Friday, July 28, 2017
FAMILY HISTORY--DO YOU USE IT IN YOUR WRITING? by CHERYL PIERSON
My mother was the oldest of eleven children. In her younger days when I was growing up, and on into my early adulthood, she reminded me of Aunt Pittypat in Gone With the Wind—not in looks or mannerisms, but in the way that she knew the relationships between people--and not just in our family! Growing up in a small Oklahoma town, Mom knew the ins and outs of most every other family in that small community—but so did everyone else. That old saying about everyone knowing your business in a small town was so true…but what a legacy of stories she provided me with to write about!
MY MOM, EL WANDA STALLINGS MOSS, AND MY DAD, FREDERIC MOSS (NEWLYWEDS--1944)
A relative who hung his pocket watch up on the wall to “give it a rest” overnight. Another relative who, shunned by his prominent businessman father, (we don’t know why) rode a bicycle all over town selling condoms. What better way to embarrass him?
Then there were the sadder tales…the little boy who crawled under the porch and drank tree poison and died. All those many years later, my mother would get teary remembering how she and her 12-year-old best friend, Mary, attended the funeral.
The family who lost five of their six children—they’d gone out to pick berries and taken shelter under a big tree when a storm hit. Lightning struck the tree and killed many of them, but the oldest brother crawled to a farmhouse for help. In the end, he was the only survivor.
Another story that, in this time would be almost unbelievable is that of a little girl, six years old, who had appendicitis. The doctor would not operate unless the money was paid before the surgery. The girl’s father stood on the corner and begged for money – this would have been in the mid -1930’s, in Dustbowl Oklahoma…during the Depression. No one had any money to spare. I have a picture of that little girl with my aunt who was the same age—they were second cousins. It was the last picture made of her before she died.
So many stories my mom told about—with such description of the people, the places, the events…maybe that’s why I’m a writer now. But I know the happenings she told me about were a true-life depiction of actual events, and she had a great memory for detail most of her life.
Being the eldest of eleven siblings, she was all ears when the adults talked, of course. And she was old enough to remember many of the happenings herself. She told of watching them rush her grandfather into the house and put him on the kitchen table when he collapsed in the field—she and Mary were watching through a nearby window—they saw it all.
Going to Blue River was sometimes a Sunday social event in the summers—the men cooled off in the water while the women set out the food for a picnic. The children—none of whom could swim—were the older kids’ charges. Mom told of a time when one of her young cousins, Warren, went missing as they were all playing in the shallow water of a nearby clear creek running into the river. She felt something brush her leg and looked down—it was Warren, drifting by, his eyes open sightlessly as he stared up. She automatically reached down and grabbed him up out of the swift-moving current and yelled for help—and remembered nothing else about the rest of that day. Yes, he lived. But…why would so many parents think it was okay for their kids to play in water when none of them could swim?
It hit me after listening to her talk about her life and growing up in that small town that the older siblings seemed to have had no childhood of their own. Her earliest memory was of standing on a stool, washing dishes in a pan of water. She said she was about 3 or 4. By then, there were two younger sisters and another on the way.
A DRAWING MY MOTHER DID WHEN SHE WAS 17--SELF TAUGHT
I wasn’t old enough to appreciate it at the time, but Mom and Dad, having grown up together, knew all of the same people. They’d talk about who was related to whom, and who this one or that one had married, and what had become of them. I remember once in a great while, my dad would sit back and look at her with an odd look of appreciation on his face and a little half-smile and say, “Doris Lynn had an illegitimate baby? I never knew that!” Or some other “morsel” he’d somehow never heard.
Mom knew all the stories of the past, too. The tales of the relatives who had gone before and what they’d done—her great grandfather who had been “stolen” from his Indian village and given to a white Presbyterian minister to raise as part of the “assimilation efforts”…and how that had forever affected our family.
MY GREAT GRANDMOTHER, JOSIE WALLS MCLAIN MARTIN. SHE IS THE DAUGHTER OF MY GREAT GREAT GRANDFATHER WHO WAS STOLEN FROM HIS HOME
SHE MARRIED AT 13.
Even the stories of my dad’s family—of his grandmother and grandfather coming “up from Texas” and stopping under the shade of a tree by a creek in Indian Territory long enough for her to give birth, then moving on after one day’s time.
MY DAD'S MOTHER, MARY, ON THE LEFT, WITH OLDER SISTERS MAUDE, GRACE AND BYRD
Mom knew so much—untimely deaths of family members, “early” births, family dreams and goals that came to fruition, changed, or never happened at all. Games played, meals cooked, weddings held…so much that I would have given anything to have written down—but was too young to realize how much it meant, at the time.
But to whom? Those things are important to the families and friends of the principal players, but now…there are few left who would remember or care. The small-town cemetery is filled with those who lived together, worshipped together and worked together. Friends and family who lived, laughed, loved, and made their way through life—leaning on one another in a way that is rare in today’s world.
