Jul 292016
Fears our Ancestors faced in the Dance of Death

The “Dance of Death” stained glass windows in the Bern, Switzerland Munster give a graphic illustration of the fears our ancestors faced.

Understanding the fears our ancestors faced can help us understand their lives. That, in turn, can help us tell their stories. Although it’s hard to know from the meager records we unearth whether an ancestor was an introvert or adventurer, we can form some theories based on historical context. We can also get a better grasp on their everyday lives.

Dangers of their Times

Reading BBC Magazine’s10 Dangers of the Medieval Period” made me want to crawl in a hole on behalf of my ancestors.  Dr. Katharine Olson’s description of the plague alone is stomach turning. Our ancestors didn’t simply fear getting sick and dying within a week, leaving their offspring to fend for themselves. The plague was a disgusting, oozing, disfiguring way to go.

Other dangers lingered for centuries—until the arrival of better medicine and social services. Even in established communities, famine, child birth, infant and child mortality, and violence from other humans were among the fears our ancestors faced on a regular basis.

As you write about your ancestors, contemplate how they would have dealt with those fears. Which ones would have kept them awake at night? Which ones did they face simply because they had no other options? For instance, when pioneer women had ten or more children, they must have worried about who would raise their existing children if they died in childbirth with number 11 or 12?

Pre-20th century travel was laborious at a minimum. Most of the time it was fraught with danger. I wonder what my immigrant ancestors would think of our modern transportation, safety devices, and roadside lodgings. They crossed oceans with babes in arms; I put my dog in a seatbelt device to drive two miles to the vet.

Fears our Ancestors Faced Due to Religion or Heritage

Fears our ancestors faced weren’t just related to the times in which they lived. Their own heritage or faith could make life dangerous.

Jewish ancestors would have faced brutal antisemitism throughout history, not just in the 20th century. How do you think they coped with that, generation after generation?

In many countries, including colonial America, bucking the established church would not only endanger one’s immortal soul. Practicing your faith could put you in mortal danger.

Researching your ancestors’ allegiance (or lack thereof) to the religious authorities of their times can be truly enlightening.  For instance, in SmithsonianMag.com’s “America’s True History of Religious Tolerance,” Kenneth C. Davis reports that the idea of America as a “welcome melting pot in which everyone was free to practice his or her own faith” is a myth. On the contrary, he says that “the real story of religion in America’s past is . . . often awkward, frequently embarrassing and occasionally bloody.”

Sometimes, putting food on the table meant denying your heritage. For instance, I have a friend whose Polish ancestors in Minnesota changed their last name to “Cullen” in order to find work. The only other option was to move elsewhere.

Comparing your Ancestors to their Compatriots

Fears Our Ancestors Faced - Crossing the Mississippi River

How did your ancestor compare with his or her compatriots.

Were they early on the curve of people to immigrate to a different land? Were they holdouts? Were they a part of high-society or did they live hand-to-mouth? The answers to questions like these will help you figure out whether your ancestors decisions were acts of courage or desperation. Or both.

Sue Cromwell, a genealogist here in Farmington, Michigan, points out that estate inventories list possessions and give clues to an individual’s standing in the community. Likewise, census reports will reveal their education levels, whether they took on boarders or had servants in the household, and the size and value of their real property.

Your Turn:

What fears did your ancestors face? How did you research the particulars? How did you write about it?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

Jul 212016
Reunions are stories of family

Relatives, In-laws, or friends, reunions are a great place to restore relationships and recover faded memories.

Until last weekend, I had forgotten how poignant reunions can be. Whether it’s family, school, or something else, reunions allow you to reconnect with the past. Not only are they great places to re-color some of those faded memories, they refresh the soul.

Reunions, Time, and Relationships

It’s hard to grasp the effect that time has—and doesn’t have—on relationships. Harder still to express. I wish I had the words to articulate the restorativeness (I know, that’s not really a word.) of last weekend. My graduate program, USC- International MBA, celebrated a 30-year reunion. This is the first one that I attended, though there was a 25-year event.

