The Blog

Mining for Memories: Looking and Listening for Gold (Guest Post)

Note: This post was featured on the wonderful blog Women’s Memoirs. To read the post in its entirety, including the introduction by Kendra Bonnett, please visit http://womensmemoirs.com/memoir-writing-book-business/memoir-writing-tips-interviewing-and-the-art-of-listening/

I remember Mary, a very elderly woman I once interviewed. She wanted to preserve her life stories but was struggling with how and where to begin.

I asked Mary, “Do you have a family heirloom that is a precious piece of your family’s story?”

It didn’t take her but a moment or two before she said, “Yes, I do. It is one of the most cherished things that I own.”

“Would you share that with me?”

Within a few moments she returned to her chair gingerly carrying a hand carved wooden pipe rack, which housed three pipes. She held the pipe rack in her frail hands, as if the items were sacred.

My curiosity intensified, as she gently caressed the items. “Please tell me about what you are holding.”

“These were my father’s pipes,” Mary began.

As she spoke, her face took on a serene and tender expression. “He died nearly fifty years ago, but I still remember how in the evening hours, after supper was done, that my father would sit next to the fire in his rocking chair and smoke his pipe. Even after all these years, I can still remember the fruity aroma of that pipe tobacco as it smoldered in the bowl of the pipe. I remember sitting on the floor at his feet working on a wooden puzzle or looking at a picture book. My mother was there, too. Nothing could have improved this moment in time.”

Mary continued: “My father and mother were nurturing parents, and I always felt their love.” And then she got quiet, lost in her memories.

“Mary,” I asked, “How did your parents show their love for you?”

“They listened to me. They listened to me talk about my childhood dreams. They gave me their time and attention, and I knew that they cared about what mattered to me.

“One day when I was about six years old I was given a kitten. Not long after getting the kitten, it ran out of the front door of our home and was hit by a car and killed. I cried and cried over the loss of my kitten. My mother took me in her arms and rocked me softly. I still remember how quiet she was. She hardly said a thing, but I knew that she cared about how I was feeling.”

A pipe rack holding three pipes…and the memories arrived. As interviewer, I hardly had to say a thing to Mary because her memories flooded into her mind as she held, smelled, felt and saw the memories in her mind’s eye. Sometimes that is all it takes to find memories more priceless than gold.

Like her parents so many years earlier, I listened.

 

Rebecca’s Reel Hints: Organize Your Project with Timelines and Maps

Why use timelines?

How do you keep your personal calendar of things to do each day? Written into a calendar hung on the wall by the fridge? Carefully noted in a day planner? Typed into your Ipad, phone, or other electronic device? Hundreds of sticky notes stuck to the front door? Some ways are better than others, but the fact of the matter is that you probably keep on schedule better when you are keeping some kind of calendar. It is a very rare person who can keep all their appointments and to-do lists in their head, collated and cross-referenced with all the relationships and demands placed upon their time. So, why do we think we can keep someone else’s life from a hundred years ago– every fact, document, and migration–  sorted in our heads at the same time? If you calendar your own life, it makes sense to “calendar” your ancestor’s life.

Start your timeline simply

There are four options, and we will discuss some pros and cons of each.

1) Paper and pencil.

Pro: If you aren’t comfortable with computers, at least you’re getting it done.

Con: Hard to adjust if you find new information.

2) Word document on your computer. Use a simple document to enter facts into a table you’ve created, or use easy-to-read bullet points. Use the footnoting option to cite and document each fact.

Pros: Easy to adjust, print, duplicate, and share.

Cons: None (in my opinion), unless you hate using the computer.

3) Create a spreadsheet.

Pros: Many people find this format familiar, and easier to refer to.

Cons: Harder to transfer the information when you are ready to write a report or narrative. Don’t forget to include a column for citations.

4) Use your computerized genealogy program to create a timeline for you.

Pros: Quick and easy.

Cons: You may not own a genealogy program. And make sure that your generated timeline cites the source of each fact.

