Sep 212015
Cemetery photo with saying representing a fata morgana

The stories of the past aren’t a fata morgana, they’re just waiting for you to give them voice.

Cemeteries don’t deserve their spooky reputation. Sure, they’re full of dead people (cue my father-in-law’s obligatory joke about “people just dying to get in there”), but they’re more than that.

They are the final resting place of our grief, a place where we can go and pay respects, one of the places where we can grope for some sort of continued connection to loved ones. They’re that and more.

Cemeteries are places where long-forgotten stories intermingle.

Odd as it makes me—and admittedly, it probably registers low on all the things that make me odd—I enjoy the cemetery where my parents are buried. I have from the summer they died. Though I found no connection or consolation from visiting their graves, I took an immediate liking to their neighbors.

Oakwood is a place where joggers jog and dog walkers tarry. It’s a diverse community of those who died too young, brave veterans—some harkening back to the civil war, elderly widows reunited with the loves of their lives, and plots of posthumous family reunions. The stories float around—just beyond my grasp, a fata morgana of stories of life journeys.

My friend John Kingston introduced me to the concept of fata morgana. It’s a superior mirage; the shimmering band of light that you often see on the horizon, particularly in warm weather. It’s an unreachable apparition, a seemingly apt metaphor for the stories of the past.

However, here in Michigan, fata morganas on roadways pale in comparison to their appearance in other parts of the world. For instance, in the Straits of Messina, between Sicily and mainland Italy, fata morganas are known for the show they put on, refracting light into castles, cliffs, and ships.

A fata morgana

A fata morgana at sea

The weather doctor, Keith C. Heidorn, explains the phenomenon: “In a Fata Morgana mirage, distant objects and features at the horizon appear as spikes, turrets or towers, objects with great vertical exaggeration rising from the surface… Literally, Fata Morgana means the Fairy Morgana, a reference to the English legends of King Arthur’s enchanted sister Morgana, who dwelled in a crystal castle beneath the sea.”

Fata Morgana of Stories

Perhaps the comparison is backward. In other words, perhaps it’s the fata morgana that’s like those stories of the past, waiting to be told. They appear—a visual prompt, appealing to the imagination. They hover, just out of reach, just out of comprehension, begging to be conjured into narrative.

A fata morgana is made of refracted light, dissipating upon approach.

The stories we seek don’t dematerialize. In fact, the opposite is true.

The stories intermingling in cemeteries (as well as in shoeboxes, ignored journals, and that list of well-intentioned things we plan to get around to), don’t scatter and lose definition as we approach. The details of the life, if only the start and finish, stay in focus. And, with creativity and care, the focus sharpens, the longer we look. They wait, patiently through the ages, for our research and imagination to bring them to life.

Stories often hang out in the netherworld, a world not unlike the proverbial tip of the tongue. They’re just waiting for someone to give them voice.

Your Turn:

It doesn’t take much fairy magic to transform those castles in the air into beautiful family tales. Turn a fata morgana or two into a narrative that will continue to connect your family to their past and their heritage.

Sep 142015
Telling your own story illustrated by handwritten journal

Do you have to decide between telling your own story and telling family stories? I think not.

Deciding whether to tell your personal memories versus family stories is the memoirist’s version of “Who ya gonna call?” (Cue Ghostbusters music in the background.)

Perhaps the question is wrong. You don’t have to decide between telling your own story versus telling family—or even ancestor—stories. This isn’t a case of choosing “All of the above” because you’re not sure of the correct answer.

Your family’s story is part of your story

Telling stories of family members, particularly those who feature strongly during your growing up years, is undeniably part of telling your own story. Those relatives are part of who you are. They’re also part of how you became that person. They represent role models, not to mention the basis for a lot of your anxieties. And, whether or not you’re into “genealogy,” when you record the episodes of your past, you’re documenting parts of your family history. Telling their story is telling your own story.

Stories of Loved Ones Ground Us

If you read this blog regularly, you know my grandma passed down a collection of memories and stories. (See The First Treasure Chest of Memories.) Not only did she include some basic description of who begot whom, but she also included stories about her relatives. Those stories help us digest not only who grandma was, but the family that raised her was. Which means we understand our own heritage. Now grandma’s story is part of my own story.

