Friday, December 28, 2012

I NEED TO WRITE THAT DOWN by Cheryl Pierson


Every so often, I teach a class called “Writing Your Life Story.” Most of the people who are there for classes are senior citizens, who, for the most part, have been urged by family members to come.

As they introduce themselves, it goes something like this: “I’m Jane Doe, and I’m here because my children keep telling me I need to write this all down—but I don’t know where to begin.”

My first assurance to them all is that they don’t need to write like Laura Ingalls Wilder—their families will be thrilled with anything they put down on paper. It’s amazing to me how many people don’t feel they have anything of interest to tell their descendants!


I want to tell you about my parents, El Wanda and Fred, because they were the epitome of opposites when it came to this. My mother told stories from the time I can remember about her family, about her friends, the small town she grew up in. These were details of an ordinary life that gave me insight into the way times were during the Dustbowl days in Oklahoma. It told me about her life in particular and life in general, and it also brought people I never knew to reality for me through her memories.

Mom had a dear friend, just her age, named Mary. They were both the eldest of their respective families, each with many younger siblings that they were responsible for. Mom mentioned how she and Mary both longed for and cherished the few times when they could be alone to talk “girl talk” without each having two or three little ones they had to look after.

One of their favorite places to go was the cemetery. They’d both been born in Albany, so they knew the stories of everyone buried there in the small cemetery. The Taylor family, whose six children went berry picking, only to take shelter under an oak tree when a storm blew up suddenly. Lightning struck the tree and killed all but two of them. The oldest boy crawled to a nearby farmhouse for help, but died later. Out of the six, only one survived. There were no markers on their graves, but Mom showed me where each was buried.

The young child who, at eighteen months, crawled under the porch and drank tree poison his father had believed was well-hidden. Mom told me how his lips were stained purple She and Mary had gone to the funeral and it was imprinted in her mind forever.

She and Mary shared everything growing up. It was a good Christmas if they each received and apple, and orange, and some hard candy in their stockings, and maybe a doll, in addition, in the better-then-most years. (This top picture is my great-grandmother, Josie Belle Walls McClain Martin. The next one is a picture of my Aunt Joyce who served in the Navy in WWII.)


From Mom I learned about our family ancestors--where they'd come from and who they were. As a child, I thought of them as a story she told, but as I grew older, they became real people to me.

I learned about her, too—how, as a teen, she’d pool her hard-earned money with her younger sister, Joyce, to buy the newest Hit Parade Magazine with all the lyrics to the latest songs. They had sung together from the time they knew how, adding more harmonies as more sisters came along.



My dad never talked about his adolescence much. Even though he and Mom grew up together in the same small community, he never had much to add to the conversations. What I know of his family, I learned mostly from my aunt, his younger sister.

Why write it all down now? Because most people never believe they’ll run out of time. “Someday” never comes. My mom had such fascinating stories, filled with tenderness, charged with emotion—stories that made it seem as if I was there along with her as she spoke. She was a painter, an artist, and she could paint pictures with her words, as well.

Mom always wanted to write them down, but like so many, never found the time before it was too late, and Altzheimer’s took away that ability.

I will write it all down…all that I can remember of it. But I can’t help thinking how I wish she had written her story, with all the vivid details and description she used in telling about it. There is so much I won’t know. So much will be lost, simply because this was her life.

The memories are hers: the hard times, as well as the good—the days in an everyday life…and, the nights, when entertainment was nothing more than the beautiful harmonies of the four little girls, floating in the summer stillness for miles as they sang on the front porch…in a much simpler, slower time.

18 comments:

  1. My dad is full of exploits of growing up in Texas, Washington state and Nebraska. I've been putting away some of his stories. My mom passed away 22 years ago before she had a chance to give us much detail about her life. Great post and tribute to your family.

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  2. I love these stories of your family, Cheryl. We can learn such fascinating things from our own relatives! I've been promising myself for years that I'm going to write the story of my grandmother who was born in New Holstein, WI in 1900 and lost her first love to WWI.

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  3. Paty, my mom talked so often about her growing up years, but I was a teenager and didn't have time to listen. As I got older, I was so interested in it, but my kids were little and again, there just seemed to be no time. I wish I had MADE time. You should record your dad talking about his life--that would be awesome.
    Cheryl

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  4. Aw, thanks, Alison. My mom had such a memory up until she was older and ended with Altzheimer's. Oh, yes, you need to write that story! I've been seeing a lot about how that era is gaining popularity in the fiction arena now. Are you planning to fictionalize it or will you be writing your grandmother's life story as a factual piece? Either way, I think that is so fascinating, and so poignant--the age-old tale of losing a sweetheart to war is always one of the saddest things.
    Cheryl

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  5. Like you, Cheryl, I present workshops on life story writing. These old stories are such wonderful keepsakes for family members. My passion is to nudge (nag?) folks into leaving a record of their life. Writing down or recording the way it really was is important for future generations to know the truth. Lovely post about your folks. Really enjoyed you sharing their stories.

