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.

Mom was cited for passing a stopped school bus.

This was, in her view, a case of mistaken identity or police hallucination. There was no way that she, a law abiding citizen, substitute elementary school teacher, and trained social worker would pass a stopped school bus. Righteously indignant, Mom and her passenger (her friend Nell) went to court to assert her innocence. She took it as a personal affront when the judge dismissed her appeal of the police officer’s charge.

“Lady, I don’t think you would have seen the bus if it were pink with purple polka dots!” he told her in front of the court.

Much to Mom and Nell’s chagrin, the rest of the world found the judge’s words—and delivery—hilarious. And, I admit, Daddy’s “Lighten up” was tinged with more than a little gloat and was probably badly timed.

 Laugh at yourself as you write.

“Laugh at yourself” is good advice. If you read this blog, you know I’m a big advocate of avoiding perfection—or appearances thereof. Though “Authentic” is a buzzword now, it’s true that authentic people are easier to relate to. You connect with your loved ones when you drop all pretenses. When you laugh at yourself, you engage your readers or listeners. We’ve all been there, we can imagine ourselves in your situation.

Mom wasn’t so comfortable hearing my dad tell stories on her that depicted her in a bad light. She’d much rather tell them herself. Which is also a valuable take-away.

 Tell Your Version.

Grab the reigns and tell the story yourself. If people are going to laugh at you, you might as well have them laugh with you, or at your storytelling. If you feel uncomfortable, imagine you’re explaining the situation to a trusted confidant.

And don’t shy away from a story that family members have heard before. Chances are, they’ve only heard a version of it, but not your version! As you tell your story, you can include the back story and important details.

In my mother’s case, perhaps folks heard that Ellen and Nell were driving down the highway, so engrossed in their gossiping that they didn’t even notice a stopped school bus. But, if Mom had a chance to tell the story, it might unfold differently.

I would love to have a chance to ask her how her testimony as well as the police officer’s testimony unfolded. Did she tell her story first? Was there a sinking realization that she was wrong even before the judge issued his “pink with purple polka dots” decree? Was the judge laughing with her and Nell or was he sarcastic?

If she were telling the story, I’d know these facts. (She probably did, but hearing it as a little girl, my memory only clung on to the purple polka dot part and how mad she was at Daddy for gloating.) Sadly, she never wrote it down!

Family Historians’ Takeway.

For family historians, the “laugh at yourself” adage has further implications. If at all possible, we want to tell the story from the embarassee’s viewpoint.

First, it appears kinder. We’re not gloating, at least not publicly. For instance, since my mom’s not around to tell her version, I have to throw in the part about her normally being a careful driver. And, I even toy with adding in the defense that her friend was an animated and engaging conversationalist. I spent many hours in the back seat as Mom and Nell drove here and there. I can still hear Nell’s voice in my memory, her soft southern accent rolling from emphatic to indignant to hilarity in the space of a few sentences.

Secondly, it’s a better, more engaging story. Adopting the embarassee’s viewpoint goes hand-in-hand with all sorts of great storytelling techniques. Setting. Characterization. Timing.

 Your Turn

Go ahead. Laugh at yourself. If everyone else isn’t already, it’s because you haven’t told the right stories.

What stories have you left untold? (Comments please! I’d love to hear them.)

May 012015
Facing ancestors' past

How do we face our ancestors’ past and how does that effect our family tree.

We all saw Ben Afflecks’s embarrassment over his ancestor’s slave ownership splash across headlines. To me, the surprise wasn’t that he wanted Finding Your Roots to edit out that information. What surprised me was that the issue hasn’t come up sooner.

Ben Affleck isn’t the first one to look through his roots hoping to find royalty or framers of the constitution who found the reality distasteful. Many of us have had the urge to turn away rather than facing ancestors’ past.

Researching my own ancestors in Virginia, I breathe a sigh of relief when I see that they didn’t own slaves. Continue reading »

Apr 162015
Author Judith Fein emotional genealogy

Author Judith Fein writes about emotional genealogy

Today, I’m particularly pleased to present a guest post by Judith Fein and her concept of emotional genealogy.

