The Case for Place in Your Storytelling

PD_0095there are places I remember…all my life Though some have changed.  Some forever not for better. Some have gone and some remain.

So aptly crooned by John, Paul, George and Ringo.

                                           ~ Yes, It’s been stuck in my head for days

                                                                                                  ~ You’re welcome.

  Are you humming?

                                        I am as I type……la la la laaaaa hum hum hummm….

Sometimes the most powerful memories and attachments our families hold on to are of places. The places are the event hosts, the welcoming port in a storm, the elevator music of our lives.  These certain spots grasp time and happenings in a way that we mortals can never wipe clean. A place is not always a house, it could be another building~ like a church or school or business.  Those are almost a given, but “place” can also be an intersection of two roads, a lake shore, or an event not precisely plot-able on the maps in our head. How about the time you spent the day with cousins at a little carnival and lost all of your hard earned grass cutting money on baseball throws at milk bottles?  Maybe you do remember where the carnival set up, or maybe you just remember the carnival and it’s mesmerizing midway lights as the place.  Which version of “place” is more important to your story?  Which was more important to you while it was happening?

My husband’s Grandfather “Estal” was “something else” a real…how should I put it?…”character.” At family gatherings  and holiday get-togethers he always managed to sneak his way into the nearest liquor cabinet in search of some “Wild Turkey.”  Shortly after bagging his “Turkey” or whatever else he could find, it was not uncommon to find him rummaging through women’s purses looking for unattended cigarettes.  Once he and the scavenged cigarette were both sufficiently “lit” the stories of places would begin.  One of his favorites was about “Little Rock Arkansas.” There were other places he liked to talk about too, all with rather lurid and inappropriate recounts of escapades of the “young Estal.” Mercifully, Grandma Lydia’s ears would usually perk up from two rooms away, and she would come zooming to the rescue and shut him down before he could get too far into the uncomfortably intimate details. Not always, but most of the time.  Ew.

The point being, although these tales were coming from the whiskey inspired lips of an old, half-senile geezer, with little to no social filter, “place” was always the starting point of his dissertation. That is of course if you skip the pre-storytelling preparations of Turkey hunts and cigarette foraging.

In my own family places are christened with names that are verbal shorthand for addresses, or the occupants, or incidents.  They are referred to in ways like “White Avenue, the Old Man’s, The County Line, Perry, 104, the Farm, the Cabin and the New House.  There are also references to places in ways they relate to time like “during the War,in the Flood, and under the Highway.”  Place can be a pretty big deal in our stories.  Often, it is like an extra character because the setting can make an enormous difference as we describe it (or ignore it).

I personally, love using descriptions of places or settings in my own writing.  Sometimes just seeing a photo of a place will elicit the starting point for the telling of a story you’ve never heard before. As relatives reminisce about a picture or event listen to the “place-chat” closely.  And, if you write in a style similar to mine (I try to use the voice of the person I am writing about as much as possible), be careful to also annotate the actual address or name of the place if you can!  “Out at the farm” is a very clear description for my current day readers, but when someone picks this up to read in 20, 50 or 100 years will they have a sense of where you’re writing about? The advent of Google Maps and especially Google Streetview has made this describing and locating from afar thing a whole lot easier!  Don’t hesitate to tuck in a printed out page to help future generations relate to the story you’re writing today!

So try throwing in the location any time you get a chance.  Yes, you may have the info from that a family was living in Louisville during the Great Depression just by finding their info pop up on a census.  But look closely in the margin on the left and you can find their street name and house number.  Imagine finding the same home today on Zillow or Trulia and seeing photos from the curb, and even the front parlor!  How cool would that be?  And if it’s not too far away, maybe a weekend road trip would be worthwhile  to snap a photo of the fancy entrance gates to the new housing addition that is going up in the middle of Great Grandpa’s cow pasture :).

 Every step we take now to deepen and anchor these stories will bring us and future generations closer together through time.  That’s a pretty cool thing to think about when you’re getting tired of writing… or, when a song is stuck in your head…or you feel like none of it amounts to much…or when your own Estal starts Turkey hunting.