So…I use those memories in the best way I can. In my writing. There is a piece of my mom’s remembrances in my own stories—probably every single one of them, in some way or another.
Authors, do you use long-ago memories from relatives in your tales? Readers, do these books and short stories we weave jog your own memories of things you’ve heard in the past from older relatives? What are some of the stories you recall?
Here's an excerpt from an "oldie but goodie", ONE MAGIC NIGHT. After learning the story of my gr gr grandfather and how he was kidnapped, I just had to give him a happy ending. In real life, his adoptive parents changed his name to David Walls. They sent him to medical school in Missouri--I don't know if he ever finished or not, but he came back to Indian Territory to practice medicine. Of course, he never fit in, either in the white world or the Indian. But in my make believe world, he did find happiness...
EXCERPT: FROM ONE MAGIC NIGHT:
As Whitworth’s hand started its descent, Katrina turned away. But Shay’s arm shot out, grasping Whitworth’s hand and holding it immobile.
“You will not.”
Three words, quietly spoken, but with a heat that could have melted iron, a force that could have toppled mountains.
Katrina’s father’s face contorted, his teeth bared, finally, as he tried to jerk away. He didn’t utter a word. He stared up into Shay Logan’s eyes that promised retribution, as the seconds ticked by. Finally, he lunged once more, trying to pull free, but Shay still held him locked in a grip of steel. Only when he released that grip was Whitworth freed.
“You presume too much, Doctor Logan, unless you are assuming the care and responsibility of my daughter.”
“Papa! Oh, please!” Katrina felt herself dissolving into a puddle of less than nothing beneath stares of the townspeople of Talihina. What had started as an exciting, beautiful evening had become an embarrassing nightmare. It was torture to think that she was the cause of it all. How she wished she had stayed home with Jeremy as she’d first planned, before Mrs. Howard had volunteered to keep him company.
Now, Papa was saying these things that she knew he would regret later. It was always this way when he drank too much. These accusations had gone beyond the pale of anything he’d ever said before. But Shay Logan wouldn’t realize that. He wouldn’t know that Papa would be sorry tomorrow.
Evidently, there was one thing Shay did recognize, though. She saw the very slight flare of his nostrils as he drew in the scent of alcohol on her father’s breath, and in that instant, there was a flash of understanding in his eyes.
“You’ve had too much to drink, Mr. Whitworth,” he said in an even tone. “I will overlook your behavior toward me because of that, but not toward your daughter. She has done nothing, yet you would strike her, and cause her shame.”
“She’s my daughter,” Whitworth replied sullenly.
“But not your property, Whitworth. Never that. You owe her an apology.”
“No, Shay, really—” Katrina began, then as her father whirled to look at her, she broke off, realizing her mistake. ‘Shay,’ she had called him. As if she had known him forever. As if she was entitled to use his given name freely. As if she were his betrothed.
“‘Shay’ is it, daughter? Not, ‘Dr. Logan’? Shay.” He spit the words out bitterly. He drew himself up, looking Shay in the face. “I’ll not be apologizing to her—or to you. And I’ll expect nothing less than a wedding before this week’s end. Do you understand me, Doctor?”
Shay had lost any patience he might have harbored. “You understand me, Whitworth. You will not dictate to me, or to your daughter on such matters of the heart. As I say, the alcohol has got you saying things you’re going to regret, and—”
“Threatening me, are you? Threatening me?”
“Truman.” Jack Thompson stepped out of the crowd and smoothly came to stand beside Katrina. “Let’s put this…unfortunate incident…behind us, shall we?” He confidently tucked Katrina’s hand around his arm. “I can see that the church auxiliary ladies have almost got everything set up for this wonderful Independence Day meal—” he frowned at Mrs. Beal, nodding at the picnic tables behind her. She jumped, motioning the other ladies to resume the preparation.
He gave a sweeping glance around the group of onlookers. “I, for one, am ready to eat! How about you all?”
Katrina was swept along at his side as he walked toward the tables, speaking to acquaintances and friends, laughing and…and seething with tense anger the entire time. She could feel it in his body, with every step he took and the tightness of his grip as he covered her hand with his. Katrina glanced back over her shoulder, hoping to catch a glimpse of Shay, but the crowd blocked her view.
“Smile, my dear,” Jack gritted into her ear. “I’m hoping we can still salvage your virtue, no matter what happened, really, between you and the good doctor. If I see him near you again, I’ll kill him.”
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I read this once this morning, and now...I've read it again. This shows me that often real-life happenings are often more chilling or memorable than fiction. And for you to remember all this is wonderful...you are a "people person" like I am...and remember these events with clarity.ReplyDelete
But no, I don't think I've remembered to use real life events in any story...or if I did, it might have been unconsciously.
I do use "things", such as a wood stove with a water reservoir on the side to heat water; a smoke house with meat hanging from the low ceiling which, with a little imagination, looked like body parts; or a coal mine in Texas...yes, a coal mine.