You are part of your family’s story

For some reason, this one is often a sticking point. Most people are quick to see how their family story is part of their past and their development. What some family story compilers are slower to embrace is that the episodes of their own past have a place in the family story. Family historians are notoriously over-reticent about themselves. Perhaps it’s an occupational hazard of documenting life journeys and historic events of their ancestors.

However, that’s a mistake, and not only because it leaves a hole in the family story. As wonderful as ancestor stories are—and they are wonderful—they are no substitute for telling your own story. Putting yourself on the page allows you to connect with both present and future loved ones. My grandmother included genealogical information and that helps me form a connection with those ancestors. However, that connection pales in comparison to the one I enjoy with my grandmother.

Telling your own story and family stories

We all write best when we write about something over which we’re passionate. Follow that passion. When approaching a subject, go with the story that resonates the most with you. For instance, one particular grandparent story will stand out to you. Perhaps its’ the story of a beloved (or wicked) grandparent. On the other hand, perhaps telling your own story means writing about how you never had a relationship with a grandparent or how you feel now that you’re the grandparent.

As Jeff Goins points out, telling your own story is good practice; they make you a better storyteller.

Sep 082015
What I did on my summer vacation picture from childhood

Remember having to write “What I did on my Summer Vacation” essays? Well, sharpen those pencils

Where did the opportunity to tell all your peers “What I did on my Summer Vacation” go? Here in the USA, as September rolls around, it’s not just the kids that are in back-to-school mode. Everyone is looking forward. They’ll ask you, “How was your summer?” but it’s clear that a monosyllabic or few-syllabic response is preferred. “Fine.” “Hot.” “It went fast.”

When you do have an adventure to talk about, not many people are geared to listen.

That’s why you should be writing, not waiting for someone to ask!

Narrating—or the opportunity to narrate—“what I did on summer vacation” is a lost art. Remember
when that was the first homework the teacher assigned?

I was one of the few elementary students who liked the assignment. Climbing trees, playing in the creek, and watermelon seed fights mixed with close friendships and visits from cousins seemed worthy of narration.

Most kids dreaded it. Some figured it would be a contest on who had the most interesting summer and they would be the clear loser. Others struggled with the writing part. Some questioned why the current year teacher couldn’t come up with a more imaginative topic. Writing about being stuffed into the way-back of a station wagon with siblings and without air conditioning was hard to make into compelling reading.

But back then, as now, teachers had their reasons. It wasn’t just to assess their students’ ability to string words together into comprehensible sentences and paragraphs. Teachers then (and now) collected clues about their charges’ personalities. They gained insight into who the kids spent their time with and what their family unit looked like. It was the first step in figuring out what made the monsters students tick.

The Lost Art of “What I Did on My Summer Vacation”

And therein lies the lost art of writing about summer vacations and travel adventures—giving hints and insights into your life. Weave clues to the things that really matter to you into what you did, where you went, and what you saw.

Your Turn

Summer vacation can be wet

Even less-than-flattering photos bring “What I did on my summer vacation” essays alive

Try your hand at writing your own “What I did on my Summer Vacation” essay. Be sure to include:

• What made the trip memorable?
What type of relationships did you have with your companions? Were they co-adventurers, partners in crime, or co-cell-mates of the RV?
• What do you treasure (hopefully not resent) most about the people you spent time with? How did they affect your travels and your enjoyment of your time?
• What part of your summer vacation was tradition? How did this trip demonstrate those traditions? Break from them?
• If you traveled, who choose the destination and why?
• If you were disappointed in your time, explain why.
• Photos with and without people.
• What did you like most about your trip or free-time?
• What did you like least (besides it coming to an end)?
• Your personality!

If you come up dry or our looking for a more creative bent, apply some of Christina Hamlet’s “Table Topics” ideas for What I Did on My Summer Vacation into your writing.

Aug 312015
What would my ancestor think of me? At Losely Park in Surrey UK

As I visited the former home of Sir George More, the question came to mind. I do wonder “What would my ancestors think of me?”

What would my ancestors think of me?

