The blog of photographer Kim Ayres

A One Sentence Description

If you had to sum yourself up in one sentence, what would it say?

If other people were to sum you up in one sentence, what would it say?

How different are those sentences likely to be?

This isn't one of those empathy tests to see if we can understand that other people see the world in a different way to ourselves, rather it's a thought that's followed on from a couple of recent conversations with people regarding mortality.

A friend recently had an accident where her van swerved off the road and down an 8 metre drop into a small river. By the most unlikely of unlikely ways the vehicle twisted, bounced, overturned and landed, she suffered nothing more than pulled muscles and bruises. Nobody in the emergency services could believe she could possibly just walk away from what had happened.

The experience has caused her to reflect and change her priorities in life. "Stuff" seems so much less important. Making sure your loved ones know how much you love them seems so much more important.

As the conversation weaved and developed, one thread that tied in with a recent discussion I'd had with Maggie, was about how much people know about us – and about how the more distant we are, the less can be said.

I could tell you a fair bit about my mother, although there will be an awful lot I never really knew about her. I saw her from an offspring's perspective, never fully appreciating her in her own right probably until after she died.

My grandfather I can tell you a lot less about. I have a few stories of what it was like as a kid going to stay with him, and a few more stories my mother told me about, but it is very limited.

In the last year or so of his life he recorded his memoirs onto cassette, which my mother intended to type up, but didn't get round to immediately. Somehow a few years later, having moved house a couple of times in the interim, the cassettes were lost. Hunting high and low they were never found.

All those stories, lost forever.

And once we go further back beyond the grandparents, we are into one sentence descriptions.

Apparently I had a distant relative who had been on some great exploration of somewhere and had a diamond that went missing after he died and it caused family rifts. Now if you want me to expand on that last sentence, I can't: what I have written there is literally all I know.

On the other side of the family sometime around the late Victorian era down near London, I think I had ancestors that were fabulously wealthy who had built up a major business dealing in sawdust, but the sons gambled and drank away the fortune, leaving their sister – I think my great grandmother – quite a bitter old woman.

So that's all I know about my great grandmother – she was quite a bitter old woman.

For those who do genealogical research into their family histories, they might find a name, an address, an occupation and how many children they had, but it is still a one sentence description – and one that tells you nothing about who that person really was.

Sooner or later we all become just a one sentence description, until that too is lost.

So what do you want that one sentence to be?

Once I'm gone, I do wonder how might others describe me in a few words. I suppose it will depend in what way they knew me.

"Kim had a beard, wasn't very tall, was overweight, and balding, however much he tried to deny it."

"Kim was a photographer, blogger and played the bouzouki" (perhaps words like good, good enough, passable, or not as good as he thought he was, might get thrown in to expand the sentence a bit).

Or perhaps the description would be about my familial connections: "Kim was a middle child, a second son, a father of two, a stepfather of three, a grandfather of four, a husband of one" (again, these might be peppered with words like loving, selfish, adoring, reliable, or unreliable, depending on the personal experience).

Or maybe I might be described by bits of my personality, such as "Kim could talk for hours, barely seeming to pause for breath", or "he was a good listener and friend", or "he was a bit up himself to be honest and if I saw him walking down the street I'd quickly dart into a shop to avoid him".

Or possibly it might come down to one observation a friend made on Facebook recently, which was "Essentially your whole life revolves around ice cream or chocolate in some way."

But all these are external descriptions – what I might appear to be like on the outside – they are not necessarily how I would describe myself.

From the inside, the descriptions are far more to do with fears, doubts and insecurities. My weaknesses dominate my thoughts much more than my strengths. For every one thing I have achieved there have been dozens of things I haven't.

However, others don't see these sides of us, unless we tell them – but that runs the risk of being labelled as someone who moans, or is ill, or insecure – and is that how I would like to be remembered in a one sentence description?

For me, the ultimate one sentence description, the very best I ever heard, was emailed to me to read out at my mother's funeral by an old friend of hers. She said, "Ann was the kind of woman who always made you feel better about yourself."

I cannot think of a more wonderful description of a person.

Perhaps then, this becomes something of a goal. If I want to be remembered not as a bitter old man, but with a certain level of fondness, then I have to work at that

Of course after writing this, it's not impossible I could end up only being remembered as a man who was obsessed with how people were going to remember him...


daisyfae said...

One of my cousins has the genealogy bug, and has thrown herself into finding those sentences... the stories, not just the dates, and who married whom, who beget whom, etc. We have learned a more about our ancestors - my great grandfather was a sheriff (and owned a bottle plant). According to newspaper accounts, he was shot stopping a robbery, but still managed to apprehend the villain. Given up for dead, the paper was virtually writing his obituary - but he got better. Still, with all that? It's not much more than one sentence!

i love this reflection. What is our legacy? How will we be remembered? Will we even BE remembered? When the last person who personally knew us dies, all other remembrances are hearsay... thank you for this line of thought!

Kim Ayres said...

Daisyfae - I guess the restricted nature of a one sentence description can't help but pique our curiosity. We start trying to fill in the details with our imaginations, and create wee stories. But I can't help but wonder if anyone's stories about me - if there are any at all - will be even vaguely accurate :)

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