My grandparents with my mother and uncle (1940)

About a decade ago, my mother set a large and complex task before me. We were talking about many things that afternoon, touching on the public world, the private one, family matters, and, at length, writing. I don’t remember what led us to this last topic. It’s something I seldom discuss because talking about writing usually makes me feel bashful. Yet somehow we had landed on this subject when my mother said, “You know, you ought to write about those uncles of yours sometime.”I nodded and made a mental note of her idea, recognizing it immediately as a good one. I have three weird uncles for whom I have felt a particular attachment since I was a boy—two on my father’s side of the family, one on my mother’s. These three men were colorful, outsize figures when I was young, and if they seem merely mortal and human to me now, they still hold a prominent place in my thoughts.

Writing about my family held a special appeal. I’m not a sentimental person, but I find the idea of family especially fascinating. Our families shape us. All the things that make us distinct—our habits, gestures, likes, and dislikes—we learn from the people who surround us when we are young and impressionable.

I didn’t immediately start working on this piece. I was busy with another writing project at the time, and I didn’t want to set it aside. Then there was a time when the affairs of my own small family consumed me, a period of about three years when I hardly wrote at all.

I would say that these were lost years as far as writing was concerned, but the experience of marriage and raising a child was useful when I finally got around to working on the piece about my uncles. Having first-hand knowledge of these things was helpful because writing about my uncles eventually led me to write about the things that shaped them—my grandparents, their marriages, and the way my grandparents raised their children, among other things. Sibling relationships also became important, because, well, that’s just how things are in my family.

I started with my own memories, setting down the things I recall about my uncles from when I was young. I wrote about the clothes they wore. I wrote about their eyeglasses. I wrote about their jobs, education, politics, practical jokes, cigarettes, and automobiles.

I also wrote about other people’s memories, setting down the stories I’d heard over the years. My little project grew. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to write.

When I came to the end of my memories, and other people’s memories, I began interviewing my uncles, because the story still didn’t seem complete. Then I interviewed my aunt, my father’s sister, whom I’d hardly known for various and complex reasons, because her story also became important. I interviewed my mother because, being the eldest in her family, she remembered the most about the early days. I would have interviewed my father also, if only he were still living.

A decade later, my little project is still growing. I have pored over photographs from the family collection, researched online genealogy archives, and located newspaper articles about my relatives. I am still interviewing my uncles and my mother.

Along the way, I’ve worked out a method for capturing my family’s story—how to interview your relatives, how to research public records, how to separate fact from myth. I’m not saying my methods are foolproof or comprehensive, just that they work for me, and might work for you.

Beyond method, I seem to be working out a theory of family history, a set of ideas about its purpose, value, ethics, and aesthetic. Once again, I don’t claim my ideas are sound, complete, or irrefutable. In fact, I’d claim the opposite, on the general grounds that in theory, as in history, there is no such thing as the last word.

© 2011 – 2014, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.