Professor turns memories into stories

Matthew Smith teams up young writers with those affected by Alzheimer’s or dementia.

English Professor Matthew Smith runs a nonprofit called Spaces between Your Fingers, which aims to preserve memories by recording stories in writing. Maggie Andresen | TTN
English Professor Matthew Smith runs a nonprofit called Spaces between Your Fingers, which aims to preserve memories by recording stories in writing. Maggie Andresen | TTN

For Matthew Smith, memories are not a thing of the past. They are stories he hopes will continue.

 In memory of his grandfather who had Alzheimer’s, Smith started The Spaces Between Your Fingers project.

 “It became really important to him to pass on some of his experiences, and so we started taking walks together when I was younger,” Smith said.

 These walks sparked the foundation of his project.

 In its early form, the project was a parable Smith wrote about his grandfather, the walks they would take to the duck pond in Ardmore and the strong holds that memory can have.

Smith wanted to create a story he could share with his younger cousins who did not have the opportunity to spend as much time with their grandfather.

SBYF emanates from a letter Smith received after his grandfather passed; a letter, he said, that described that spaces exist, whether between “words and pages” or “reflections and mirrors,” and not to keep them apart, but to “hold everything together.”

 “I was actually driving down the road one day, and I had my hand out the window and I was feeling the wind lace through my fingers,” Smith said. “I remembered the story he told me, and I remembered him.”

 After receiving positive feedback from family, Smith wanted something more. He decided to take a road trip across the country in 30 days.

With the concept of memory in mind, he decided to print out 3,000 oversized postcards, take his “crappy” Volvo without air conditioning and drive west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

 Smith asked strangers to send him back on the postcard either a memory or piece of advice they’d want to pass on to future generations.

 “I hyperlinked from town to town, I would meet someone interesting and ask them where to go next,” Smith said.

 Smith hoped to distribute 100 postcards a day to 100 strangers. He also used his YouTube account, Matthew Smith, as a channel to post videos of the subjects.

Smith saw the advice he collected as a way of connecting generations.

 “Asking older people to try and make sense of what they’ve been through and try to pass it on before it’s lost was the reason that advice seemed like the way to do it,” Smith said.

 Smith recalls approaching his first participant at 7:30 a.m. at a turnpike rest stop, an older gentleman with silver hair, leaning on his car.

 He approached the man, stammered a few words of his story, and was immediately rejected, as the old man refused to take a postcard.

 After that, Smith said he wanted to make sure people didn’t look at him as a “salesman.” By practice, Smith was able to discover a tactful way to get people to listen to his story and share their own.

 “The first thing I would say was ‘Hey, I’m doing a project in memory of my grandfather.’ That would put down their guard a little bit,” Smith said.

 It was all about making conversation and humanizing the participants, rather than just obtaining information from them, he said.

 From Philadelphia, Smith embarked on a counterclockwise route that included stops at Wisconsin, California and Texas. Smith had nothing planned, he said, but to attempt to discover a place that appeared offbeat and hope for the best.

 On his eighth day of the first road trip, Smith said he met the oldest man on Earth.

 “He was telling me a story about his grandfather, who had fought in the civil war, and that kind of blew me away,” Smith said.

One year later, Smith decided to take a second road trip. Smith also instituted writing workshops with the help of the Alzheimer’s Association.

 “It was taking the same idea of the postcard and passing on memories, ideas and advice to future generations, but applying it to the population that needed it most,” Smith said.

 SBYF is now a nonprofit organization. Smith is currently looking for new writers who have an interest in conserving memories.

 Volunteers team up young writers, who become biographers, with people who have Alzheimer’s or Dementia. Smith developed the program so that writers can conduct interviews and work towards a specific memory of the interviewee.

 “It is this really cool process where the participant takes their memory, that is sometimes kind of blurry or out of focus, and gives as much detail as they can to the writer,” Smith said.

 The idea of advice on the road trip fueled the project, Smith said. For him, it’s the experience of slowing down and reflecting that counts.

 “Everyone focuses on the postcards and the library, but what I’m most proud of is the experience that we’ve built that connects different generations and creates reflection,” he said.

Emily Scott can be reached at and on twitter @emilyscott315

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