I always feel so tingly when a story is told and I hear someone whisper~ 

Maybe someone should write that down

ps…….Here’s a link to an extra cool website that we have here in Indianapolis, hopefully you will be blessed enough to have something similar available for your most researched city or town.  If you don’t, maybe you should take a cue from this one and start your own!  See it at

Too Little

IMG_20130717_161607Somewhere in your family writing journey, you will undoubtedly be challenged by a few souls whose stories are so thin that they are barely viable for the telling.

This is where you need to really use every ounce of creative writer’s “umph” you can muster.  With just the barest little sheet of information we can make them count as more than a name on a census list.

In a recent workshop, we encountered such a case.  Since I, Mom, am not one to “kiss and tell” we can use my own Aunt Julie as an example in place of “Marilyn’s uncle Mickey.”  Put your thinking caps on, grab a shovel for digging up ideas and add a little new-age chant. Sometimes we family history story tellers need all the help we can muster:

#1  Figure out what you know:

Here’s what I knew to begin with–My mom was the oldest of four children.  She had two brothers and a little sister.  Her sister’s name was Julie.  Julie had died when she was a very young child.  Although my mom would never talk about the details, over the years it became clear (rather tragically so) that my mother had blamed herself for her sister’s death.  That admittedly makes for a pretty good reason to not want to discuss a painful part of history.  No one dared to ask Grandma or Grandpa about Julie.  They never mentioned her name and there was really no trace of her to be found in their home.  No photos I’ve ever seen, no dolls, no traces at all…except…an eerie little framed memorial hanging on the wall in my Grandparent’s bedroom.  You may have more or less than this to work with.

#2 Put yourself in their environment in every way you can think of:

Their home was an old farmhouse that had been built long before indoor plumbing was a “thing.”  If you’ve ever spent any amount of time stomping around old houses, you will know that the invention of indoor outhouses made for some pretty funky floor plans.  At Grandma and Grandpa’s house, you had to walk through the downstairs (“Master”) bedroom to get to the bathroom.  Yes, THE bathroom.  The ONLY bathroom.  At some point I think an owner had closed-in a back porch to make a full bathroom and pump-room in front of the door to the dirt storm cellar that lurked underneath the house. If you were a brave kid, you could go through the opening from the kitchen to the pump-room (at some point converted to a civilized laundry room) and enter the bathroom from the side door.  I say brave kid, because that portal to the basement was about the scariest thing around.  It smelled funny, even when the door was closed.  The floor boards in front of it popped and moaned and carried on with an awful racket whenever anyone walked over them.  And the big old windows, relics that support my converted porch theory, were fully covered up by tall overgrown bushes that hid the home’s propane service tank and wiggled like mossy monsters with the lightest breeze.

I wasn’t a brave kid.  I ran through the bedroom whenever I had to pee.

#3 What do you note from retracing their steps?  What wispy bits and crumbs are there for you once you look closely?

Now, let me explain the “running.”  At some point in my childhood, I began to read. One day on a leisurely trot to go tinkle after hours of sliding down the slick waxed stairs from the second floor on my butt everything changed.  I would never dare to take the scary route past the cellar door.  As usual, I headed through the bedroom bound for the nice 1940’s grey and black tiled bathroom. I will never forget the first time I saw the framed memorial on Grandma’s wall in a different way.  I saw words. I didn’t have the ability yet (nor the nerve) to read the whole plaque.  The only part that I was able to read about my dead-baby Aunt Julie was the title: She is not Dead.

Having been an enthusiastic and avid watcher of Dark Shadows every day after school, I was scared witless by that phrase! If she was not dead, she must have been “undead.” Nobody can survive an encounter with the undead!  Until the day my Grandparents moved out of that house, I ran, full out, every time I needed to “go.”  I’m sure they thought I was incontinent or just plain weird.

#4 What sort of tangible evidence do you have available, if any?

Officially, all that was left of Julie was a birth certificate and a death certificate I got for seven dollars from the County Clerk’s office.  I knew her date of birth, her date and cause of death and really little more.  I had located her grave by chance one day while looking for her Grandparents’ grave site.  She rested in between my Great Grandparents with a small inscription added to their headstone “Granddaughter Julie 1937-39 Our Lamb.”  It was so little.  Maybe too little to write about.  But I couldn’t leave her there, nearly forgotten as a footnote–a child who once lived and breathed and played and laughed.  A baby who had been so loved by everyone that mentioning her name was still all but forbidden more than 40 years after her death.  Missing Julie hurt. Loosing her again to time would be even worse.

