Every man is a quotation from all his ancestors. Ralph Waldo Emerson
Writing a memoir is like entering a dream of past memories and at the same time doing an archaeological dig. When you write memoir, you are sifting through layers of time and history. You find buried rooms, shards of lost artifacts, and surprising treasures. Sometimes you find buried skeletons too! The nature of your dig will be unique, of course, as your family and your story is not like any other.
A memoir is a document of discovery in many dimensions. As you write and research your family, it’s likely that you’ll uncover and discover secrets and hidden clues to the past. Gather your photos, family Bibles, and diaries if you are lucky enough to have them. Sign up for one of the genealogical sites to find more information and get facts about your family. You may be surprised!
One of the best sources for your research will be the family photo album or photo box—you know, that cardboard box or plastic tub where the family has been collecting photos for years. If you have photos from other generations in your family, most will probably be tattered and unlabeled, but if you’re lucky, you might be able to figure out who some of the people are. If you have older relatives, take your photos to them and see what stories they can tell you. You will want to record that meeting if they allow it. Remember, people who are older may have been raised with a different sense of open sharing that our culture has now. Allow them to refuse to elaborate if that is their choice.
The family photos you inherit are a treasure. A photo is a moment captured in time in the middle of lives that were going on before and after the photograph was taken. A snapshot taken in a split second introduces us to people we will never know and shows us a time and place in history, a valuable legacy.
You can often see hidden clues about family dynamics in photos. Look deep into those moody sepia images and the black and white snapshots to see what you can notice or imagine about the people and situations in the photo. Allow your mind to wander and your imagination to take hold as you gaze into the faces who look back at you from beyond time. Notice body language, clothes style, people’s gestures and attitudes. Try to “read between the lines” to understand what you are seeing about the people in the photo.
Notice the background in the picture, the rooms, furniture, and the architecture of the houses. Landscapes and weather tell their own stories, as do cars, carriages, airplanes, and trains that might be included in the photo. Every detail tells a story that can help you develop yours.
One of my students told me about special moments she spent talking with her eighty-six-year-old mother and ninety-year-old father.
You could feel the power of their memories as we all gazed and murmured over the photos in the evening lamplight. They lifted one photo, then the other, talking fast as they told us about the bread lines during the Great Depression, and how families put gold stars in the windows when their sons were killed during WWII. They talked about shoveling snow in winter, and the challenges of just doing laundry —it could take days in the winter time. We laughed at the old cars and the outfits they were wearing. We learned so much about the history of the world, not just their lives. I wish we could have taped these conversations.
Some family members look at treasured recipes handed down through the generations. They learn about cooking from scratch as it once had been done by the women in the family and even try some of the recipes—this is true research, and hopefully delicious! Some family members are careful keepers of the family Bible, where their ancestors’ birth and death dates were written in by hand. With such raw material to get you into another time and place, a story may begin to take shape, though you may hunger for more details.
Personal diaries are a treasure, but most contain “just the facts,” written without emotion or reflection—often people didn’t have time for that and might have felt it indulgent or too personal in the age before “sharing everything.” But you might be able to read between the lines in the diary to discover a hint of feeling or a reaction to events. If you can read diaries from different family members, you might uncover even more hidden nuggets of truth about the family and the times they lived in.
To write about your ancestors, you need to trust your imagination and do all the research you can from sources like the Internet, newspaper archives, and books written at the time or near the era when your ancestors lived. You’ll be knitting together what you know from your primary sources with how you imagine life was lived. When you draw from several sources like photos, historical records and online research, you can come close to piecing together the time you’re writing about. We’re all products of our context in time and place. The more you know about your ancestors and grand-parents, the more you might discover about yourself.