What are the elements of an effective timeline?

Regardless of which way you decide to create your timeline, it must have five basic things: Dates, places, descriptions of the events, people involved, and citations of where the information came from. Keep it simple or make it complicated, it’s up to you. Dates can be the whole day-month-year or a simple year reference. A place should be as complete as possible, including a town (if known), county or parish, and state. Descriptions of the events vary widely from voter records to birth of a third child to an obituary. Having a list of people involved is an often-missed section of timelines; knowing who witnessed the deed or who else was in the household that census day can help with future research. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly: the citation. How can your judge between different pieces of events if information is conflicting? Using citations and applying common sense to questions like “Which document was made closer to the time of the event or created by a witness to the event?” A mother’s letter about her baby’s birth is probably more convincing than a granddaughter’s recollection. When I have a big project ahead of me, the timeline becomes my main organizational tool. I can chronologically look for clues and patterns. Do I have two men named John voting in different wards of the city on the same day? I may have two Johns, and have to watch that I keep their records separate.

Try it

Build your timeline now with the background information you collected on your focus family from last month. What do you notice? Are there gaps? Contradictions? Now go back and include major events, such as wars in that country, famines, or anything you think might reasonably have caused changes in your focus family’s lives.

Map Your Timeline

Mapping out your family’s chronology wil be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. There are two types of maps you may find yourself needing. First, large maps of multiple counties or states that show migration patterns. Second, detailed maps of cities/counties or plats of deeded lands, created with descriptions of chains, links, compass points or cadastral survey map subdivisions. Your choice of map depends on how far your ancestor traveled or what you are looking for.

An example of how mapping out the family answered a question. Look at the map at the top of this blog article, complete with some county names. The question was “Where were Jane and William married?” Here are some points from their timeline (simplified, and without citations for this example):
• 1845 – William was born in LaSalle County, Illinois
• 1850 – Jane born in Jo Daviess County, Illinios
___? – Married in an unknown place.
• 1873 – Missouri, daughter Emma born
• 1876 – Iowa, daughter Sophie born
• 1879 – Missouri, daughter Mary born
• 1880 – Census in Nodaway County, Missouri
• 1883 – Gentry County, Missouri, son Willie born

In mapping this family’s migration,  I learned something very important. I learned that Iowa, which had been later in my timeline (where daughter Sophie had been born), turned out to be an much more important place. Using the two lines from Jane and William’s birth places to places they were known to be later, I ended up finding that they had married in Louisa County, Iowa, smack in the middle. I even found the name of Jane’s step-father on the marriage record!

Now it is your turn – What could you find out with timelines and some creative mapping? You’d be surprised. Give it a try and let us know what new information you discover!

Next month: Research Plans

Love at First Rinse Cycle, Or How the Arab Oil Embargo Changed My Life

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, I’m affectionately thinking about how my husband and I first met.  Not your conventional meeting, I assure you.

It was February 1974, and I moved from Maryland to Northern Virginia to be closer to my job.  This was also during the oil embargo which left much of the country having to deal with long lines at the gas pumps. To complicate matters further, drivers were assigned odd or even days in which gas could be purchased.  I was tired of dealing with this situation.

With the help of the Washington Post apartment locator section, I found an efficiency apartment in Arlington, Virginia. The rent was $190 a month! Imagine that?!

A couple of days after moving in, I was looking for the building’s communal laundry room.  This was not something I was particularly looking forward to doing.   But as it turned out, going to the laundry room changed my life forever.

I loaded my clothes into a plastic laundry basket, grabbed my detergent put five bucks worth of quarters into my jean pocket, and headed for the laundry room.  Upon entering the laundry room, my first impressions were “Yuck!” The room was steamy, musty and grimy.  Dust bunnies were multiplying everywhere.  I knew that I didn’t want to spend any more time in this place than absolutely necessary.

