Somewhere in your family writing journey, you will undoubtedly be challenged by a few souls whose stories are so thin that they are barely viable for the telling.
This is where you need to really use every ounce of creative writer’s “umph” you can muster. With just the barest little sheet of information we can make them count as more than a name on a census list.
In a recent workshop, we encountered such a case. Since I, Mom, am not one to “kiss and tell” we can use my own Aunt Julie as an example in place of “Marilyn’s uncle Mickey.” Put your thinking caps on, grab a shovel for digging up ideas and add a little new-age chant. Sometimes we family history story tellers need all the help we can muster:
#1 Figure out what you know:
Here’s what I knew to begin with–My mom was the oldest of four children. She had two brothers and a little sister. Her sister’s name was Julie. Julie had died when she was a very young child. Although my mom would never talk about the details, over the years it became clear (rather tragically so) that my mother had blamed herself for her sister’s death. That admittedly makes for a pretty good reason to not want to discuss a painful part of history. No one dared to ask Grandma or Grandpa about Julie. They never mentioned her name and there was really no trace of her to be found in their home. No photos I’ve ever seen, no dolls, no traces at all…except…an eerie little framed memorial hanging on the wall in my Grandparent’s bedroom. You may have more or less than this to work with.
#2 Put yourself in their environment in every way you can think of:
Their home was an old farmhouse that had been built long before indoor plumbing was a “thing.” If you’ve ever spent any amount of time stomping around old houses, you will know that the invention of indoor outhouses made for some pretty funky floor plans. At Grandma and Grandpa’s house, you had to walk through the downstairs (“Master”) bedroom to get to the bathroom. Yes, THE bathroom. The ONLY bathroom. At some point I think an owner had closed-in a back porch to make a full bathroom and pump-room in front of the door to the dirt storm cellar that lurked underneath the house. If you were a brave kid, you could go through the opening from the kitchen to the pump-room (at some point converted to a civilized laundry room) and enter the bathroom from the side door. I say brave kid, because that portal to the basement was about the scariest thing around. It smelled funny, even when the door was closed. The floor boards in front of it popped and moaned and carried on with an awful racket whenever anyone walked over them. And the big old windows, relics that support my converted porch theory, were fully covered up by tall overgrown bushes that hid the home’s propane service tank and wiggled like mossy monsters with the lightest breeze.
I wasn’t a brave kid. I ran through the bedroom whenever I had to pee.
#3 What do you note from retracing their steps? What wispy bits and crumbs are there for you once you look closely?
Now, let me explain the “running.” At some point in my childhood, I began to read. One day on a leisurely trot to go tinkle after hours of sliding down the slick waxed stairs from the second floor on my butt everything changed. I would never dare to take the scary route past the cellar door. As usual, I headed through the bedroom bound for the nice 1940’s grey and black tiled bathroom. I will never forget the first time I saw the framed memorial on Grandma’s wall in a different way. I saw words. I didn’t have the ability yet (nor the nerve) to read the whole plaque. The only part that I was able to read about my dead-baby Aunt Julie was the title: She is not Dead.
Having been an enthusiastic and avid watcher of Dark Shadows every day after school, I was scared witless by that phrase! If she was not dead, she must have been “undead.” Nobody can survive an encounter with the undead! Until the day my Grandparents moved out of that house, I ran, full out, every time I needed to “go.” I’m sure they thought I was incontinent or just plain weird.
#4 What sort of tangible evidence do you have available, if any?
Officially, all that was left of Julie was a birth certificate and a death certificate I got for seven dollars from the County Clerk’s office. I knew her date of birth, her date and cause of death and really little more. I had located her grave by chance one day while looking for her Grandparents’ grave site. She rested in between my Great Grandparents with a small inscription added to their headstone “Granddaughter Julie 1937-39 Our Lamb.” It was so little. Maybe too little to write about. But I couldn’t leave her there, nearly forgotten as a footnote–a child who once lived and breathed and played and laughed. A baby who had been so loved by everyone that mentioning her name was still all but forbidden more than 40 years after her death. Missing Julie hurt. Loosing her again to time would be even worse.
