We all share a responsibility to record our family narratives

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Do you know where your parents met? Do you know the story of your birth? Do you know where your grandparents grew up? You should. It's part of your enduring family story.

Do you know where your parents met? Do you know the story of your birth? Do you know where your grandparents grew up? You should. It’s part of your enduring family story.

I blame my mother. She’s the one who got this memoir stuff started several years ago. It’s almost like she continues to chide me from the grave to continue her passion for family storytelling. Now that my own memoir is launching Aug. 7, I find myself thumbing through her personal saga to find reinforcement for my efforts. Some of her words have been imprinted on my heart and spur me in encouraging others to tackle this monumental but necessary task. She wrote:

Seldom will the voices of our ancestors sing to us from the grave unless we listened to their songs while they were alive. Each generation is bound up in the composition of its own symphony. Those of us who fail to recognize that the underlying theme has already been laid down by our parents and grandparents will likely pen many discords before our music ends. It is almost certain that our children and grandchildren are not much interested in our composition. When they are finally ready, chances are we will not be here to sing the song of our life. It is therefore vital to record the stanzas as they were written. It is our legacy and our responsibility.

I recall Mother’s early research efforts for the telling of our family story. I called her Motorcycle Mama because she learned to ride a motorcycle when she was in her late 50s. The following column I wrote for my newspaper at the time appears in my own memoir:

Motorcycle Mama has reached a point in her life when she finds it important to record family history. Last week she mailed me several pages of a computer printout that represents her nascent efforts. It was fascinating reading, but maybe only because it was about my great-grandparents. It contained some colorful details, culled from Mother’s childhood memories, of visits with aunts and cousins, and of the bountiful meals served. Like other Depression era children, my mother came from a house where milk was rationed and running water was a luxury. Thus, lots of food made a big impression on her.

This first effort at recording our family’s place in the history of the country has left Mother frustrated at the gaps in her memory and in the lack of information she has to work with. She recalls that someone in the family may have my great-grandfather’s naturalization papers but can’t trace them. He and a brother, orphaned in Germany, came to the U. S. in the late 1800s. Grandpa Otto Hoffmeister homesteaded near Topeka, KS while his brother remained in Philadelphia. No one knows what happened to that brother. Now it seems important to find out.

What prompts this search to fill in the family tree? There must be a time in everyone’s life when they face the raw impermanence of things, resulting in a newfound drive to leave a record of the family legacy before it’s lost forever.

My brothers suddenly want to know where they came from. That could have something to do with some feelings of the transience of their own lives these days. Youngest brother Tommy, who is fighting rejection of Mother’s donated kidney, wrecked his car and lost his home in a tornado in the past few weeks.

Oldest brother Jim lost his home last week in a fire, while middle brother Rick is not good at taking care of his health in the wake of a massive heart attack at age 30.

I guess if we know where we come from and who we are before we leave the physical world, it might be easier to let go. The urgency to research our roots becomes even more urgent knowing that memory and mental capacity diminish with advancing ago. Plus, you never know when a tornado or fire or auto accident might stop you in your tracks and destroy the little slice of history you’ve been making.

I know the problems of a fading memory and dimming mental faculties. I felt it this morning when I took off my glasses to brush my teeth, instead of removing my dental partial.

My developing theme is now “Tell your stories before it’s too late.” To that end, I hope to begin leading a workshop on memoir writing for non-writers. One of the people who urged me to do so sent me a link this week to an article by Bruce Feiler in The New York Times. He was discussing the importance of a family narrative. He summarized his research with the following statement:

The bottom line: if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.

Now that we can record our stories in digital format, in the computer cloud environment, we can rest assured that once we finish our tales, they will live on in cyberspace until the day our descendants decide it’s time to retrieve them.

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