Some people looked more or less the same. Good genes or “work,” they were instantly recognizable. Others, looked markedly different at first glance—gray hair, less hair, or glasses.

But once conversations began, the years peeled away.

Friendships picked up exactly where they had left off in 1986, even though we had to catch up on 30 years or so of life.

Some people have had tragic experiences. Lost a husband. Have children with severe emotional issues. Divorced. Many had lived in other countries, held impressive positions, or earned additional degrees.

In other words, a lot had changed.

Reunions reveal good friends are like stars

Conversations peeled the years away.

Then again, very little changed—even for those who had “redefined” themselves by switching careers or vocation. Which was reassuring. We’d matured and aged, but not changed.

There was a lot of laughter, eating, and drinking.  A lot of memories were reviewed.  New ones were made. The days flew by.

As Mariah Hetherington said about a different reunion, “For me, the reunion’s biggest draw is the potential to reconnect face-to-face with people I truly regret losing touch with.”

Catching Up Before Hand

We cheated a little when it came to catching up.  All 57 of us were encouraged to write “30 years in 300 words.”  Eighteen of us did, in documents ranging from 25 to 700 words.  That helped start conversations.  I’d recommend that. It helps the folks that don’t want to explain the same things over and over.

Rebuilding the Memories

We shared the same experiences, but not the same memories. Sometimes it took several of us to rebuild the memory in terms that made sense. One would remember we were in Charleston, but not how we got there. Another would remember a bus trip. A third would remember the details of the tour we did of the container port. (I can’t remember the trip at all.)

And because we all speak foreign languages, the languages themselves held memories. I didn’t remember one classmate very clearly, until I heard him speaking German. Then the memories came flooding back.

Writing about Reunions

What reunions have you attended?  How did they affect you? What did you learn about yourself? Did they make you feel reminiscent for the times gone by or relieved you’d strayed from the path you were expected to take.

Did you worry beforehand? Buy new clothes? Lose weight? Try to lose weight and fail (I’m raising my hand here)? Think about what stories you wanted to tell? Think about what you would keep silent about?

What memories did you most enjoy reminiscing about? Why? What had you forgotten? Who did you enjoy reconnecting with? Why do you think you’d lost touch?  Do you think you’ll stay in touch now?

If you attended a school reunion, think back. Was it a high or low time in your life? Did you gain some perspective by going back?

If it was a family reunion, what did you learn about family and family relationships? How do they compare to friendships?

Your Turn

Have you written about a class or family reunion? How did you approach it? What advice would you give others?

Jun 162016
Truth and Accuracy scrabble tiles

How do you deal with the elusiveness of truth and accuracy in memories and family stories?

The fallibility of memory can make truth and accuracy hard to come by. Competing versions of the same stories—the same memories—dance and whorl around family tables every get together. One person remembers it was a Sunday in July. A sibling insists it was in October and a Sunday.

How do you decide which version is true? What details are accurate? Perhaps a better question is how do you decide if the details of the story are worth fighting about.

Often the answer lies in understanding the difference between truth and accuracy as well as your own role as storyteller.

Truth versus Accuracy Continue reading »

May 272016
What else have you lost quote by Havelock Ellis

What else have you lost? How did that loss teach the fine art of living?

Grief often rears its dark, draining head, not just when someone dies.  The onset of many life crises is the loss of something. A relationship, a value, a sense of purpose.  We’ve all experienced a loss of a pet or cherished object (See Writing Your Lost and Found Story.) But what else have you lost during your lifetime?

Loss of a Relationship, Sense of Identity

A loss of a relationship can also entail a loss of an identity. Our worldview changes when life chooses to make an illegal U-turn.

Recently, a friend of mine when through a time of anguish that makes me feel neurotic grieving over my perfectly normal empty nest. Her 20-year-old daughter disappeared from a rehab facility in a major city many hours away from home. For two eternally long months, there was no sign of her child.

Finally, by chance, driving along a major thoroughfare in her own city, she spotted her daughter. The reunion was also a moment of heartbreak. My friend has a hard time talking about it. Though she temporarily located her daughter, my friend’s world had shifted on its axis. In addition to missing her daughter’s physical presence in her home—in her life, the shroud of adulthood that her daughter now possesses limits her ability to help her child who suffers from mental illness and addiction.