I enjoyed this so much. Thanks for sharing all this from your heart. PS..my Davis grandmother married at age 13..she's in a photo at that age with a group and she's holding a rag doll.
Hi Celia! Yes, I agree with you--real life events can be more memorable than anything people can make up. I am going to write all this down...just in case anyone who comes after me wants to remember it or know about it. There's more than this, but I didn't want to write a book here--things that are memories my mom held close to her heart and I think the reason she told me these stories so often was that she hoped SOMEONE would remember her and the family that came before her long after she was gone. She felt like she was responsible for keeping their memories alive, somehow.Delete
I'm so glad you enjoyed it--I always love to hear about the past, especially when I know it's a true story!
This was such a wonderful story. I think it helps our stories when they come from our own histories. We have a real connection with the story and its characters and it shows.ReplyDelete
Maybe we're not just writers, maybe we're good listeners, too. We have that great empathy so we are drawn to these stories. I understand how it feels with a family story inside you and somehow you want to make things right--fix that thing that didn't end the way it should have. I remember Pop telling me the story of his brother, with so much talent and promise, who drown when he was 21. I felt my dad's despair over losing his brother. I decided, like you, I would write that story and I would give my Uncle John the happy life he never got the chance to live. So I wrote The Violin and, if ever I cared about a character, I cared deeply about John.
I loved reading all these memories told to you by your mom. Life must have been hard for her.
I love this cover. It's so beautiful.
Sarah, you did a beautiful job with The Violin--I really loved that story and I could tell there was "something" that really touched you in that story, even before I knew about your uncle. It's always so sad when someone with such promise dies so young--you did him proud with your story.Delete
Mom really did have a tough life--and her friend, Mary, was in the same boat--though not quite as many siblings as Mom, Mary had I think 5 younger than she was. But Mom and Mary remained friends all through their lives--sharing a past like they did was the foundation of a lifelong friendship for them, in some ways, closer than sisters.
I love the cover for One Magic Night too. Livia really did a good job--she always does. Thanks for stopping by to comment!
What a wonderful way to celebrate your birthday...with a tribute to your family's past. I hope you are putting these vividly painted word pictures in your writing. Some of these scenes gave me chills. And yes, I do use family history in my own writing, and some of my characters resemble in looks and/or actions family members I remember from childhood. Thanks for sharing your memories today.ReplyDelete
Linda, it was my pleasure. There are so many things I remember Mom telling me--of course, there wasn't room for nearly all of it in this post, and as I was writing it I was thinking, "I really need to make note of these in a notebook--just write down everything I can remember Mom telling me." Dad never talked much about his growing up years. But Mom was able to fill me in on a lot of what happened, since the town was so small and they knew each other from 1st grade on--with a graduating class in their highschool of TWELVE.Delete
Thanks so much for stopping by today, Linda!
The stories I heard growing up color my stories, even if not the events. Of course a lot of the research I do ends up there also.ReplyDelete
If push came to shove, I would say all my reading and listening end up in some form in the stories I write, even the Medieval ones.
I will say, reading your family stories took me back to the small community I grew up in. Different names, similar stories. I could hear the old couple talking about the father who was suicidal and asked his child to go get the shotgun then killed himself. I again recalled the childhood friend who feel in the grain elevator and suffocated.
I also remember trying coffee, which I hated and still do, at the auctions that were part and parcel of life in that community. I hadn't really thought of these things in detail for some time, just the overall lesson I took from them that colors my work. Of course your stories are so wonderful. It gives me something to strive for. Doris
Doris, I think you and I are the only two people in the world left who DON'T like coffee! LOL I've tried--it's just not going to happen.Delete
You know what I've discovered? It's hard to remember things in detail the older we get. It's like it all 'blends together'--and I think of that Barbra Streisand song THE WAY WE WERE--"What's too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget..." Though, it's not always "pain" that makes us forget--sometimes it's just a lack of thinking about these things, or talking about them with others, or sharing with someone else who might have been there.
Also, so many things "back in the day" became tragedies because of the lack of the things we take for granted--paved roads, ambulances, nearby hospitals and advanced medical care, etc.
And there were lots of good memories, too, that Mom shared with me--little things that meant so much to her as a kid who really had nothing, and gave up what little she did have to a younger sibling, usually.
You're right--that overall "lesson" colors everything and really aids in our writing to get the "feeling" across in many cases. Thanks so much for your kind words, Doris!
As I was writing A RANCHER'S WOMAN, I realized the teens in that story were the ages of my grandmothers. While writing LOVING MATILDA I wrote about the general area where my grandmother, great-grandmother,father, and I grew up. I was even in the original old house where my great-grandmother grew up. My dad took me to the house and up on the widow's walk where I could see the ships on the Delaware River. They tore the house down shortly after that and built a shopping center. Yes, small town where everyone knew if you sneezed. Everyone knew my dad and knew I belonged to him. You couldn't get away with anything!ReplyDelete
Loved your post and all the memories of my family surfaced as I read it.