Monday, September 23, 2013

The Value in Writing Your Life's Story...even if you're not at death's door

It's said a picture is worth a thousand words, but only if you know the story behind it.

When my mother was alive, I always wished she would take on the task of writing down our family stories. We had some doozies, but I was often vague about who the story involved or why they did it or when it happened. My parent's dining room was surrounded by pictures of ancestors I didn't know anything about. With my parents both gone, I worried that all this family history would be lost—to me but especially to my niece.

The cover of my family book done using Blurb
So when my mom passed away, I decided to collect our family stories and photos into a genealogy record of sorts. I was able to reference some genealogy work done about parts of my family in the past and used Ancestry.com to get names and dates.

I decided to organize the book around traits I possessed and see how far back I could trace these traits in my lineage. It was astounding!

Some traits like business acumen and a passion for service thundered down both sides of the family. My periodic poetry writing was traced through my mother, her father, and his father, who wrote both songs and poetry, along with a musical. My ancestors expressed a passion for adventure in different ways, with the men in my family first being attracted to fast clipper ships, then fast cars, and later fast planes. A love for horses galloped down the female line.

After my mom's celebration, I gave copies to everyone, incorporating some wonderful stories I picked up there from her life-long friends.

We like to think we are our own person. But this journey showed me how I am a logical extension of these people who went before me. Some mysterious process of DNA and family experience has imprinted on me values and talents that have been passed on through many generations.

I learned so much about my family that I can be proud about. One of my great-great.(not sure how many greats)..grandfathers was in the Peace Congress, a meeting trying to avert the Civil War. Later he was part of the Free Soil Party, a political party trying to keep slavery from spreading to the West. (I was relieved to find which side of that issue my family was on!) My dad was featured in Business Week, my aunt in Sports Illustrated.

Writing this book helped me integrate my memory of my parents, to process now being an orphan. It helped me let go of some resentments I held about each parent and appreciate their gifts and talents.  I got to know some of my aunts and uncles at a deeper level as I interviewed them for details about their lives. And it let me pull together my life story (so far), discovering a narrative that starts to make sense in hindsight.

When I was writing our family story, my uncle who was quite ill asked me to add some details about him into the book. They didn't really fit the structure or intent of the book but I found a way to weave these facts into the text. It seemed to bring him some solace in his last few weeks of life to know that these details about who he was would live on after he died.

Now I am helping an elderly couple in the neighborhood pull together their family story. It started out as a simple request for a short interview so I could highlight them in the neighborhood newsletter. The first interview took two hours and we had only gotten to the point when they got married! I didn't have the heart to toss most of the content so I offered to help them pull together a book of their lives. Through them, I am learning a lot about life behind the Iron Curtain and careers in medicine. I am getting to know my neighbors at a much deeper level.

But this process is also, I think, helping them. They can both see the bright light at the end of their tunnel; they know time is short. This project gives them a chance to relive memories, hear stories they had never heard about their spouse before, and build something meaningful to leave their four adult children and grand kids. In between doctors appointments and naps, it gives them something meaningful to do.

My father's older sister, well into her 90's, is still in great condition. (I hope I got a lot of her genes!) At my mom's celebration, she told me she had a pile of old family photos but didn't know what to do with them. I committed to come visit for a week and help her to put them together into a similar book. I don't know her well since we rarely saw her when I was growing up; she didn't live nearby. This is a gift I can offer that will mean something—to both of us.

It used to be that families lived in multiple-generation households and retold family stories by candlelight. Now families are scattered around the globe and even those living under the same roof may only rarely dine together.

So if you don't pull together your history, stories and photos into a coherent package, all that knowledge could be lost. Don't leave your kids a box of unlabeled photos. Take the time to interview family members and create a document that will last. Perhaps many generations from now, your descendants will be grateful you took the time to capture your memories.

Resources and Tips

There are a number of online tools that help you format your book and produce lovely full-color books in small quantities at reasonable prices.

If you want to publish a book with a lot of text and some photographs, I liked using Blurb. My 100+ page book cost about $45 per copy to publish in full color, softbound.

If you want to publish mostly photographs with captions, My Publisher will likely work better. It offers more options for displaying photos but does not handle large amounts of text well.

Genealogy experts advise not to make public genealogical information about people who are still alive as this can aid crooks trying to steal identities. So print copies for immediately family but don't post copies on the Internet.

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