Praise the Saints and Dish Up the Dirt

wpid-img_20140825_103611.jpg There’s always a black sheep in every family.

If there isn’t…well, somebody must have scared ’em off long ago !

There was a certain aunt in my hubby’s family who was evidently removed from the planet at some point.  I stumbled upon her on an early census.  She lived at home with her parents and two brothers until she was about 20.  Then all of a sudden she is married, and widowed within about a year.  Hmmm.  His death certificate (signed by her) states his cause of death as homicide, fatal gun shot wound.  His body was claimed by his parents and I as far as I can tell, was hauled back to Tennessee.  See ya Robert !  That’s around the time that Aunt Mary walked off the face of the earth.  Poof!  Gone.

Now heaven knows, my bloodline is not Saint-laden.  I am probably descended from more than my share of bootleggers, moonshiners, batterers and hatchet murdering types than I care to claim.  A couple of them even got caught!

Honestly, one end of my gene-pool had a real “thing” for smacking others in the head with a hammer. I can’t imagine it was their fault. Maybe hammers were just laying around waiting in those days…maybe it’s what most women carried in their handbags…maybe they didn’t know how to “use your words” to settle differences. I’m not really sure, but as far as I’ve found, none of them ever seemed to have been ever proven directly fatal.

Some tales are a bit less violent, but illegal nonetheless. Like the bootlegger faction of the family who warehoused their stock on underground shelves dug into the sidewalls of the outhouse. Bathtub Gin was the (out)house specialty. When a buy order came in, one of the kids was lowered down the hole–yes, that hole–by rope to retrieve the merchandise.

I would like to think that the customers sat on the front porch  or maybe stood around on the curb chatting while their order was being filled from the “stockroom”. But, who knows, maybe they didn’t give a…

Well, you could guess where that was about to go!

So think aloud around the table today and dig up a few of your “less than suitable for Sainthood” stories. You could start by Googling some names of cousins or other “contemporaries.”   They could be more recent than you think!

Who knows what you may or may not find. But if it’s ‘juicy’…you know what Mom always says:

Maybe someone should write that down!


Why Bother ?

PD_0163About three years ago when I sat down to start blogging, I positioned myself before an ailing desk-top computer while balancing a hefty copy of “Blogging for Dummies” on my knee.  This is what I ended up writing after hours of tinkering~

I’ve spent years chasing my ancestors through wet cemeteries, musty boxes and up family trees.  I’ve dug around libraries, attics, and read books and webpages galore.  What I have learned from all this is simple…

no one else gives a hoot if they can’t somehow “relate” to those old names and numbers

Truth is, all that detective and scholarly work is really boring on paper.  My family used to roll their eyes when they saw me coming with yet another binder of “genealogy stuff.”

What to do ~what to do?  Let me tell ya…

We’re all connected with our families, not by pedigree or heirlooms, but through our common stories.  Names and dates have no real pull on our heartstrings.  But the joys and struggles of everyday life in another time can fascinate us like a flickering campfire.

Oh and a little tattle-tailing or a dash of dishing-dirt doesn’t hurt either! 

Without stories our family tree efforts are just tidy (for some) stacks of paper with footnotes and a few photos sprinkled in.  I invite you to take the next step with me and you will soon be writing an account of your family’s history to be read , re-read  and actually cherished for many years!

When I originally wrote that about three years ago, I had no idea what I had gotten myself into.  All of the wonderful people we have lost (and gained!) in the short life of this blog is both sad and miraculous.  I’m speaking of blogs abandoned or begun as well as losses and gains within my own family.

Telling family stories and even writing our own as “memoir” has become quite a “thing.”  I am seeing this form of writing honored and applauded more and more.  Only a handful of years ago, a Memoir was one of the trappings (or curses) of celebrity or notoriety.  Now, regular people, in common circumstances are writing prolifically about themselves and their “inner circle.”  To this I say–HooRay!

 I would like to add a very important “beware” to those of us who are writing stories to be read years from now.

I’m not talking about identity thieves and computer hacks or natural disasters and copyright laws.  I want to advise you to look over all of your writing in a different way.  You need to read over the pages you have enjoyed and slaved over in order to preserve them as readable and understandable documents…later.

