Family Stories: Leaving a Legacy of Words

e-Grandma4girlsEvery family has them: stories of Great-Uncle Harold’s time in the trenches of WWI, Grampa’s side trip into bootlegging during Prohibition, Aunt Helen’s wanderlust that took her around the globe twice, Grandma’s ground-breaking work as the first female at Lockheed Aeronautics during WWII. These are the stories that may only get trotted out once a year or so, maybe at Christmas or the infrequent family reunion, but otherwise stay hidden away in shoeboxes at the back of closets or in the dimly-lit corners of an oldster’s mind.

And very often, the story and its teller are, eventually, lost for all time. Why? Because the stories don’t get written down.

There’s a Mandinka proverb that says every time an old person dies, it’s as if a library has burnt down.

I was lucky. My dad wrote his autobiography over the last 20 years of his life. After he died, I converted the typed pages to digital, added family photos, and published his story. I didn’t care if I sold a single copy; I just wanted the book out there. Surprisingly, I have sold quite a few, but that’s not even the point. The point is, his story will never die. It lives on. And I can’t tell you what a treasure trove it is for my family.

So a few years back on Veteran’s Day, I was thinking about my aunt who was an Army nurse during WWII and was taken prisoner by the Japanese in the Philippines. I had heard this much of the story all my life, but very few details. I began to do some research to see if I could find out more about it; hard to do, as she and all her generation are gone. I was shocked to find out that the Wisconsin Historical Society (she was from WI) had in their possession two scrapbooks that were created by my grandmother, filled to overflowing with letters, telegrams, news clippings, and photos of my aunt’s time in the service. It not only chronicled the events of her capture and imprisonment, it also told the story of my grandmother’s tireless efforts to find out information about her daughter and bring comfort in any way she could. It was a story of two women on opposite sides of the earth, each in their own way striving to push through extremely difficult times.

And it was stuck in a drawer in a back room.

I knew the story deserved to be told. And I knew I was the only one to do it. There are other writers in my family, but none that devote as much time to it as I do. So even though I’m a novelist by choice, it was time for me to write non-fiction.

Marcia Gates Angel of BataanI’m glad I did. Again, I didn’t care if the book sold at all; I just wanted the story out there. Surprisingly, it has touched a lot of people, won awards, was even featured in a TV documentary on Wisconsin’s military history. And it got me to thinking: how many stories are there like this, that never get told, that never see the light of day? A ton, I’m sure. And I think that most people believe publishing is way beyond their reach, but here’s the irony. It’s not. It’s fully accessible in our time. Okay, the writing part is never easy and that still has to be done, but the publishing? That’s a breeze. Using CreateSpace, you can do it for about $10, the cost of a proof book and shipping. Really, I mean it. Ten bucks. Indies Unlimited has more than enough information and tutorials in their archives to get you started.

I would encourage anyone — EVERYone — who has family stories to write them down. Get them out there! I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised, as I was, how they can touch people well beyond the confines of your family. Because these are not just family stories.

They are human stories.

And they deserve to be told.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is the award-winning author of twelve novels and one non-fiction title. She lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

23 thoughts on “Family Stories: Leaving a Legacy of Words”

  1. What a beautiful, moving post, Melissa! I’m sending it to my mother. I’ve tried for years to get her to write down some of her family stories. Maybe this will push her to do it.

  2. Great blog, Melissa. We kept telling our Mother to write down the stories she told about her life, but she never got around to it.

      1. I think it will take all 5 of us to write it. What one doesn’t remember, the others possibly will.

  3. Excellent post Melissa. I published a memoir through Createspace and shared a story that was just begging to be told! I envisioned future generations enjoying the history, genealogy, and romance of the book. I hoped that people in general would connect to some pretty basic Universal themes; I flattered myself thinking I might have even explained some misconceptions and stereotypes. What I didn’t anticipate was how therapeutic the whole process would be for me! I highly recommend the genre of Creative Non-Fiction/ memoirs and I’m delighted to say that my story has been very well received!

    1. Mirta, thanks for adding that. That was one aspect of writing about family that I hadn’t gotten into, and it can be very powerful and moving. When I did my biography of my aunt, it was more an homage than anything, but this kind of thing could certainly help grieving family members come to terms with loss as well as other issues. Excellent point!

  4. I wonder how many stories are lost because those that could tell them believe they can’t. Thanks for setting a few straight. Our stories are our legacy and our history. when we lose them we also lose a piece of our collective soul.

    1. Right on, Yvonne. And even if no one feels up to the writing, there’s video, even just audio recording to get the stories into some kind of permanence. But each story lost takes a bit of our culture with it.