When have you had to make peace with a new version of “normal”? A divorce, job loss, or career change can also spark feeling of a loss of identity. How did you right yourself? How did you regain your sense of self? These make great stories, stories with the power to connect across generations.

Innocence Lost

Another friend tells of her pre-teen loss of innocence. The Oakland County child killer and the panic he instilled in the entire Detroit metro area robbed her and her friends of carefree afternoons, riding bikes to each other’s houses. Of going out to play out from under the anxious, watchful eyes of their parents. The bubble of invincibility that buffets children against the horrors of the adult world popped. In its place came an imagination that ran rampant. It colored not only her own development, but the eventual choices she would make as a parent.

Loss of Physical Ability, Memory

There are things that our mortal, frailer-than-we’d-like-to-admit bodies cheat us out of as well. They betray our still active minds by refusing to work, or at least work as well as we’d like. They force us to fight disease instead of those life battles we want to mount.

Perhaps you’ve had to bear helpless witness as a particularly cruel disease causes a family member to misplace memories, even their sanity. Past moments, even the recognition of loved ones, fade into oblivion. Consider writing about these moments of heartache; they tell stories of love and devotion.

What else have you lost?

Along the road, whether by virtue of physical maladies or of the life sh** that happens, we lose things. Intangible things. Confidence. Independence. Hope. Faith. Courage. Our groove.

Don’t you think these moments are important to share? What would you want your loved ones, especially those of future generations, to take away from your story? Of course, they’ll be touched by your loss, but they can also learn from your healing or your renewed perspective. Perhaps they’ll even discover that resilience isn’t inborn, but something that can be gathered along the way, even on the roughest, dirtiest roads.

Havelock Ellis is quoted as saying, “All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.” Let your loved ones know how you did that.

Apr 222016
Make stories relevant show emotions

When you make your family stories relevant, they pull at the heart strings of your readers.

There’s a point to sharing ancestors’ stories—or at least there should be. Educate. Connect. Inspire.  That happens best when you’re able to make family stories relevant.

I could share a detailed tale about my grandmother, one that includes every bit of historical minutiae that I’ve been able to find. But why would you want to read that? She’s my grandmother, not yours. If I want you to read them—I need to make my family stories relevant to you, the reader. I need to make you care.

Making stories relevant has very little to do with spinning (or citing) an extraordinary tale. It has more to do with revealing the humanity within that narrative. Shauna Niequist writes:

I’m less and less interested in the ruminations of a scholar and more and more compelled by stories with grit and texture and blood and guts and humanity. I’m compelled by stories from everyday people whose lives sound a lot more like mine than the stories of superstars and high achievers…

How do you make your family stories relevant?

How do you make your characters pull at their descendants’(your readers) heart-strings?  How do you achieve that “there but for the grace of God, there go I” type of feeling?

The American Press Institute explains that we care most about those things that affect us. Just as we care more about the local forecast than the one across the country, our hearts are more likely to go out to a local family or a relative than a stranger several states away.

The article, Good Stories Prove their Relevance to the Audience, suggests making the ‘common ‘proximity’ of interests and emotions of the story clear. That works particularly well for those of us trying to make our family stories relevant.

The reader may identify with a range of life experiences, from the emotional shock of losing a job or worrying about a sick child to mundane tasks like the weekly trip to the grocery store or filling the car with gas…

How was your family member or ancestor relatable?  Was he in constant fear of not being able to provide for his children? Was she a mother that had buried children? Husbands? A reluctant matriarch?

Give your readers a passport into the past.

Help your readers understand why they would want visit the foreign soils of the past. Encourage them to use their imagination. What would it be like to live in that time period? What would family members be like if they lived in modern times? What would it have been like to have them as a friend? A grandparent? How would you have managed in their circumstances?

Write about decisions and circumstances.

