Coes, celebrating their 75th wedding anniversary this month, met at Purdue University during registration in 1936. Ruth was a freshman and Chuck was a junior. Before long, Chuck’s cousin asked him to join him on a double date. Chuck’s cousin brought Ruth and Chuck brought another girl.
“She was with my cousin, a nicer guy, more handsome and wealthy too … but I didn’t stop pursuing her! Wow, was I lucky,” Chuck said.
That year, Ruth lived across the hall from Amelia Earhart, the aviation pioneer who came to Purdue as a guest faculty member, teaching an aviation class. Ruth recalled her being “as sweet as she could be.” She remembers Earhart driving an elegant yellow Cord automobile.
Hughes, an executive with the Atlanta-based commercial real estate company Piedmont Office Realty Trust, has long had an interest in volunteering with older adults. She put her plans on hold while her children were growing up and now that her children are both in college, she decided to finally put her journalism degree to use, becoming a volunteer and finding her niche. When not working on Life Stories, she visits people in hospice, offering companionship.
“The goal is for the family to have a really nice keepsake,” said Hughes, who has completed about five Life Stories over the past two years. “At times, family members will hear their loved one say a story and say, ‘I had never heard that before!’” Her goal for the patients: “I want to celebrate their life and my personal goal is to make them feel special.”
Dee Zeitounian, volunteer coordinator for Evercare, said her agency started doing Life Stories about five years ago.
And while hospice has a host of services to bring comfort to people as they near the end of their lives, Zeitounian said Life Stories service “is one of the most important ones as part of bringing peace and closure to families and giving them the chance to tell stories that maybe their families have never heard before.”
Zeitounian said doctors sometimes order a Life Story to help people let go of loved ones.
Jennifer Hale, executive director of the Georgia Hospice & Palliative Care organization based in Atlanta, said while other hospices may have similar family story-telling programs, including a “Story Keeper” program at a hospice in Savannah, most don’t offer such service. She said hospices facing economic struggles have just enough to provide the most basic services.
Back in Roswell, Chuck Coe, a retired chemical engineer, also shared stories about his experience as a World War II soldier, serving in Gen. George Patton’s 2nd Armored Division known as “Hell on Wheels.” It played important roles in the invasion of North Africa and Sicily, the liberation of France, Belgium and the Netherlands and the invasion of Germany.
As the head of communications for his battalion, one of his jobs involved repairing radios.
“We didn’t have small and fancy microchips they have now. They were big, heavy equipment and we had big motors,” he said, stretching out his hands to the size of a toaster. After Hughes’ second visit stretched into its second hour, she decided to wrap up the night with two key questions.
First: What is the secret to a happy marriage?
“A good sense of humor and belief in the Lord,” said Chuck. “That helps life and marriage.”
Ruth added: “You have to like the person besides loving the person.”
She smiled proudly.
“That is something I just thought of just yesterday,” she said with a chuckle.
Hughes ended the session by asking about regrets. Was there something they wished they had done differently? A hobby they wished they had pursued?
They both shook their heads and beamed.
“No regrets,” Chuck said. “How could we? We lived such long lives and have gotten the chance to do so many things.”
Sample questions from Evercare Hospice & Palliative Care to get a Life Story started:
- What kinds of things did people say about you in your yearbook?
- As a kid, what kind of chores did you have?
- What is the best advice you received growing up or in your adulthood? Have you applied it to your life and pass onto others?
- What would you consider your greatest accomplishment/achievement in your life?
- Do you have anything (or a few things) that you regret not doing that you wish you would have done (i.e., learned to play the piano, traveled more, etc.)?
- What do you feel is the key to happiness for any person?
- Tell me about your favorite family traditions?
- Who was the person(s) who positively influenced your life the most and why?
- Favorite movie and book and why?
- How important has your faith been in your life and can you give one or more examples of when you needed to rely heavily on your faith?
For more questions, go to http://genealogy.about.com/cs/oralhistory/a/interview.htm