  5. Melissa you put the case so beautifully and eloquently, I’m going to quote you when I talk to a group about memoir writing at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival this weekend.
    Thanks for such inspiring words.

    1. Thank you so much! I’m honored to be included in your discussions, and I hope it bears fruit. If just one person thinks, “Hm, I could do that,” my work here is complete. Please let me know how the festival goes.

  6. Great post. I was thinking about that the other day, kicking myself for never writing down the stuff my grandparents told me. It’s more than just family stories, it’s history. My paternal grandfather was born in a covered wagon heading west, saw Indian wars and guys gunned down in saloons. My maternal grandmother used to regales us with tales of “Uncle Cecil”, lovely tales that would make a wonderful collection… and about things like seeing the first airplane in the area, seeing the first car on the streets.
    It’s a huge resource that we so often ignore, and it’s a tragic loss when we do.

    1. Thanks, Lin; you’re absolutely right. It IS history, very up close and personal. I’ve been picking my husband’s brain, trying to get him to remember every tidbit of his dad’s life–born in 1900, got into bootlegging for a while, his uncle was sorta-kinda carjacked by Pretty Boy Floyd–just tons of small stories that all fit together like a human jigsaw puzzle. Some of the pieces are missing, but you know we could both fill in the holes with a little bit of imagination. Not exactly the same, but still worth doing, I think. Wouldn’t you give just about anything to be able to sit down and interview your grandfather now? I sure would.

  7. Love it, Melissa. I still wish I’d been able to talk my mother into letting me interview her. Like you, all I wanted was to write something for our family. Alas, it never happened.

  8. Lin, you are so right about the things our parents and grandparents told us being history, and I doubt if there is one among us who doesn’t share your regrets about not paying better attention to them. Now that you’ve recognised this the question is, what are you doing about it?

    I have taken to writing down everything I can remember of those conversations, so that my children and grandchildren can have something of them later on. I carry around a micro recorder for those odd moments when something provokes a memory, so that I can record it immediately. If it’s not written, at least it will be preserved.

    Preserving that history was one of the main reasons why I’ve so far written six volumes of memoir about the years I spent living and working in Africa. Apart from making interesting reading for other people, it provided a record for my descentents, the like of which my grandparents didn’t leave. At least my grandchildren will have something. It’s also a bit of a memorial for some of the extraordinary people I met who are now long gone.

    So, are you writing down all you can remember? I’m sure it would be worth it.

  9. Melissa, this is a lovely post.
    My husband’s ancestor came to Baltimore as an indentured servant in the 17th century. A relative did the research, and we have a bound copy of this and the stories that went with it. When Chuck’s grandmother was alive I gave her a notebook and asked her to write down stories. Her relatives, like Lin’s, traveled by wagon train to Missouri, or Missoura, as she called it. I have that notebook.
    Before my mother-in-law passed away we went on a cruise, and in search of native art in Belize. She pushed her walker down the cobbled-stone street to a gallery in a city under travel advisory for tourists. We survived the adventure, but I have been meaning to write this story down for the family. She loved doing something she could brag to her friends about later. No bus tours for her!

    1. Lois, thanks so much. You are SO lucky that you have these family sagas! I think it would be wonderful to pull all the generations together and tell the continuing story of the family. I hope one day to add my autobiography to my dad’s, and I dearly hope my son might one day add his, as well. I can see your husband’s adventurous family being a huge project for someone (you?), and I hope it happens one day. I know it would be fascinating and of enormous value to the family and others.

  10. Your article really rings a bell. During the last twelve months, I’ve spent eight with my parents, two thousand miles from home. My mom is blind and almost completely deaf, but I spent a lot of time sitting on the sofa “on her good-ear side.” She would tell me stories, and I started blogging them: “A Day Out with Mom.”

    After about 26 posts, I’m compiling them for a book about my dad, his dementia, and his move to a retirement home; and about my mom and my adventures with her while staying with my parents. I feel like I’ve gotten to know my parents as I had never known them before–a wonderful and thought-provoking experience.

    http://www.tomkeplerswritingblog.com/2014/04/a-day-out-with-mom-26-ideal-visit.html

    1. Tom, that is great! I hope you know how lucky you are to have this time to spend with your folks. And I really hope you can get them talking about the “old days,” telling stories from their growing up and early years. I’m certain they will both love to see that book and hold it in their hands. Good for you!

  11. In this enlightened age, everyone should keep a family record for future generations. That means each of us should write our own bit. If we do this, knowledge doesn’t get lost so easily.

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