Neil Slobin isn’t used to running out of things to say.
The lifelong Cleveland Heights resident likes a good conversation and telling stories.
But in 2008, when he went to visit his friend’s mother who had moved to a nursing home, he froze.
“She was so depressed and so aggravated to be there, and I’m pretty sure she knew her time was drawing near. When I went to visit her one of those times, she did not want to talk,” said Slobin, who went to see her three or four times a week and said they were extremely close. “I left after probably 15 minutes. There was nothing to say.”
He felt terrible. While driving home, he had an idea. What if he had a prompt, questions to ask her during those awkward moments? Something more than, “What did you eat today?” or “What did you watch on TV?"
Four years later, his light bulb moment born out of frustration led to the creation of Sweet Memories, described as “an interactive card game for people born between 1920 and 1940.”
The oversized deck of cards contains 52 questions such as what is your fondest memory of your parents? What was the most embarrassing thing you ever did or said? What is the accomplishment you are most proud of? Photos Slobin found at antique shops of families celebrating birthdays or weddings or posing on ponies adorn the back. One photo is of his parents. The deck costs $19.95.
The cards are meant to facilitate conversation, especially during tough moments.
“I want people to come together. We have weird separations. Sometimes, particularly in difficult situations, walls come up and we feel nervous and awkward in bringing up questions and engaging people,” Slobin said. “My ideal sense of it is that families will start talking to each other and really learn who they are."
The name of his company is All Together Now, a tribute to all of his family and friends who helped him write the questions, design the cards, invest in the product and support him.
owner Steve Presser is one of those friends who helped Slobin spread the word about Sweet Memories.
“I personally love the idea. I think it’s a very clever, creative way to help those of us who have been in a situation to be able to communicate with somebody on their terms,” Presser said. “Something that really evokes a really good, positive feeling at a time when it’s not really the best of times.”
Slobin, who teaches philosophy at John Carroll University, called upon another friend he’s known since 1973, artist Russell Stephanchick.
Slobin, 63, asked Stephanchick if he could create a design for the question cards he envisioned.
“I had two good ideas. One was (to put questions on) the card and the other was getting Russell on this. He’s just tremendously creative,” Slobin said. “My idea for the back of the cards (initially) was a 1940s geometric design."
Stephanchick drew a rough mock-up, but then the project stalled for a few years. Last April, they started working again when his sister had an idea.
“Why don’t you come to Sweet Lorain and go through our estate sale photos?” she asked.
He sifted through thousands of photos for four hours. Then he went to on Coventry and went through thousands more.
Thirteen photos made the cut and are now the cover of the deck and on the back of individual cards. Stephanchick arranged the photos and created a design.
Slobin has pitched his cards to nursing homes and distributed some locally. He also hopes that hospital gift shops and bookstores will sell the deck. carries them now.
He witnessed a family using them at a launch party in April at the Coventry bookstore. The family took the cards next door to , and a child used the prompts to ask his grandparents questions for a school report.
“I wish I had had these so I could have asked my grandparents these questions. I don’t know the neighborhood they grew up in. I don’t know what games they played. You really get a sense of who people are who are the closest to you. That you assume that you know but you don’t quite know,” Slobin said. “And they can help people bring up issues they might not want to talk about but need to talk about.”
Slobin has poured thousands of dollars into the project and created 5,000 decks of cards. He raised money by throwing benefit parties, and four people have invested in the product. He’s sold about 50 decks locally and in other states such as Pennsylvania and California, and even sold a set to someone in England.
“A very close friend of mine, her uncle has mild to medium dementia, and I know him. He’s very quiet at his family get-togethers. She and her brother used these with him and they talked for three hours, which is just really wonderful,” Slobin said, smiling.
He’s heard other stories about how the cards have provided a vehicle for conversation.
“It really fills a void for many. It’s a very clever gift and idea for many who’ve been, sadly, in that position where you don’t know what to say,” Presser said. “This is a real nice of way doing it.”
For more information about Sweet Memories, click here.