Here’s the important point of this:

 Have people of many generations read over the words you have written.

Have them work separately. Ask them to mark or note any words, phrases or sayings that are not immediately clear to them (ie: is there anything you have questions about/ don’t understand?).

 Take these comments and figure out how to make them clear to “other” generations.  As an example, genealogists are accustomed to seeing the word “nee.” Someone who is looking at a family story for the first time may not know the meaning of that funny word.  Yes, they could look it up (as we all probably had to) but wouldn’t you rather have them enjoy the tale that is spun on the page? Well of course you would!  Other things that some would take as common knowledge are in danger of being lost to time. Like Ration Books and what they were, when, and why they were out there.  How about “no swimming in summer?” 

Now, decide how to work the definitions and explanations into your work.  Below are methods that I have used or seen used to good effect.  Remember you want to tell stories more than to give history tutorials.  Likely, you also want to preserve these people beyond their vital statistics for lots of generations to come!

A mix of these will probably work in your own writing~

1.  Use all the antiquated, colloquial, unusual, foreign, confusing word in italics.  Then use a method similar to footnotes at the bottom of the same page to explain it.  So perhaps you would write a sentence and italicize nee. Then, appearing at the bottom of the same page a note would appear as such:

nee~woman’s surname before marriage.

2.  Work the words into the story and thus describe it (or the phrase etc) as a part of the tale.  An example would be to describe an old, rarely used phrase or slang or other term as such:

Jane grew up in the roaring 20’s when women wore long straight dresses, without bras, and were thus called “flappers” and things        that were new and exciting were referred to as “the bee’s knees.”

3.    Perhaps a bit more complicated sounding (but when working with several family members a work-saver) is the “overview page.”  This is a prelude, preamble or forward to the material you are about to present.  It isn’t uncommon to find your family stories falling into neat categories related to universal events. Listen to conversation around a holiday table and you will likely hear talk of “the war years,” or “during the depression,” or “on White Avenue.”  So, describing that place and time as an overview for all of the stories under the heading will set the tone for everyone’s notable adventure during that family “era.”  You could even combine method 1 and method 2 together italicizing the funky words and noting them, and describing events of the time and the vernacular of speech.  This is a great way to get around a re-write for several finished pieces. It’s sort of backtracking, but getting the work done without overdoing. This one works best when each story is written as a separate event like my post “Honest Abe and Too Many Jimmys” ( click here to see it )      perhaps under a heading such as “Myths and Mysteries.”  When the story is a synopsis of someone’s whole life, like my post “Uncle Joe” (see it here   ) using only the first or second method would be best.

So what tips and tricks do you have up your sleeve tricky writer?  Share your secret weapons with all of us in the comment box! Then~ Maybe someone should write that down…


Not Playing with a Full Deck

imageThis is by far one of my favorite tricks to get organized. 

Inspired by the hall trays in Victorian homes for calling cards, I came up with Character Cards.  Whenever I “add” a new relative to a family branch, I make up my own little version of a collectible edition trading card.  I call them my Character Cards.

Each family has their own ever-expanding “Deck.”  The Decks only get larger, because unlike real live families, no one gets discarded (buried).  In most cases, I have figuratively dug them up :).

I have a specific list of info that I want to chase for each Character.  These are the same old things one puts on an ancestry chart : dates and places of major life events, occupations, spouses, a parentage note etc.  I also include on my hunting and collecting list an “image.”  I really like having pictures.  So, in some cases where none is (yet) available, I will opt for some other image to represent the person and their statistics.  It can be anything I can connect to the real person.  For one uncle I have a scan of a lock of hair found wrapped in tissue paper marked “Tommy’s first hair cut.”  Eventually, I hope to find a photo, but until then he is represented as a little yellow curl.

I do not put original items on my cards.  I only use scanned images and I simply tape them on with cellophane tape.  I can pop a whole collection into my purse and head off to the cemetery, history center, or out to do drive- by house photos.

My family has a big laugh with this…they have always insisted that I don’t quite play with a full deck, and now, well…they have it in writing 🙂