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
I can find no rule stating that a memoir about family must focus on the writer’s immediate family, but the custom seems to be widely observed. Parents and siblings occupy the foreground. Aunts, uncles, and grandparents take up their positions in a dim and sketchy background. The family tableau appears in this configuration as if no other grouping were possible. But in writing and in life, anything is possible. So why does the genre adhere so rigidly to this form? 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 family history is first and foremost an exercise in selection. Reviewing that hoard of letters, photographs, diaries, family legends, and oral history from which you compose your account, you must decide continuously which details to include and which to leave out. Continue reading
Last week, I wrote about gender, patriarchy, and related matters as factors in family history. I was interested in how gender roles, power, and authority shape family life, and hence, the history a family leaves behind. I noted that stories about my father, uncles, and grandfathers dominated our family lore, and I wrote about the value I found in stories about my mother, aunt, and grandmothers (along with the archival materials my maternal grandmother left behind).
Well, I wrote all these things and thought I was done with the subject, at least for the moment. Continue reading
I was down in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago for another round of spelunking in the family archives. My explorations were extremely successful. I found scads of old letters, notebooks, calendars, and greeting cards. My grandmother was a terrific archivist, and my mother has preserved everything. Continue reading
One of the things that surprised me when I began researching my family history was finding out how much history there is in my family. I don’t mean personal information about my relatives, such as where they lived or what they looked like. I mean public history, the things you can read about in history books. Continue reading
Days, weeks, or months after I interview a relative, I transcribe the conversation. Transcription is more than an afterthought, more than a perfunctory step I take by rote. When I transcribe, I feel like I’m reliving the original interview. It puts me in a thoughtful frame of mind.
Whenever I search the web for information on family history, I’m disappointed in the results. It’s not that the search hits aren’t helpful—I invariably find a slew of genealogy sites, which are indeed essential in researching my family’s origins. But genealogy is a means to me, not an end. The thrill of finding my great-grandfather’s name on a census form is only temporary. I want to know more about my ancestors than where they lived.
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.