I had my doubts recently, as I traipsed around the UK, seeking out locations where my ancestors lived and died. As I visited Loseley Park in Surrey in England, the manor home where my ancestors enjoyed an aristocratic life-style in the 17th century. Family members not only hob-nobbed with royalty, but also acted as treasurer for Henry Frederick, the then Prince of Wales and served in Parliament under King James.

As I embarked on our trip, I planned to visit “ancestral sites” more in an effort to “feel the dust of my ancestors’ shoes,” rather than to research. (I was traveling with a son who is not into genealogy.) As we drove up the long winding road to the estate, I realize they my ancestors probably seldom felt the dust of their own shoes. They would have had staff to prevent most dust-ups, and were their footwear to acquire undesirable soil, said staff would have removed the dust or other offending matter.

I wondered as I roamed the grounds, what would these titled ancestors think of my son and me. If we were able to time travel and present ourselves as cousins, I doubt they’d be impressed. Would they receive us graciously as members of the extended family? Or, would they be more like the character Hyacinth in Keeping Up Appearances, quickly ushering us behind closed doors before true aristocrats saw us?

Or am I being unfair? Perhaps they understood the inherent risks for putting their nest eggs in the royal basket. Those were turbulent times. Perhaps they were only doing whatever was necessary to provide for their progeny. I should be, and am, grateful for that.

Tomb in Lincoln Cathedral

What would Katherine de Roet Swynford and Joan Beaufort think of their 21st century progeny?

Likewise, at the Lincoln Cathedral, as I looked down at the tomb of my ancestor, Katherine Swynford on the south side of the cathedral’s choir, I wondered. What would my ancestor think of me if we had a chance to sit down and chat? She died at the turn of the 15th century. What would she have thought about the sheer number of descendants that she had created? Would she feel any differently about me than the royal family members? Would she feel honored that her descendants come looking for her tomb?

Your Turn:

You don’t have to visit ancient sites or plan a trip overseas to ponder this question. Do you ever wonder “What would my ancestor’s think of me?” What insight have you gained?

What would they think of your station in life and your achievements?

What would they think of your faith (or lack of following a faith)?

What would they think of the time and culture you live it?

What would they think of family alliances made after their time?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Aug 042015
Anticipation marked on a calender

Anticipation of the big event can make a great story.

In the aftermath of major events, anticipation is often overlooked. If we get around to preserving the story, we capture the event itself. Seldom do we go into the preparation, the excitement, and the looking forward to—or dreading—of the event.

Anticipation is part of the story too

Because anticipation–or dread–affects our memories, it’s often a part of the story—a part that will help readers understand us better (or the family member or ancestor we write about).

For instance, Gretchen Rubin points out in Psychology Today that anticipation is a major component of the happiness generated by an event. We anticipate, savor, express our gratitude, and look back and reflect. Likewise, in an aptly titled article, Anticipation Plays A Powerful Role In Human Memory, Brain Study Finds, Science Daily reports, “the simple act of anticipation may play a surprisingly important role in how fresh the memory of a tough experience remains.”

I’ve seen both sides of anticipation this summer. On the happy side, anticipation of meeting my son in Europe has carried me through the 90 days of missing him (not that I’m counting). Because his internship in the Netherlands is unpaid, he’ll need a loan to get him through his senior year of college. A condition—well the only condition we’ve actually discussed—of that loan is that he’ll travel with his mommy for two weeks at the end of his internship.

It’s probably not the most fiscally sound decision I’ve ever made, but as the flight day approaches, I’m giddy with excitement. I’ve obsessively planned our itinerary, taking over 700 ancestral events (births, baptisms, residence, deaths, and burials) into account in deciding what to see. I’ve booked cozy-looking affordable B&Bs, and calculated travel distances. I corresponded with friends I haven’t seen in 20 years and planned visits. I’m so excited that sometimes my feet don’t actually touch the ground.

Some anticipation is dread.

Stories of dread can matter as well.

As I helped my dear friend set up our church’s fellowship hall for her mother’s funeral reception, I saw that dread first-hand.

The event had, in one sense already transpired, but the final goodbyes were yet ahead. That dread expressed itself in the siblings’ painstaking efforts to make the goodbye meaningful. They bought orchids for each table and carefully re-potted each one. Mementos, collectibles, and photos were lovingly placed on the display table. Each item highlighted their mother’s personality and the importance of relationships and family to her.