All of a sudden my focus changed.  On the other side of the laundry room stood an attractive, dark haired young man.  He was busy stuffing clothes into a washer and pulling quarters out of his pocket.  I thought to myself, ‘Hmmm, who’s this?’

I conveniently found a washing machine located not too far from his.  And then with a helpless little smile on my face, I said, “Hi. I’m new to this building. How many quarters does this machine take?”

Bill was more than helpful and brought me up to snuff quickly on everything I needed to know about washing and drying everything from clothes to bathroom rugs.  Such a helpful and pleasant young man! He was very friendly and so easy to talk to – a nice change from guys I had been dating.

Well, that’s how it all started.  Our friendship and courtship began at the Executive Towers Apartments in Arlington, Virginia while we watched our clothes go through the spin cycle.

We would meet up a few more times in the laundry room, chat about life and work and how we hated commuting to our jobs.  Bill eventually asked me out for dinner and a movie. I invited him to my place for dinner, to meet my friends and eventually to meet my family.

A little more than a year later we married.

Our clothes have been spinning around together in the same machine for the last 37 years. So now as I think of it – laundry rooms aren’t such bad places after all!

’Tis the Season to Write Romantically (Guest Blogger)

I bought my husband a Valentine a few days ago, just like I’ve been doing for the last four decades. Yep, we’ve been together that long, and even though it has been that long, I still want him to know I love him in that way.

He shows me in multiple ways that he still feels that way about me. We are lucky, I know, and I don’t take our relationship for granted.

My husband has a romantic side. He likes the Los Angeles Lakers AND Jane Austen and isn’t embarrassed to be one in only a handful of men in the theatre to see a Jane Austen-ish kind of movie. He’s also a generous and clever gift-giver–both clever in the kind of gifts he chooses for me, and clever in the way he presents them to me. I’m sure that store clerks who help him with his purchases wish they were so lucky.

I have lots of stories I could write that illustrate his romantic side. Why would I want to write them? Because I want our children and future descendants to know that we loved each other in that way.

Often our children only see us as fuddy-duddy parents and can’t visualize us having a life before they came into the world. I suspect you know what I mean. I’ve taught personal history writing for the last 15 years, and the majority of my students tell me they’re writing their stories because they want their children to know what their lives were like before they became parents. Writing stories about the romantic aspects of our lives is one way of expanding our children’s vision of who we are.

So write that romantic story. Here are a few story ideas you might consider:

  • Follow my lead and write a story that illustrates your spouse’s romantic side. When I gave this assignment to my class last year, I was greeted by a blank stare…followed by some mumbling…followed by some derisive laughter. “Now listen, folks,” I retaliated, “not everyone’s a hearts and flowers kind of person.” We then discussed various ways spouses show affection, like cleaning the house when you’re sick, or praising you to their children, or always looking nice for you, or watching a Jane Austen movie with you when they’d rather watch the Lakers…that kind of thing.
  • Write about an adolescent “crush.” Reveal your awkwardness and all the embarrassing details. Be real, and your family will see you in a new light.
  • Write about your first kiss. Who cares if it was a bomb? (Mine was!) Write about it anyway. Be sure to put your story in its setting. Let readers SEE where the deed was done. Was there music playing in the background? Johnny Mathis set the stage for my big dud…”The Twelfth of Never.”
  • Write about your first date–or any interesting/crazy/embarrassing/romantic date you had. Teens don’t date anymore. Show your children’s generation what it was like in “your day.”
  • Write about a marriage proposal. Be as specific as you can. Who said what? How did you feel?
  • Write about your wedding day. Think of some interesting, fun, or surprising incidents that made the day stand out so your story is uniquely yours. Keep it personal…and romantic.
  • Write about your honeymoon. One of my students, an 87-year-old widow, wrote about her wedding night in surprising detail. Yes! It was a lovely story, written sensitively, and with great love. Her children will read the story and be happy their parents loved each other so much.

