Sunday, March 20, 2011

Decoding Your Personal Past

By Andrea Boeshaar

I enjoy meeting, mentoring, and encouraging other writers. Oftentimes newer writers will ask me where they should begin. How should they start unpeeling the layers of their hearts, captivating energy and emotion? I reply by suggesting they write what they know. Sounds cliche, I know. But allow me to explain.

One of my heart’s desires is to compile a booklet for each of my three sons depicting the origins of our family. It’s been a challenge and, as I search a myriad of Internet databases and talk to relatives, I find myself wishing that of my family members would have kept a journal.

For instance, I would love to have a glimpse into what my dad’s mother thought about things, about her children, her husband, her in-laws. She died when I was about five so I only have vague memories and a scant few photos of her. And I never knew my maternal great grandmother. Had she kept a diary, it would have likely been penned in Norwegian. What a treasure that would be. What a keepsake! But my great grandmother was a hard-working woman whose daily goal was keeping her children fed and clothed while her husband was away, laying railroad track in upper Wisconsin and in Canada. Perhaps she thought keeping a diary was a time-waster, after all who would want to know how many strawberries she canned that morning or how many ears of corn she picked for supper. Who would care that she sent two of her sons out into the woods to hunt rabbit for the stew she prepared or how many cows she and my grandfather owned?

I’m sure she wouldn’t have fathomed that her great granddaughter, sitting in her centrally-heated home on a March evening, typing away on her computer (after dashing out and buying one of Applebee’s Oriental chicken salads for supper) would have LOVED to know what life was like in the late 1890s and early 1900s.

About 20 years ago, I did coerce my grandfather into telling me about his grandparents. In a nursing home at that time, he dictated to my mother and then I typed it up for that year’s family reunion. Now my grandfather’s memories are preserved in writing. Here’s an excerpt:

“Bestemore or “Besta” as we called her (meaning “grandmother” in Norwegian), was a wonderful gardener. I especially remember the bleeding heart bushes blooming in the spring. She had apple trees and gooseberry buses for jam. Her garden was a thing of beauty, arranged in raised beds with little paths between the plots of vegetables. I remember eating in Besta’s summer kitchen, a lean-to with a wood range (stove), table, chairs, and a cupboard for dishes. It was the coziest place when it was cold or rainy.”

How precious my grandfather’s memories are to me. My “Duppa,” as I called him, died at the age of 90 back in 1998. But his memory (and those of the rest of my ancestors) lives on – and more poignant than ever since a small slice of the past has been documented.

As people living in the 21st Century, we have invaluable tools at our fingertips that can enable us to record history as it happens. We can journal or blog about how events such as the political landscape, 9-11 tragedy, the Indian Ocean tsunami, and the Japan earthquake and tsunami shaped our lives or our way of thinking -- for future generations. We can record the miraculous things God is doing (and has done) and track our spiritual growth as a testimony. All we have to do is stroke the keyboard, unlike my grandmother who bent her knuckles on a manual Smith Corona typewriter.

So, attend those upcoming family reunions and let the elderly relatives bend your ear. Ask them what they remember about growing up and, with their permission, get it on tape or video. Then write about the event. It's a fabulous way to decode your past and I guarantee those invaluable keepsakes are worth the effort!

Do you already write about your family history? Do you blog or journal? What have you discovered about your past recently?


Crystal Laine Miller said...

On my mother's side, our Norwegian great aunt wrote down all she could remember about coming to America and family ties. It is a precious history that I've been lacing together on family trees. My mother was a storyteller and now that she's gone, I've tried writing down the stories. I find that I have many questions and long for the days to have mom back, to ask instead of just listening.

What's kind of cool--my great grandfather made friends (in Minnesota) with a Native American (Mickinock) on the reservation next to his homestead. A few generations later I'm Facebook friends with Mickinock's great granddaughter and she is a Christian. :) Of course, that makes my writer's mind run wild with possibilities!

Loved this post. Thanks.

Rocky said...

Great post Andrea! My family recently went to Ellis Island to do research. It was believed my great grandmother (11) came over alone with her brother (9) to join their established family. But the historian there found that the family had paid someone from the village to escort them over. Also learned that same great grandmother married her cousin and once this came out in town she and her family were kicked out of church! All good writing fodder for sure. :-)

Lisa Lickel said...

Fun to think about. We found out only recently from the cousin who was here in America visiting, that he'd been a very reluctant Nazi pilot. He'd had a nervous problem and just wept when he talked about the experience.

Lena Nelson Dooley said...

My father's family came over from Norway and Sweden during the lives of his parents and grandparents. I love that a cousin has done a family history on this side of the ocean, and a distant cousin on the other side of the ocean.

Jillian Kent said...

I love finding out interesting facts about my family. My mom is living with us and is 86 now. She's full of stories I keep track of and I'm still trying to get her to write some of them down.