God created Adam, perhaps because He needed something to do. Then He created Eve, because Adam needed something to do, or someone to know. They dwelt in the garden, which was fruitful and lush. All was pleasant there, until that unfortunate incident with the apple, which obliged Adam and Eve to leave the garden and make their way in the wilderness. The forest was dark, cold, and forbidding. Strange terrors lurked there. To still his fears, Adam befriended a wolf. Or perhaps the wolf befriended him. It’s not important how this alliance came about; what matters is that it has endured. Ever since then we have had animals in our midst. Continue reading
When I began writing family history, I knew that I might come into conflict one day with relatives objecting to my account of our shared past. That day has apparently arrived.
When my great-grandmother Taube Kurdabrin disembarked from the S.S. Finland on June 25, 1905, she carried her first-born son Schmuel in her arms. He was one year and six months old. Because small children lack agency, they generally make poor subjects for portraiture. I prefer instead to pick up my grandfather’s story in his middle years. We see him above with his third child, my Uncle Jay, who has just caught a fish. The photo is cracked and stained. The world it portrays has vanished. People work miracles now with Photoshop, but I don’t believe in retouching old pictures. Flaws appear in every image and every life, and they are worth noting. The patina tells a story all its own. Continue reading
Lately I have been thinking about the meta-meaning of family stories. Pardon me for employing such a vague and voguish term, but no other phrase quite seems to express the concept I’m reaching for: some ultimate tier of abstraction that might help me articulate the irresistible (for me) appeal of those family stories I consume so eagerly. Continue reading
Some months ago, I wrote a post about my great-grandparents Harry and Tillie Kubrin, the forebears of our line on the Kubrin side. That post started out as a primer on family history craft, but something drew me inexorably to the subject of Harry and Tillie, and I quickly veered off-message. Great-grandparents must be inherently colorful. Just ask Russ Livingston, who recently wrote this post about his great-grandparents. Continue reading
Writing about living people is one of the most difficult tasks a memoirist or essayist will face. With legal, ethical, personal, and literary issues confronting you all at once, the effort of writing may double in intensity. If you are a fluent writer, the double-think required here may slow your composition to a crawl. If you are a slow, cautious writer even at the best of times, these obstacles may bring your writing nearly to a standstill. But persevere, because some of the best writing arises from the most difficult circumstances. Continue reading
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.