My parents died two years ago within a month of one another. I didn’t realize the grounding their physical presence gave me until they were gone. They were my connection to childhood, to cousins and to memories of my hometown.
I wrote about them so I wouldn’t lose the memories. Those stories started me wondering about the family before me. What happened before I was born that influenced the world into which I was born? What happened in the lives of my relatives that molded who and what they became, ultimately influencing what I became? What are the stories buried beneath the gravestones in our family cemetery plot?
Psychologists say when death takes someone close we become aware of our own mortality, examine our lives and ask, “Where do I fit?” We question our accomplishments. “Have I done anything worthy to be passed on to the next generation? Is this all there is?”
John N. Kotre, psychologist and author, studied the ways people find fulfillment in adulthood. He said, “The key to overcoming the obstacles that get in the way of a full and satisfying adulthood is to shape a legacy that will last beyond our lifetimes.”
A legacy? Someone before me said, “We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us,” so I’ll use that bit of wisdom and add to it. My logic tells me since the work or knowledge we each leave for future generations has its base on those who came before us, we ought to get to know those people. What else can we learn?
We can begin by recording our immediate family’s stories, documenting them on film with a soundtrack in each of their voices. We can write a memoir of our life. We can research and write a family history or configure a family tree where each family member can find his connection to a branch. During the process we will find our place, where we fit on the family continuum. Anthropologist and author, Eva Huseby-Darvas, states, “If we have little or no connection with family history we will continue to feel lost … pushed by the wind.”
According to psychologists, a little piece of what happened to our forefathers is in each of us … a sobering thought to many. What if we learn our grandfather was a violent man who made his fortune in the slave trade? Or our mother served time for stealing jewelry. Flannery O’Conner wrote, “Remember that you own what happened to you. If your childhood was less than ideal, you may have been raised thinking that if you told the truth about what really went on in your family, a long bony white finger would emerge from a cloud and point to you, while a chilling voice thundered, ‘We told you not to tell.’ But that was then. Just put down on paper everything you can remember now about your parents and siblings and relatives and neighbors, and deal with libel later on.”
The step to action is preservation. Write the raw truth, place the suffering and darkness on the table, and take no prisoners. Anne Lamott, an author known for shining a light on the truth said, “Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
The point of the preservation process, I decided, wasn’t to have the family history or even that family tree. The point for me was who I became while I researched and wrote about my family.
Laurice LaZebnik is the author of “Minnie’s Potatoes,” a historical novel based on the romantic life of her great grandmother in Prussia, her life as a pioneer in early Michigan’s lumbering era, and her life as a businesswoman brewing and bootlegging moonshine. Available soon on Amazon.