by Tosca Lee
I got the gift of a lifetime in the mail a few weeks ago. It was Laura—My Story, a book written by my mother. It isn’t her first book; my mother is a genealogist and has published several volumes already on our family history. But it’s the first that is uniquely hers.
Within the pages of Laura—My Story is everything Mom remembers about growing up in Elwood, Nebraska, taking care of her younger siblings after the car crash that killed her mother and crushed her father’s legs. About moving away to Denver at 17, meeting my dad when she worked at Coors… and the wedding license they were denied in Athens, Georgia in 1968 because they were a mixed-race couple.
It contains tons of pictures, the names of the boys she dated, the church she attended, and the first time she ever saw a lobster dinner.
So many stories I thought I knew, I didn’t have half the details! I had no idea my grandpa worked for the WPA in the 30s earning $1 a day. The name of her childhood cat (Liddy Cat) and dog, Zeke. That they used the Sears & Roebuck Catalog as a foot warmer, heating it on top of the old oil heater before they had a furnace.
I teach writing often—sometimes to aspiring authors working toward a publishing deal. Sometimes to local interest or church groups. Most of the participants in the latter groups aren’t trying to get an agent or dreaming of selling film rights—they’re contemplating writing a memoir or autobiography for their kids.
Maybe it’s a recent development since hitting my 50s, or my appreciation for soldiers’ memoirs in the research for my upcoming WWII novel, The Long March Home, or sheer interest in how much things change—the price of milk, social attitudes, technology—or how much human foibles, hopes, and dreams remain the same… but I wish more people would consider recording their personal stories as a gift to their kids and grandkids or future generations in general. Without such accounts, I wouldn’t know these details about my mother’s life or about the pioneering adventures of my great, great, great grandmother, Azuba, who came West as a widow with four kids in the 1880s and settled in Gosper County, Nebraska—where my mother was born. Thank goodness for the letters Azuba’s daughter wrote to my mother while Mom was collecting the stories of those who came before her, which so many now have remarked upon and enjoyed. Thank goodness for my mother’s stories about her mom, who died 12 years (to the day!) before I was born and who I never got to meet.
Please consider writing your stories as a gift to those younger members of your family or generations in general to come. You don’t have to get it bound (though if you want to turn it into a book, it’s easier than ever to do at sites like lulu.com, which my mom uses).
A few tips for those not sure where to start:
- Jot down things as they comes to you. Memories, stories of things that happened. The house you grew up in, the neighbors. Keep a notebook handy to add to, or a file on your computer.
- Include both the mundane details (the butterfly bedspread in your room as a kid, the name of your favorite second grade teacher) as well as the events that had a profound effect on your life.
- Write as though no one will ever read it. This is my #1 rule of writing for anyone because it allows us to get everything out without worrying about the mechanics of writing. Time enough to censor—if you must—later, to fix punctuation and anything else. When it comes to a personal story, your unique voice is far more important than any writing rules.
- Add photos, letters, ticket stubs—anything you have that goes with your story.
- Add dates, first and last names, locations, and other details as you can. Some future family genealogist will thank you.
What story will you tell first? Let’s talk about it in the comments.