Part of making a story relatable comes through promoting understanding through the setting. Not just that it was a sunny day in 1893, but by highlighting social context. What might the family dream for a little girl born that year? Today we dream that a daughter might be President. Back in 1893, many parents simply hoped that the child would survive past age five. Women didn’t have many rights. Perhaps they dreamed of a desirable spouse and a comfortable standard of living. Bring those universal human hopes into your story.

Often, we’re limit our stories to the dates of death and birth. What decisions did the person make? What choices did they have? What obstacles did they face? What resilience did they show throughout their lives?

Your connection matters

Let’s face it. If you have no personal connection to the person you’re writing about, you can’t really expect your readers to connect to him or her either. As you start your family story, think why did you like, love, or admire that person? Why did they matter to you? Why does their story matter?

Is there little something about them that makes them more relatable? More human?  (Read Sneaky Grandma.)

Your Turn

How have you made your family stories relevant to your readers?

Mar 072016
Paula Williams Madison and her definition of family

Paula Williams Madison puts the definition of family in a new light.

During RootsTech, I had the opportunity to meet and interview Paula Williams Madison, author of Finding Samuel Lowe: Harlem, Jamaica, China. Of course, there’s a lot more to Paula than authoring a bestselling memoir and a documentary by the same name. She’s the former top NBC executive for diversity.  She’s the winner of many awards, such as being listed among the “75 Most Powerful African Americans in Corporate America” (Black Enterprise magazine) and one of “Outstanding 50 Asian Americans in Business” (Asian American Business Development Center).

Her long list of accomplishments don’t say it all. She’s also a warm and gracious woman—a pleasure to interview.

Here’s our interview. Paula had some helpful advice for family history writers. She talked about how to decide what to share and the meaning of family. Continue reading »

Mar 022016

Form connections through stories is like hand holdingWriting coaches can help us with everything from developing a story arc to using better grammar. But, as storytellers, that’s not always what we crave. Great writing is, well, great. But family storytellers don’t just want to write better; we want to form connections through stories of the past. We want to connect with our readers, our family, and our family history.

How to Form Connections through Stories of the Past

This isn’t just another writing hoop to jump through. It’s not hard to form connections through stories of the past. It’s more of a question of writing with passion—and letting a little more of yourself shine through your writing. Continue reading »

Feb 012016

Writing Your Family Story in your MemoirI was excited and honored to join Linda Joy Myers of the National Association of Memoir Writers to discuss how to writing your family story in your memoir on January 22, 2016. The initial airing was membership only, but Linda Joy has offered me an audio transcript for my readers. Continue reading »

Jan 282016
Innovator Showdown Semifinalists and showdown

2015’s Innovator Showdown, image courtesy of RootsTech

This time next week I’ll be in Salt Lake City, walking around with a giddy feeling in my stomach. Having looked forward to and prepared for RootsTech for it for months, I’ll be trying to absorb all the family history, storytelling, and technical insight I can.

A highlight of the RootsTech conference will be the Innovator Showdown. Family history innovators from all over the globe compete for $100,000 in cash and prizes. For attendees, it’s like watching a Shark Tank for family history technology. In other words, way cool and fun.

Currently, there are twelve Innovator Showdown Semifinalists. By Thursday, February 4, that field will be narrowed to six. At that point, conference attendees get a big say in who wins the grand prize and bragging rights. Continue reading »

Nov 302015
Manger scene- stories worthy of the nativity

Read how our stories are as precious as gold, frankincense and myrrh, making them gifts worthy of the Nativity.

We Christians often struggle to counter commercialism’s sirenic come-hither calls as we begin our gift shopping. We’ve learned, over the years, at least in theory, how keep the hectic and to do lists from robbing us of the spirit of Christmas. We focus on the gift of the Christ child. And, as we shop, we contemplate gifts of the Nativity and their meaningfulness.

However, following the example of shepherds and magi before the manger is a tall order. How do we compete with gold, frankincense and myrrh?

The answer?

Understanding the gifts placed before the manger thousands of years ago brings home the impetus to package the past for loved ones. Stories are gifts not available in retail stores, but that come from the stores of the heart. Continue reading »