Monday, November 18, 2013

Learning A Life

I've taken a bit of a break from blogging lately because I've been writing the story of my grandmother's life. I find it's always a learning experience to immerse yourself in someone else's life. Every sentence spawn's new questions. Fortunately for me, my grandmother is still alive (the last one of my grandparents) so I can actually satisfy my curiosity. 

About a year ago I sent my grandma some questions and called to talk about them. While that filled in some gaps, I know that sometimes it's hard to remember things out of context. For this reason, my strategy this time was to start writing her story before asking more questions. I hope to have enough detail to place my grandma back in time to evoke additional memories.

As with any ancestor, I can piece together the major events in my grandmother's life from basic records (census records, city directories, vital records). These create the scaffold for the story. Every nugget of information can expand the picture. The 1940 census, for example, informed me that my grandma's father was unemployed for about four years in the late 1930s. This likely explains why three of his sons had dropped out of high school and were working. For those of us who knew someone who lived through the Great Depression, no explanation is necessary, but for younger generations it's a great time to introduce a brief history lesson. Speaking of history, no discussion of this time should fail to mention the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This seminal event had huge implications for the country as a whole, just as they did for a young woman with four brothers and eventually a husband ripe for the draft.

To flesh out my story more I needed additional details. By looking at maps I could say that my grandmother walked a mile to get to the high school. It would have been awfully cold walking during the winter wearing skirts, because women, as a rule, didn't wear pants then. From my grandma's high school yearbook (purchased on eBay, see Milking eBay For Family Artifacts) I know she was in the choir and earned a typing certificate. The scanned images of my grandfather's WWII scrapbook and my notes from earlier interviews with my grandmother have also come in handy. I also took advantage of my father's recent visit to pick his brain and discovered some variations of the stories my grandma told me. These tidbits may seem insignificant, but when combined with the scaffold and elements from history it becomes easier to craft a more compelling narrative.

Now that I have a rough draft, it's the perfect time to share it with my grandmother. I think I have enough detail to help her remember more. I also have questions that occurred to me during writing. Most of my questions are simple, though some are rather vague (what kinds of food did your mother fix to eat?). However, when I can, I try to ask specific questions that are more likely to yield a response. Did your mom have a vegetable garden? Did she bake bread? Did you string popcorn or make paper chains to decorate the Christmas tree? Even if the answer is no, a specific question may still prompt my grandma to recall something I hadn't thought to ask. I guess I'll soon see if I've been successful.

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