Reviving a family in writing

Dedicated to my children: Perhaps there were some things I couldn’t say when you were growing up, some things I didn’t know how to say—like “I love you…”
“Jim,” from dedication page of his family history book

Why write a memoir? Some writers want redemption; some want to reminisce; some want to be remembered; some want to set the story straight; some want to share feelings they’ve never shared before.

When Jim (not his real name) called us to say he had a manuscript that he wanted to get into print for his family, I thought, “Nice! A grandfather who wrote down his family history for his kids and grandkids.” When I saw the title, Gramps…Where Are We From? and his illustration of two little girls, I realized he intended it to be a children’s book. “Cute!” I thought (rather hastily and with some presumption). Don’t get me wrong; I am duly impressed when people sit down and actually write their stories—I know how laborious and gut-wrenching it can be, and how very few people actually get to it in a lifetime.

I read Jim’s first draft. The narrative takes place on one afternoon and consists of a lively conversation among three people: Gramps (our client, the narrator) and his two granddaughters. It starts with Gramps snoozing in his easy chair when the two girls playfully jump on him, asking him to tell them the old family stories. The girls sit in his lap and ask questions while looking at family pictures (which are included in the book), and Gramps answers all their questions…

How did Jeremiah get to America, Gramps?

Why did they change the spelling of our last name, Gramps?

What did he do for a living, Gramps?

When did he die, Gramps?

It was a very sweet story, as Gramps embraces his granddaughters and teases them with funny retorts, advice, and family lore. As I read on, journeying through the genealogy, family anecdotes, photos, maps, births, deaths, and career paths, I learned in bits and pieces that Gramps is also divulging his alcoholic past—how his stern grandfather and abusive, alcoholic father affected the family, how his own drinking affected his life and his children. Regrets about the past and hopes for the future rise through the story:

I had watched my father die of alcoholism. I watched him die as a pitiful lonely man, and I decided I didn’t want to die like that— I didn’t want to live like that.

When I was drinking, I hurt several people. I just walked away from everybody, and now I hope to make things right when I can. I can’t go back and change anything that happened a long, long time ago, but I can change myself now. And I can say I’m sorry to those I’ve hurt, and I can be present from here on out, and I can experience life and feelings.

When you are hurt, like when you hurt your finger, isn’t it best to share the pain with Mommy? Well, it’s better to share our pain with others than to keep it inside, so they can help us through it.

 

I found a deep respect for a man who had taken the time to describe his past and his journey of recovery for the benefit of his youngest family members, in words they might understand.

Months passed by, and the book was finished and at the printer. I was on the phone with Jim, asking if he was getting excited about handing out the book to his family. It was only then that he told me that he was estranged from his children—and thus from his granddaughters. I could hardly believe him at first. He never saw his granddaughters? The conversational tone of the book, the curiosity, the humor, the connection—all of it was what the author desired, springing from somewhere deep inside. All of it, imagined. Even the realistic illustration of him and the girls sitting together in his easy chair… just a dream.

Jim eventually sent copies of his book to his family members and close friends. He had no idea if his children would read it, much less his grandchildren. He stayed in touch with us over the next few years and was happy to report that he did eventually reunite with his two children, and his granddaughters. At some point he emailed a photo of himself holding a new grandson. We haven’t heard from him in a while so I’m not sure how things are going.

Sometimes we write to help our lives along, to help our relationships, no matter how torn apart, with the humble notion that perhaps someday our tangled lives will be understood. To that end, here’s to all those who pour their hearts out on the page, and here’s to opening our hearts in an attempt to understand one another.

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