#5 Begin to cobble it all together. If you have too little to write about them, you can write about their lifetime.
I really wish I knew what happened to that scary plaque. As an adult, I now “get” that it was likely a framed memorial given to my Grandparents as a keepsake of the child they so tragically lost. I wondered whether it was provided by their church, or a close friend, or even the undertaker. For the longest time I found no newspaper obituary to at least glean a few scraps about the funeral service. I had to assume that Julie had been viewed either at home or at her grandparent’s home (since it was larger and closer to town).
Mom Note: I’ve spoken to more than a few people who think I’m from another planet when I mention in-home viewings/wakes/visitations this late into the 20th century. My Mom’s family, the Farmer’s, preserved this tradition well into the 1940’s in conjunction with the local undertaker who did the body prep. Were we weird? Did you have family branches who bent this way too?
Bottom line is this: With only this silly memory from the house, the birth and death certificate and one more little tid-bit that happened to come forward at Grandma Farmer’s own funeral (about 65 years after Julie’s) I was able to write about a 5 page entry for baby Julie in our family book. Here’s the general gist of it:
The second child born to George and Maggie Farmer was a daughter named Julie. She was born at their home January 18th, 1937. Her older sister Carrie was about two at the time. Tragically, in early January of 1939, just days before the family would celebrate Julie’s 2nd birthday, she began to run a fever and complain of a sore throat…
**Julie died of Scarlet Fever. I recall having Scarlet Fever as a child and watching my mom freak out. I didn’t think it was any big deal. In fact, except for the sore throat, I thought it wasn’t too bad. The fever gave me really funny and realistic dreams. When the rash started appearing on my chest my mom went into Crazy-mode. I was taken to the doctor and given a shot of penicillin in the bum, and was back to school by Monday. Beyond the new understanding of why my mom was so unnerved by my rashy sore throat, I had to dig into the symptoms, progression and treatment of Scarlet Fever. Most of all I needed to find out why she died from it, when all I needed was a shot. This gave me a lot of material to write about. I learned (as will those in my family who read the Julie chapter of our family history) that though penicillin was discovered in 1928, it was not produced in large enough quantity or in condensed enough form to be made available for general use until after WWII. If Julie had contracted the Strep infection that caused her to get Scarlet Fever and ultimately the pneumonia that killed her a mere seven years later, she would have been given the same shot in the bum that I got. She would likely be still around to ask about it too. I also found this was a good part of the family story to discuss at-home wakes and what that entailed in the house. I saved in-home births for my younger uncle who was the first of the Farmer’s to be born in a hospital. For my own Mother, I had made the date discovery that showed even though she had always felt that she was responsible for bringing the fever home from school to her little sister, that was actually impossible. She had been barely 4 when Julie died. She didn’t start school until the fall of 1940. Who knows why she had this idea, and why she suffered so deeply without ever checking the facts. Maybe she had overheard adults at the funeral speaking about school closing because so many homes were under quarantine due to the fever in the county (as I found announced a couple of years later in a newspaper clipping).
**Beyond the history of antibiotics, there was also the bit of epiphany I had at Grandma Farmer’s funeral service. At one point, the pastor indicated that we would all be treated to Maggie’s favorite song, as performed by a famous female blue grass artist. He lowered his head next to the podium and someone keyed up the cassette tape they had dug up. To me it sounded like a screeching cat from the back hills of who-knows-where keening out the lyrics that were hauntingly familiar~
She is not dead…She’s only Sleeping
Once home, I googled the song lyrics to try to figure out who the performer was. I was still sort of trying to make sense of a rather painful day in my own head. What popped up first was not the name of a lady blue grass diva, it was the bible verse in all it’s assorted variations: Luke 8:52 Don’t Cry! She isn’t dead, she is only sleeping!
Mystery of the mourning plaque is solved, it was sad, but it was not the terrifying thing that I had thought it was. I added the passage to Julie’s pages. And, at last I understood a bit more about her. She died just two days short of her second birthday, and I had really very little to write about her life, but her pages don’t seem so empty since I could at least write about her lifetime and her place in our family story. Too little? Indeed, too little to die, but she did. Too little known about to tell a story on her behalf…no way!