Memoir Week has drawn to a close, but perhaps it’s not too late to explore one of its relatives—the family history. Broader in scope than a memoir, the history of a family provides roots for many who feel like they’re floundering in our transient society.
When I was a child, I enjoyed a lot of family togetherness. Several times a year we met at my paternal grandparents’ home for food, fun, and festivities. My mother and aunts gathered in the kitchen, first for meal preparation and then for dish washing and drying. (Grandma didn’t own an automatic dishwasher.) I remember so much cheerful conversation and laughter emanating from that room, accompanied by mouth-watering aromas that promised my favorite foods would soon be on the dining table.
Children take such experiences for granted and expect them to continue throughout their lives. But too often that doesn’t happen. As my generation grew up, it spread out. We went to the east coast, the west cost, south to Florida and north to Seattle. That togetherness of childhood gave way to separate paths that seldom, then never, converged.
In 1989, at my father’s suggestion, I began working on a family history. His aunt (my great-aunt) had joined the DAR many years before after tracing the family tree back to the 1600s and proving that some relative had lived in this country at the required time to qualify her for membership. Hence, I had a head start—a fairly complete genealogy. But they were just names and dates. For a family history I needed much more; I needed personalities.
Fortunately, I found elderly relatives on both my parents’ sides who remembered or had been told stories about my ancestors who lived in the 1800s and early 1900s. Old newspaper archives at a small city library in the county where my maternal grandparents had lived provided information that hadn’t been recalled by the people I interviewed. Photographs dating as far back as the Civil War era gave faces to names. Poetry written by my grandfather and watercolor paintings by my grandmother added personal touches to the historical accounts. And a fascinating conversation I’d had with my grandfather when I was young found its way into the story of his life. The book grew to more than 80 pages of pictures and narrative and can be added to as babies are born and life goes on.
What’s the point here? Such histories connect us to our roots. They create a sense of family that is often lacking today. So when considering a memoir, why not take it a step further and do a family history? Maybe even do both. The priceless stories I uncovered would have been forever lost to future generations had I not set out to do this book, for two of the three people I interviewed (including my father) are no longer living.
Today, family ties are crumbling. Many young people have no sense of who they are or where they come from. Making a family project out of discovering one’s history can create a cord of togetherness that strengthens those ties. Why not try it?
Linda Lane, author of Katherine’s Song and Treacherous Tango, has teamed with two other editors to offer streamline power-edits to writers who want their books to shine on a budget.