I just completed reading a lovely book: Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry. It is in the first person voice of an elderly woman; a remembrance of her life from young adulthood until her senior years. The author describes an ordinary life, one woven with relationships of ordinary people living off the land: a tight community of farmers experiencing the changing world as they saw and lived it.
Although the book evokes a feeling of a memoir, it is fiction though I suspect the author's personal life is reflected within the prose. And though it is lacking in plot--as memoirs are--the character's story of a common life grasps the reader, unfolding truths and conflicts that we all wrangle with within our own lives.
It is a life. And that, alone, is captivating.
Memoirs have grown into a sought after genre for both writers and readers. It is no longer reserved for great movie stars or brilliant leaders. Everyday people are writing their life stories. They are telling, in their own words, their life, their experiences, their thoughts and readers relish the intrigue and commonality of learning from each other's lives.
Now consider this: What if our ancestors, our grandparents and great-grandparents, even our parents, wrote their own memoirs. The stories we struggle to find, handed to us as easy and gently as opening a newspaper on a slow, rainy Sunday; all there for us to soak up and experience and languish in.
How easy genealogy would be!
And so, as we dream of the possibilities we might have had, if only our ancestors had penned their life in story, we should consider an option, one we have complete control over: write our own memoir.
Now is the time to set in motion a written story of your life. I am not suggesting a full-fledge, yearlong novel of a memoir. It does not have to be in any particular form--you are the author of your story and you can write it as you like. But placing on paper (or computer), your life experience is a gift to your family, generations of descendants, and to yourself.
Dates of marriage and births and graduations and anniversaries--all of the information we seek out on our ancestors are certainly a must. But you have an opportunity to fill in the blanks in the story of your life.
There will always be great unknowns of your ancestor's lives, but you have a chance to grasp control of your own story and tell it as you would want your descendants to hear it.
A gift: one that will be precious to your descendants and most definitely--to yourself.
Keep searching for answers,
Jennie Knowlten paced back and forth through her parlor room, glancing at the mantel clock as she passed. Expecting a letter from New York to arrive on Friday, the day had faded into Saturday with nothing delivered from the post. "If you want a job done right, you have to do it yourself" demanded Jennie as she pushed open the front door and stomped toward the barn.
Quickly harnessing her horse to the wagon, Jennie eyed her husband George, peeking around the back of the barn. Shaking his head as he listened to the barks coming from his wife's mouth, George bit his lip attempting to conceal laughter at Jennie's remarks. Married to a headstrong woman, George knew his wife well; and no one could stand in her way, especially the United States Postal Service.
It was 1910 and the cross-country railroad had provided faster and more efficient delivery of mail to rural America. But Jennie Knowlten expected no less than flawless service; and mail delivery from the post office in Vida, Missouri was not living up to her lofty expectations.
Jennie whisked her horse-drawn wagon from the barn, making her way from their farm to the town of Vida. Approaching the little Post Office, Jennie stormed the entrance, demanding to speak with the Post Master. "Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today," she mumbled, holding her head high. But as she glanced around the small room, Jennie sensed a feeling of disorganization: finding boxes of letters sitting haphazardly against the wall, waiting to be delivered.
An older gentleman approached the counter, looking disheveled and haggard. Asking if she could be helped, Jennie snapped with "well its about time!" Remarking that her mail had not arrived for several days, the gentleman explained that the Post Master had unexpectedly quit, leaving Vida's little US Post Office in disarray.
Well...the conversation that transpired between Jennie and the disheveled gentleman in Vida's little Post Office has been left to everyone's imagination. A few towns-people were certain they overheard some stern and distasteful words passed between the two: but it is not what was said on that fateful day in 1910; but what occurred in the end that is remarkable:
Jennie Knowlten walked into the US Post Office as a farmer's wife and left as the Vida, Missouri Post Mistress!...As she said earlier in the day: "If you want a job done right, you have to do it yourself!"
Finding my great grandmother Jennie on the 1910 US Census listed as a Post Mistress, brought a quick smile to my face. Listening to stories of Jennie told by my mother, described a headstrong woman with a know-it-all personality. And taking charge of a Post Office in the early 1900's when only 10% of all married women in America were in the work-force, fit her personality to a tee.
How did Jennie Knowlten actually become the Post Mistress of Vida, Missouri? I haven't a clue. But a more thorough inspection of her listing on the 1910 US Federal Census provided a little golden nugget of detail that can be used to tell her story, enriched by her notoriously funny sayings and spitfire personality.
When writing your family history, search for the little 'tidbits'; the golden nuggets. Read your ancestor's US Census records with a keen eye and then weave in your discoveries to build their story. Think of each census record as a chapter in your ancestor's life.
Look closer at the details and you will most certainly, 'get the job done right!"
Keep searching for answers,