Now, whatever topic you choose, I recommend you do the following:

  • Write honestly and personally. Reveal your feelings, your disappointments, feelings of awkwardness, embarrassment, and silliness. Show the real you.
  • Use lots of detail–about people and settings. Where did incidents take place? Let us SEE it. What were you wearing? What did other people look like? Add “sense details,” if appropriate–sound, smell, sight, taste, and feel.
  • Create scenes, if possible. Don’t just write a summary. Try to remember what was said, and re-create conversations as you remember them, capturing the emotional truth of the experience.
  • Snag readers’ attention from the get-go. Some experts advise beginning in the middle of things. Too often we feel like we need all kinds of back-story before we get to the interesting part. Don’t do it.
  • Don’t be in a rush to get it finished. Write a rough draft and let it sit for a while. You’ll soon think of things you’ll want to add.

That’s it. I think you’ll enjoy this writing assignment. Get into the spirit. Play some Johnny Mathis, or whoever rocks your boat. Browse through some old photos albums to resurrect old memories. Then sit at your desk and put it all down on paper.

Dawn Parrett Thurston has taught life story writing at Santiago Canyon College in Orange County, CA for the last 15 years. She and her husband are co-authors of the book Breathe Life into Your Life Story: How to Write a Story People Will WANT to Read, available from Amazon and the publisher, Signature Books. Dawn is on the board of directors of the Association of Personal Historians. Her blog, www.MemoirMentor.com/blog, was selected as one of the Top 10 Personal History Blogs of 2011 by Dan Curtis. 

Sixty Years, Sixty Letters, Sixty Memories

Last month I reached a milestone in my life — my sixtieth birthday.  Sixty birthdays have come and gone. My two daughters are now adults and successfully living independent lives. I have three adorable grandchildren and that young handsome guy I married so many years ago has a full head of gray hair and remains the love of my life.

There is not much that I need or want at this point in my life. I am well aware that buying a birthday gift for me is not an easy task for my family.  However, this year my elder daughter gave me a gift that will forever be a priceless treasure to me.

Unbeknownst to me, two months ago Annie sent a letter to my family, as well as to new and old friends.

She wrote:

Would you please jot down a favorite memory you have of my mom so that she knows that her nearest and dearest are thinking of her on her birthday? It doesn’t have to be anything fancy — you can just write it down on a piece of paper and sign your name — the more nostalgic the better. The goal: to accumulate sixty years of memories filling sixty envelopes.

On my birthday, after I had blown out the candles on my cake, my daughter hugged me and handed me a thick stack of white business-sized envelopes. Wrapped around the stack was the following note:

Happy Sixtieth Birthday Mom!  

You are loved by so many people and you have made so many people’s lives better by simply being you.  I’m honored and blessed to call you my mom!

Love,
Annie

As I held the letters in my hands, my eyes filled with tears.  I was touched by Annie’s thoughtful effort.  As I read the letters, I was amazed by the number of people who responded to my daughter’s simple request. And as I continued to read, I was astounded by how many events I had forgotten.  I had forgotten – but my family and friends had not. Recollections of simple things done together. Simple, but meaningful.

My aunt and uncle sent me a copy of their formal wedding day photograph taken over fifty years ago.  In the black and white photograph I am standing in the front row and I am seven years old.  My aunt enclosed a note saying “A memorable day – so glad you could be part of it.”

My dear 85 year old friend, Betty reminded me of a sad trip we took together to the veterinarian’s office.  She recalled how I put my hand on hers as the vet administered an injection that put Betty’s cat out of pain.

According to my Aunt Lou, I deliberately omitted gardenias from my bridal bouquet, because I knew she was allergic to their fragrance.

And there were many more stories like these. Touching reminders of the great 60 years of my life. Annie’s effort,  and all of the many memories, touched my heart and mind far more powerfully than a box of chocolates or a bouquet of flowers ever would have.

Think about this simple effort when your loved ones’ birthday is drawing near.  If you choose to follow my daughter’s example, you will be giving the best gift anyone could ever receive —  the gift of sweet memories!