When I gave my first talk about the power of Emotional Genealogy, I wondered if anyone would be able to connect to what I was speaking about. To my surprise, audience members asked questions for over an hour, and then they continued with personal questions for another half an hour.

You may be wondering what Emotional Genealogy is. Briefly, it involves examining how the behaviors of our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents influenced who we are and how we are in the world. And it doesn’t matter if we knew them or not. Continue reading »

Apr 102015
Write about average and it comes alive

When you write about average, others look at the details and see something a lot more compelling than simply “average”.

Average gets a bad rap. Well, not so much a bad rap as not enough rap. We seldom hear about him or her.

For instance, you never see Average’s mom post about his achievements on Facebook. “Congratulations to my son Average who achieved something that most kids achieve.” Instead, we see the parents of Average’s friends posting about their kids achieving all the things Average tried to achieve, but fell just a tad short. “Congratulations to my child Superior who achieved something momentous. My kid is wonderful beyond belief and worked so hard. #mykidisintheroomwithme #Imjustanattentionwhore.”

Okay, the hashtags are imagined, put in my head by a hilarious teenager. (I’m withholding her name to protect the snarky.) But the post isn’t imagined. Its equivalent passes through our news feeds on a regular basis. Continue reading »

Mar 312015
Going back in a Holodeck

Going back via a mental Holodeck

We all know that going back home isn’t an option. But a girl can dream.

Last week, as the plane approached Greenville-Spartanburg (South Carolina) International Airport, the sight of red clay gave me a twinge. Home beckoned like a taunt. “Come back… Oh yeah. I forgot… You can’t.”

In my defense, I’m not trying to go back. I’m here to live in the present. To spend time with the people I love now. But, however much my intellect knows that going back isn’t possible, it can’t control my heart. The past, unbidden, beckons in my psyche. Continue reading »

Feb 262015
Memories Family Stories and community learning

Memories, family stories, and community learning were all featured on this episode of Dear Myrtle’s Wacky Wednesday

Dear Myrtle, “Your friend in Genealogy since 1955,” was the would-be storyteller’s friend on her February 25, 2015 Wacky Wednesday show (embedded below). And, as the guest on her show, I got a great taste of community learning. Continue reading »

Feb 052015

Old cousins welcome new ones A new cousin discovered me recently–through  We share the same great-great-grandfather. “Sounds like we’re cousins,” he wrote. “How cool is that?”

Very cool, in fact. Finding new cousins through family history research is an undeniable rush.

His contact once again brought home the value of a family “treasure chest.” Once again, the beauty of my grandmother’s “Treasure Chest of Memories” washed over me and amazed me. Continue reading »

Nov 042014
Retouching the past

Retouching the past: Is it helping you tell your story or is it changing your story?

We’re in an age of retouched photos. We remove blemishes and correct lighting and exposure. We can even remove wrinkles, whiten teeth, and eliminate extra chins. We can… But should we?

Retouching the Past or Telling Who We Are?

When we write our memories and stories, retouching the past is tempting—maybe even necessary. Retouching stories, just like re-touching photos, can be a way of drawing attention to what really matters and eliminating extraneous details. Unless it’s integral to the story, maybe we can leave out that Miss May had three hairs growing out of the mole at the side of her nose and that each hair grew in a different direction. Continue reading »

Oct 102014
Aiming and putting down roots

Putting down roots isn’t a random decision.

The place we choose to settle and put down roots has far reaching (no pun intended) consequences. It’s the community our children call home. It’s the environment in which they form their worldviews. Frequently, it becomes the place children and grandchildren choose to start putting down roots. In other words, it’s something that will matter to future generations. But it’s often a story left untold—especially when it comes to our ancestors. Continue reading »

Sep 092014

Crymes Family Grave Marker There’s no question that grave markers are an invaluable resource for birth and death dates, full names, and family connections. However, when we try to tell a person’s story, we often over look them or give them only passing attention. We look for something more dynamic than a cold stone to illustrate someone’s personal history.

But grave markers are more than a resource. They’re a memorial to a life that has passed. And many times, if you listen and observe closely, they also tell a story. Continue reading »