Perhaps focusing on the smaller details gave them a respite from contemplating the big, heartbreakingly final, picture. But those of days drawing together, planning, and seeing to is a part of their family history. They matter because they illustrate the family dynamic.

Write about moments of anticipation.

These moments of anticipation are stories—stories often lost. They’re stories of how we cope and what makes our hearts sing. They’re stories of how our emotions are mixed, not just internally, but with family members.

Try writing about anticipation in your family’s life. These might include:

  • A child going away to college
  • A move
  • A trip
  • A wedding
  • A new baby on the way
  • Waiting for a diagnosis
  • Waiting for a doctor’s appointment after receiving lab results
  • Throwing a party
  • Waiting for a visitor to come
  • Frantically cleaning and cooking for family coming to visit

Your Turn

When has anticipation colored days, weeks, or months of your life?

Jul 292015
Selective reading of history -- words crossed out

Is there a selective reading of history in your family? How do you deal with it?

As southerners have debated whether the Confederate flag represents hate or heritage, several articles have addressed the idea of a “selective reading of history.” Which is, when you think about it, something families are really good at doing.

A selective reading of history isn’t quite a revision of what happened. It’s an intentional focus on some facts and a brushing-under-the-rug of other events. As storytellers, we play a role in selecting what’s told and what’s kept mum. Admittedly, sometimes the selective reading of history is appropriate. There’s a “truth” of the story that needs to come through loud and clear, unobscured by complicating details and the noise of side stories

However, other times, those of us recounting the family’s history slowly become aware of the crumbs lurking under the carpet. We feel uncomfortable as we sense them crunching under the family footfalls. Continue reading »

Jul 022015
Hometown context - a graphic of houses along a river

Adding hometown context can help your stories come to life

Your hometown comes to represent much more than the place you grew up. It’s your version of your state and country.

When we write about family members, ancestors, or ourselves, it’s important to give readers a glimpse of that hometown context. It helps explain worldview, values, and traditions. It helps them understand the personalities involved in our stories.

For instance, my hometown still colors my perception and understanding of events, even though I’ve now lived away from South Carolina as long as I lived there. It’s part of me. Though I’ve lived in the mid-west for over twenty years, I still consider myself a southerner. Continue reading »

May 192015
Laugh at yourself

Whether or not everyone else is laughing at you, “Laugh at yourself” makes for great writing.

That misquote from B.J. Neblett didn’t go over so well with my mom when my Dad said it to her in the mid-sixties. Mom had a great sense of humor, but she didn’t like being teased. I often wonder if it’s because my uncle Joe teased her so much when they were young. Or was it her reaction to teasing that made it so much fun for my uncle to tease her? I digress.

This not-so-gentle nudge to laugh at yourself is good life advice. But, it’s more than that. In my opinion, it borders on a memory writer’s and family historian’s imperative.

The story in question when my dad encouraged my mom to “lighten up” was about the only time (to my knowledge) that Mom received a “ticket,” or traffic citation. Continue reading »

May 112015
My mom birthday party genius

My mom the birthday party genius

Why Mom wanted to make my dreams come true and what that has to do with a birthday party.

A Mother’s Day Tribute: This mother’s day I decided to practice what I blog and write down one of my favorite memories of my mom.

The day of my Cinderella birthday party seems like a fairy-tale. That is if a story without separation of a family, drama, conflict, and drama can qualify as a fairy-tale.

I’m guessing it was my 7th birthday. Mom didn’t have a big budget, but she made up for it in enthusiasm. And she did it without Pinterest! Continue reading »

May 062015
Emotional furniture of your memories of your first home

As you write about memories of your first home (or any other place), include some emotional furniture.

When I first heard the prompt “Write about your memories of your first home,” my first reaction was, “Oh yeah, write about the place I can’t remember.” I wasn’t alone. The woman next to me offered aloud, “My first home after I got married?” She grew up as a military brat. She couldn’t even remember the number of home she had lived in, much less any details about the first one.

Of course, she was right. There’s several ways to adapt this prompt into something that will resonate with you and your readers. The point is to get your memories to paper and to connect with others through your stories. For instance, in addition to writing about your actual first home, Continue reading »