It’s one thing to get an idea and quite another to make it a reality. I wanted to compile information about my ancestry and put it into a family history, but how to do it was a mystery. Where was the information coming from? What was the best way to organize the narrative? Just how far back in my family’s history should I go? Would my children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews care about Ida Brown Cunningham? Probably. But they’d be more curious about their grandparents.
I soon realized that thinking and rethinking my ideas was nothing more than procrastination, and I took Nike’s advice to “Just do it!” I started with what I knew and added tidbits of information as the work progressed. I went right to the sources who had the facts, figures, and stories—my aunts, one on my mother’s side and one on my father’s side. They were virtual founts of information.
I already knew when my great aunt Lillie was born and when she died. Same for her parents. I was saddened by her death and whelmed with compassion for the grief her parents must have suffered. But what did she die of? I never found the answer to that one, but I realized that niggling question was getting me off track and was something I could come back to later. Too, Lillie was just one person, and there were dozens and dozens of people I wanted to include.
But still…how to do it? During this time of indecision, a writer friend, Brenda Remmes, shared her book about her mother-in-law. Titled Emma, it was both a tribute and a history written about a strong young woman who was left raising three children after the death of her husband. Concerned that Emma’s grandchildren wouldn’t know anything about their resilient, hard-working, gutsy (her son Bill’s word) matriarch, Brenda wrote about both Emma’s and her husband’s lives and families and then moved seamlessly into another part of Emma’s life, the one including her progeny. Emma was the center, the heart, of the book.
One day I woke up knowing the focus, the pivot around which everything swirled, would be my parents—where they came from, where they went to school, and how they fit into their families. Both were the oldest children of their families although my father wasn’t the firstborn. He was born nearly two years after the death of an older brother, Nelson, whose life was taken at eighteen months by scarlet fever. My mother was the oldest of three daughters. There were ten years between her birth and that of her sister Jonnie, and birth order theories would see that gap as quite significant. It’s like starting a new family. She had attributes of both an only child and the oldest child—responsible, dependable, and mature.
The lightbulb of an idea grew brighter. I wanted to include what their childhoods, teen years, and adult lives were like; the decisions they made, including work, education, and child raising; what the world was like throughout their lives, from the Great Depression to the Clinton Era; their attributes, personalities, and advice. And I wanted to do it using the power of story without ignoring the “begats.” I solicited narratives from my siblings, and their stories are the icing on the cake (forgive the cliche), the sweet details that complete the work–at least the first edition.
John and Margie was my working title until I recalled a quote from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “I am a fugitive and a vagabond, a sojourner seeking signs. This is our life, these are our lighted seasons, and then we die.” By the time I began revising “Family Changes,” a chapter describing graduations, moves, illnesses, and a death, I changed the title to Our Lighted Seasons: John and Margie.
If you’re thinking of writing a family history or any other kind of book, just do it. Nothing can happen until you stop procrastinating.