#5 Begin to cobble it all together.  If you have too little to write about them, you can write about their lifetime.

I really wish I knew what happened to that scary plaque.  As an adult, I now “get” that it was likely a framed memorial given to my Grandparents as a keepsake of the child they so tragically lost.  I wondered whether it was provided by their church, or a close friend, or even the undertaker.  For the longest time I found no newspaper obituary to at least glean a few scraps about the funeral service.  I had to assume that Julie had been viewed either at home or at her grandparent’s home (since it was larger and closer to town).

Mom Note:  I’ve spoken to more than a few people who think I’m from another planet when I mention in-home viewings/wakes/visitations this late into the 20th century.  My Mom’s family, the Farmer’s, preserved this tradition well into the 1940’s in conjunction with the local undertaker who did the body prep.  Were we weird?  Did you have family branches who bent this way too?

Bottom line is this:  With only this silly memory from the house, the birth and death certificate and one more little tid-bit that happened to come forward at Grandma Farmer’s own funeral (about 65 years after Julie’s) I was able to write about a 5 page entry for baby Julie in our family book.  Here’s the general gist of it:

The second child born to George and Maggie Farmer was a daughter named Julie.  She was born at their home  January 18th, 1937.  Her older sister Carrie was about two at the time.  Tragically, in early January of 1939, just days before the family would celebrate Julie’s 2nd birthday, she began to run a fever and complain of a sore throat…

**Julie died of Scarlet Fever.  I recall having Scarlet Fever as a child and watching my mom freak out.  I didn’t think it was any big deal.  In fact, except for the sore throat, I thought it wasn’t too bad.  The fever gave me really funny and realistic dreams.  When the rash started appearing on my chest my mom went into Crazy-mode.  I was taken to the doctor and given a shot of penicillin in the bum, and was back to school by Monday.  Beyond the new understanding of why my mom was so unnerved by my rashy sore throat, I had to dig into the symptoms, progression and treatment of Scarlet Fever.  Most of all I needed to find out why she died from it, when all I needed was a shot.  This gave me a lot of material to write about.  I learned (as will those in my family who read the Julie chapter of our family history) that though penicillin was discovered in 1928, it was not produced in large enough quantity or in condensed enough form to be made available for general use until after WWII.  If Julie had contracted the Strep infection that caused her to get Scarlet Fever and ultimately the pneumonia that killed her a mere seven years later, she would have been given the same shot in the bum that I got.  She would likely be still around to ask about it too.  I also found this was a good part of the family story to discuss at-home wakes and what that entailed in the house.  I saved in-home births for my younger uncle who was the first of the Farmer’s to be born in a hospital. For my own Mother, I had made the date discovery that showed even though she had always felt that she was responsible for bringing the fever home from school to her little sister, that was actually impossible.  She had been barely 4 when Julie died. She didn’t start school until the fall of 1940. Who knows why she had this idea, and why she suffered so deeply without ever checking the facts.  Maybe she had overheard adults at the funeral speaking about school closing because so many homes were under quarantine due to the fever in the county (as I found announced a couple of years later in a newspaper clipping).

**Beyond the history of antibiotics, there was also the bit of epiphany I had at Grandma Farmer’s funeral service.  At one point, the pastor indicated that we would all be treated to Maggie’s favorite song, as performed by a famous female blue grass artist.  He lowered his head next to the podium and someone keyed up the cassette tape they had dug up.  To me it sounded like a screeching cat from the back hills of who-knows-where keening out the lyrics that were hauntingly familiar~

She is not dead…She’s only Sleeping

Once home, I googled the song lyrics to try to figure out who the performer was.  I was still sort of trying to make sense of a rather painful day in my own head.  What popped up first was not the name of a lady blue grass diva, it was the bible verse in all it’s assorted variations:  Luke 8:52 Don’t Cry! She isn’t dead, she is only sleeping!

Mystery of the mourning plaque is solved, it was sad, but it was not the terrifying thing that I had thought it was. I added the passage to Julie’s pages.  And, at last I understood a bit more about her.  She died just two days short of her second birthday, and I had really very little to write about her life, but her pages don’t seem so empty since I could at least write about her lifetime and her place in our family story.  Too little?  Indeed, too little to die, but she did.  Too little known about to tell a story on her behalf…no way!