You don’t want to write a memoir, you can’t write a memoir, nothing exciting enough has ever happened to you to write a memoir, nobody would be interested in your memoir. It’s likely at least three of these four alibis are accurate. The one that isn’t true is the last one: someone would be interested, though that person may not yet be born.
Why, “The Memoir in Your Closet?” Because the boxes of old photos you have stored away there are the backbone of your memoir. You just have to add some meat to it.
What I refer to as the “Ancestry.com industry” is a multi-million dollar business. There are apps at the Apple store and pages on Facebook. Many want to just find out where people are: Obituaries.com, GraveLocator.com, Findagrave.com. People want to know about where they came from to the point they’re giving blood and spit.
Let me explain why this is important to you.
A year ago, my mother died leaving me as the sole caretaker to, and drinking buddy with, my 98-year-old father. The old man drinks, the old man talks. Within days I understood there was a vital history of our family, a century of experience, that exists only in his memory and it could be lost in an instant.
Further, I unearthed cartons of photographs in his home, frozen moments of time that only my father could identify: who, what, when, where, and in some cases, why: My great-grandparents born in the 1870s. My immigrant grandparents. My mother and father as newborns, toddlers, adolescents, teens, newlyweds, parents, business people, world travelers, retirees, and finally as aging members of the greatest generation. My mother two weeks before her stroke, and passing.
The memoir I compiled was not a wrenching tale of freedom from slavery, or the trials and tribulations of war, or of the rise to political power, or accumulation of fantastic wealth. It was the story of an all-too-ordinary family that I pieced together the best I could from the thousands of photographs, slides, and negatives I resurrected from cartons, drawers, and shelves, with a narrative written from hours of just chatting with my father, asking questions, and hearing the same stories more than once, which, by the way, indicates the importance to your elder relative of the tale itself.
One of my father’s greatest regrets is that he didn’t ask his father about life in the Europe and how he got to the United States and how he met his wife, my grandmother, who died when my father was just eight-weeks-old. My father never asked his father how he met his new wife four years later—a wonderful woman who my father still calls his mother to this day. Her story is lost, too.
Even I have memories at the fringes of my mind, questions that only my 91-year-old mother could have answered about her childhood, about which I should have asked before she passed last year. However, in putting together a memoir, I was gratified by how much I could contribute from my own recollections—memories that I may lose as I get older. Gotta be real about that possibility.
The “Memoir” I encourage you to compose is not—should not—be a statistical reference filled with every date of every event. It should be a flowing recollection of anecdotes, little stories that show the character and personality of your family members. A paragraph, a line break, and another paragraph. Something your grandmother would always do… how your mother would always react… how you would laugh. Christmas traditions that aren’t practiced any longer, but the memories of which bring warmth to your heart and a tear to your eye.
There will be a time when the youngest members of your family (our three are 4yrs, 6mo, and -2weeks) will ask about their ancestors. It may be in response to a classroom assignment, or a period-movie they see, or a friend whose family has a written record of their generations. You’ll want to have one, too.
The following chapters of The Memoirs in Your Closet will take you step by step through the process.
The next installment speaks to the photos. Whether you have them in a disheveled pile like the photo at top, or have kept every image catalogued in an album, you have to deal with them before you pass and your kids just throw them out—yes, they will.
Let me know what you think through your comments. Constructive suggestion and criticism is always welcome.