Thoughts on Writing a Family History

As I write the story of my grandmother, imagining and then retelling in my own words the stories that I have heard her repeat so many times, what I’m noticing are the gaps.

It’s obvious of course, but somehow I didn’t realize before: when someone retells the same stories over and over, there are other stories that are never told at all. In retelling my grandmother’s history, I realize that there are pieces that I know nothing about.

For example, the story of her first pregnancy. Her mother had been saying novenas for months, praying for a baby. When Nan found out that a baby was on the way, she rushed to tell her. But when she reached the house, her father opened the door. “Your mother’s not here,” he said, “She dropped dead this morning.”

Certain details of this story—Nana’s excitement, the running to her mother’s house, the exact wording that her father used to break the news, dropped dead—I have heard many times. I am certain of them.

But what happened after her father said these words? What did Nana reply? Did she turn around and go home, or did he invite her inside? These are details that I have never heard. Never, until I began constructing the scene, even thought to consider.

In what details does the story lie—in the pieces that people emphasize in their retelling? Or the negative space around them?

Every family has legends—the stories that we know to expect, either hopefully or with dread, at every holiday and gathering. (The time Nan and Pop were traveling in India, and she fell into a waist-deep latrine. Pop was laughing too hard to help her out. When they were 17 and Pop convinced her to play hooky from school—and her mother happened to run into them in downtown Manhattan.) These are the stories we ask for, again and again, even when we know their endings, because they are part of the larger narration of who we are and where we come from, how we see ourselves and where we fit. They are our myths.

But is it sometimes helpful to dig deeper, is it ever helpful to dismantle the myths?

As I craft these stories of my grandmother’s life, making choices as a writer, what are the implications of telling only the pieces that Nana has chosen to remember and relate? Her personality—the way she sees her own life and the story that she tells about herself, to herself and to others—is conveyed more fully by the omissions that she consciously or unconsciously makes. Or should I ask questions that will give the grey area surrounding these events a more substantial shape?

Either way, it’s true that a story is shaped as much by the silence that surrounds it, as it is by the details that find their way to the foreground.

8 thoughts on “Thoughts on Writing a Family History

  1. Your central question here is so interesting, and yet I found myself so excited over the details that she, and you, have chosen to re-tell – your Grandma really got caught skipping school by her Mom in Manhattan of all places?! I know very little of my own Grandmother’s story, as she for some reason, hasn’t chosen to tell much of it. Which leads to endless fascination about her life. And M, I’m working through my top fiction award winners reading list! If you’re ever interested in a woman’s story and what she chooses to pass along of her story, “Follow Me” by Joanna Scott, a juicy one! Great blog, as usual!

  2. There is not real solution to this dilema except to ask, ask, ask. I did that with Oma’s story. But even now I think of things I did not think to ask, and it’s too late. So ask, ask, ask, and write down the answers right away!

  3. What a great approach to this topic. Sometimes, at family gatherings, I stare (or casually look, as to not appear creepy) at my family members, trying to fill in those very gaps in my mind. I think about the stories I have been told more times than I want to remember and the ones I overheard with my large ears. I admire, as always, the way you are bringing that alive in your writing.

  4. I’ve discovered something fascinating. In the telling of tragedies the real story is most often what’s left out. While with comedy, details are most often related with elaborate flourish and to the letter. Brilliant question… So beautifully and engagingly asked. I hope you always ask the questions that lead to the Real answers.

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