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  6. Hi J. Q.! You're so right about them being keepsakes--what could be a better tribute to a family member than a testimony of their life and feelings, etc. I'm glad you nudge people into leaving their life story legacy! That's the only way anyone will remember or know what life was like "back in the day." Thanks so much for your kind words, and thanks for coming by today and commenting.
    Cheryl

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  7. Cheryl--I love this post. I like nothing better than old photos and to learn who those people are.
    Plus, your yearning to write about your mother's memories is so wonderful, and I know you'll do it--you must. Remember, none of us have exact memories, and if you're writing about someone else's memories, you certain don't know exactly what happened. So, you do the best you can, and possibly fictionalize the ms.
    All those childhood anecdotal stories I write? I fictionalize them, making them into 1st person as though I was telling a story. Yes, the tale comes from a true event, but my goodness, I don't know what each person was doing, etc. With California Cousins, I combined two actual events, give or take a few details. (for instance, I have no idea what my uncle drove from Cal. to Texas, but since I knew what he drove when I was almost grown, that's what I used.)
    You have a real treasure, and please, one day, get that started.

    Jeanette Walls wrote Half-Broke Horses, about her grandmother. Since Jeanette was eight when the grandmother died, she asked her mother for memories and events. Jeanette then wrote a fictionalized verson of her grandmother's life, a novel, and it jumped to the NY best seller list pretty fast. Loved it.

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  8. Hey Celia! I love to see old pictures and hear about people's families--even if they aren't related to me. LOL I think I should have gone on for my history bachelors instead of just a minor in it. Yes, the good thing is, I can remember my grandparents, aunts and uncles, etc. I just don't know the older ancestors, but even so, I have pictures of them. You did a great job with California Cousins. I am going to get started on that project for sure, because I have an aunt who loves to do genealogy and knows about some of the people that mom told me about. I will have to get Half-Broke Horses. That sound good.
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

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  9. Duh. That SOUNDS good, is what I should have written. Fingers were too fast.
    C

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  10. What an awesome post, Cheryl. You have about ten blogs in there as well as a ton of story seeds. Wow, what good stuff.

    I can't even imagine the family losing them all to lightning, sob.

    This new year I'm cutting back on writing and joining My Ancestry to find out facts and details. My mom does have some wonderful stories, though. I remember her saying how special a fresh orange was on Christmas Day. Merry Christmas and happy new year! xo

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  11. What an awesome post, Cheryl. You have about ten blogs in there as well as a ton of story seeds. Wow, what good stuff.

    I can't even imagine the family losing them all to lightning, sob.

    This new year I'm cutting back on writing and joining My Ancestry to find out facts and details. My mom does have some wonderful stories, though. I remember her saying how special a fresh orange was on Christmas Day. Merry Christmas and happy new year! xo

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  12. Wat a touching and revealing accoun t of your family. You were right about people believing they'll always have more time. I wish I had asked my dad more about his middle brother, John. I told so much of our family history from Pop's stories about the brother he idiolized when I wrote The Violin.
    This was truly an interesting blog a nd I'm going to make an effort to keep an account of my family's history because of it.

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  13. Tanya, I remember how my mom described eating the orange they got on Christmas with her friend, Mary...peeling it apart, section by section and just taking small bites to make it last longer. She and I used to both love those "orange slice" candies. Pure sugar, but so good--probably reminded her of those days gone by and the real oranges, eating them so slowly and just savoring it. I think that's a great idea about doing the Ancestry . com. My aunt belongs to that and has met people who are related to us all over the world! She loves it. Good luck! Thanks so much for coming by--I know you're busy. Oh, I met the father of those kids that were killed in the storm one time when Mom and I were visiting the cemetery. So sad--he told the story again, no telling how many times he had recounted that story in his life. Mom hugged him and said she remembered it so well, and they both had tears in their eyes. Time doesn't ever completely heal a loss like that.
    Cheryl

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  14. Sarah, I think that story about your Uncle John is so compelling. There are so many stories within our families that can be used as the seed of a plot. Real life can be so interesting--it doesn't always have to be something we just "thought up". I'm so glad you came by today--I know you're busy.
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

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  15. Cheryl, what a beautiful tribute to your family. I am writing it all down for both sides of my family. My children have also asked for their father's and my memories, but I wanted those of my parents and their siblings. I put together a book for my mother-in-law at her request, then did one for my mom. Now, my brother and I are about ready to publish a book on my dad's family. I have loved collecting these anecdotes from each branch of the family, and I'm thankful I'm able to publish them in a form that will keep them alive for future generations.

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  16. Thank you, Caroline! It sounds like you are doing wonderful things for your family with getting it all down and publishing it for your family's descendants. There are so many interesting stories in our families, and I often think of the ones that "got away" before anyone could write them down or talk about them.
    Cheryl

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  17. My great grand father came from the UK and he settled in South Africa and had a new family after his former wife in the UK had died. My granny grew up with two fathers, as grandpa Thomas died when she was about 6 years old. Today I would have loved to read about Grandpa Thomas's journeys and the adaption he had to make to live in South Africa.

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  18. Suzette, that would certainly be an INTERESTING story, wouldn't it? Some of these stories of our ancestors are so fascinating, they're better than anything we could dream up. Thanks for commenting!
    Cheryl

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