How many of us tell family stories around the Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner table, at birthdays, reunions or out camping? Stories about great-great-grandfather coming to America from the “old country,” or of grandmother being born in a sod hut on the plains, or uncles and aunts that persevered through the dustbowl/depression era. I would guess most, if not all, families have such stories. What’s sad is that a high percentage of them get lost through time because they never get written down.
I had a vague interest in genealogy until 2002. That’s when both my parents died within a 2-week period. Suddenly I was trying to reach cousins I had never met and was sorting through documents and photos that I had never seen. Aside from the simple task of notifying everyone who deserved to know about the passing, I became intrigued by the faces I was seeing for the first time. And―like many others I’m sure―I realized that the very people who could answer my questions were gone.
Luckily some of the photos had writing on the back, at least a name, maybe a year. Some had nothing at all. Again, luckily, my aunt (the last of her generation) was still alive and was able to fill in some of the blanks. Unluckily, she was in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s, so some of her information was suspect. When I asked her the names of three different forebears and she responded with “John” to each one, I knew I could not rely on her answers. But I had gleaned enough information to launch me on my search for more.
What proved to be the greatest treasure I could have imagined was my father’s autobiography. He had written his own story in several installments over the last 20 years of his life. He wrote it primarily for us kids, prefacing it with remarks about not knowing much about his own family origins and hoping to rectify that for us. While that concern was the genesis of the idea, I believe my father found that he enjoyed writing more than he had known (runs in the family), so even after he had told his story, he continued to write articles and essays about things that interested him. Some years ago I realized that this detailed account of life during the 20th century was something that needed to be accessible and should not simply lie forgotten in a drawer. I dragged it out, scanned it in (my father had had it typed up), added photos and published it through Create Space. While I never expected to sell very many copies, I just wanted it out there. I didn’t want those stories to be lost.
I have actually sold more copies than I expected, primarily of course to extended family, but the real gratification is the feedback I get. So many cousins had never seen the manuscript or had never heard the stories about their own parents or grandparents. And it’s an absolutely invaluable resource for family genealogy. Using the names, dates and places that my father wove into his story as a springboard, I have been able to follow several branches of the family back to the 1600’s, 1500’s and even 1400’s. An interesting aside is that my father’s family was poor and he often remarked about not having any connections to the Mayflower; in my research, I found out that we actually do have a connection!
Spurred by the familial success of this, I began to think about my aunt. My mother’s twin was an Army nurse during World War II and was captured on Corregidor in the Philippines and spent three years in a prisoner-of-war camp there. I knew that the Wisconsin Historical Society had two scrapbooks that were started by my grandmother when my aunt went into the service, but I had never studied them. Going to their website, I found I could download a pdf file of the scrapbooks, and that they were full of letters, newspaper clippings and photos. The scrapbooks told the story, not only of the war effort and the concern for the prisoners, but also of my grandmother’s efforts to find out information and get relief to her daughter. It included a letter from President Roosevelt himself congratulating the returning nurses on their bravery and service as well as the full transcript of a radio interview wherein my aunt described her time in the Japanese camp. As before with my father, this was a story that needed to be told.
Using the scrapbooks as my foundation, I told the two-sided story of my aunt in her retreat from—and eventual capture by—the Japanese, and of my grandmother’s unflagging efforts to understand what was going on so far away. The story spoke of the day-by-day courage and perseverance of both women battling on in their respective challenges and of course was a microcosm of the war that engulfed the entire planet. I knew this same story had unfolded for thousands of servicemen and women and thousands of family members still at home.
Although I understood that many people were interested in the war and such stories, I have been surprised at the interest my book has generated. I am basically a fiction writer and I was intimidated by the idea of writing non-fiction, even more so about detailing the private lives of many family members. I didn’t publish the book until I was certain I could hand it over to siblings and cousins without flinching, but at that point I went again to Create Space and the book has been doing quite well. As a matter of fact, I recently received an e-mail from a small museum in Wisconsin that now wants to sell the book in their gift shop; nice validation for a story that might never have been told.
Now I think it’s just about time to start writing down the stories in my husband’s family ….
So what about you? What family stories could you tell?
For more information:
The View from the Summit by Howard L. Munns, edited by Melissa Bowersock
Marcia Gates: Angel of Bataan by Melissa Bowersock