When writing an ancestor’s story, photographs provide me with textures, colors, props, clothing styles, hair styles, facial features, and apparent personalities that help my ancestors come to life on the page. Photos prevent histories from feeling stale and boring, so I *must* have visuals for every project that I write!
But when I can’t find photographs of a particular ancestor, I often have to get creative by inserting, instead, small images of ancestral signatures from records, photos/maps of the places they lived, or photographs of their gravestones to my family history narratives.
Imagine my excitement, then, when today I discovered one author whose ancestoir takes this strategy to an even more beautiful and visually appealing level: a photographic essay about ancestors on Narrative.ly:
I thoroughly enjoyed reading *and* viewing it!! This delicate weaving past, present, and future together in one narrative is the reason I prefer ancestoir to straight-up memoir or biography. In short, I crave the best of both worlds–both the stories of the ancestors AND the people who discovered them!
So please take a moment to read/view Tara Israel’s stunning family history photo essay on Narrative.ly at this link: http://narrative.ly/family-ties/playing-telephone-with-history/ and consider how it might help inspire YOUR family history writing activities. Also, if you haven’t joined already, check out this month’s Family History Writing Challenge.
Blood stains obscure the top half of this photograph of my grandmother, because it was in the shirt-pocket of her sweetheart when his tank was bombed in battle during World War II. This is a true story from my family history:
~ The Sweethearts ~
He was a soldier, stationed at Fort Dix. She was a schoolteacher who boarded with a family in nearby Riverton, N.J.
Fort Dix was a soldier’s “last stop” before heading overseas, so area community centers hosted dances, meals, and coffees for “the boys.” Like many residents in the area, my grandmother volunteered to help out.
When New Jersey native Hilda Grob showed up for her first night as a volunteer at the Fort Dix community center one night in the Spring of 1942, she met a red-haired soldier from rural Idaho.
His name was Ben Bainbridge.
“He had a western twang and even danced different–more of a stomp than the smooth waltz” Hilda later told her children. She loved listening to Ben’s stories about life in the west. Ben had endured a hardscrabble existence, moving from farm to logging camp to farm again as he worked to eke out a living with a single father who had lost a leg in a logging accident. Ben didn’t have more than an eighth grade education, but he was a smart man; he had skipped entire grades in his childhood, and was now focusing his energies on the war; he even lied about his age in order to enlist early.
At the end of that first dance when Ben and Hilda met, Ben walked her to the bus. Every night afterwards, he hitchhiked to nearby Riverton to call on Hilda, with the approval of her landlords and chaperons, the Garwood family. On Ben’s final visit to Hilda before deployment, he stayed out past curfew and had to sneak back into the barracks. After only knowing her for three weeks, Ben proposed marriage to Hilda, and she accepted. But there was one condition: no marriage until after the war. Although she did want to marry him right away, Hilda couldn’t bear the thought of being widowed by the war.
Ben shipped out soon after their engagement.
~ The Attack ~
On D-Day in Anzio, Italy, Ben wasn’t supposed to be driving tank. He had recently amassed enough time to leave on furlough, so the night before a planned attack on the Germans, Ben’s captain had told him to take some time off–to go spend three days stateside. But Ben didn’t want a fresh recruit driving his tank that day–the other three members of his tank crew were his close friends, so he volunteered to drive them into an attack on the Germans in Velletri.
That D-Day, Ben’s tank was hit by a 88mm shell, killing both the assistant driver and gunner, Ben’s close friends.
Though blinded by blood in his eyes from an injury somewhere to his head–he wasn’t sure where at the time–Ben managed to pull himself from the wreckage. His tank commander escaped, too, and as they moved away from the tank, they came upon a nest of Germans in a foxhole.
The Germans threw a grenade that killed Ben’s commander instantly. Ben, still too injured to stand, tried crawling away from them, but was blinded by blood and barely able to crawl. He felt a trench flanking his right side, which threatened to swallow him up each time he tried leaning onto his right arm. But had he been standing, Ben would have died with his commander when that grenade exploded.
The explosion that killed the commander knocked Ben’s helmet off, but still he kept trying to crawl away from the Germans. No matter where he turned, however, the trench on his right side made it impossible to crawl faster. That was when he noticed–there was no trench after all. His arm had been severed, which was why he had been unable to make contact with the ground on his right side.
Blood poured from Ben’s arm and he didn’t have long to act before he bled to death, so he waved a white flag of surrender. The Germans took him into custody and placed him inside the basement of what used to be a house. They bandaged his arm and saved his life by slowing the flow of blood. Little more than an hour later, the American infantry arrived and surrounded the Germans, rescuing Ben in the process. Had those Germans not tended to his wound, Ben likely would not have survived that hour he spent in their captivity.
~ The “Cripple” ~
Sent back to the US for medical care and additional surgery, Ben was devastated by his injury. Surely Hilda wouldn’t want to marry him now. Doubtless recalling his own crippled father, whose wife had divorced him after his injury, Ben just knew that Hilda would want nothing to do with him now.
At the Army hospital in Atlanta, Hilda did come to visit Ben, but he was sullen and anxious, bracing himself for the news she was surely there to bring him: that their engagement was over.
When Hilda met Ben outside his hospital, they embraced. She then placed her suitcase on the ground and waited, typical of young ladies at the time who expected their “fellas” to carry such burdens for them. This made Ben a little angry.
“Why did she just leave her suitcase in front of me like that,” he wondered. “Can’t she see I’m a cripple?”
Hilda’s next action was even more shocking–
As Ben struggled to heft the suitcase with one arm on a recently unbalanced and sick-starved thin body, Hilda stopped at the entrance to the hospital and waited. Ladies often stopped at doors back then, expecting the gentlemen nearby to open the door for them. But how was Ben supposed to open that door for her while holding such a heavy suitcase with his only arm?
Frustrated but undaunted, Ben strained himself as he put down the suitcase, opened the door for Hilda, kept it open with his shoulder, then reached back for the suitcase again. He struggled to keep the door open, see Hilda safely though, and get himself through the door without dropping that suitcase. But it was then, in the sweat and frustration of that grueling moment, that Ben began to understand what was happening–
“She’s not treating me like a cripple.”
By dropping her suitcase and expecting Ben to open doors for her, Hilda was showing Ben that she still saw him as a capable, strong, chivalrous man. She wasn’t breaking off their engagement; she was going to marry her war hero!
Hilda married Ben and followed him to Idaho–a foreign land to her, but a place that she would call home for the rest of her life, despite painful homesickness for her Native New Jersey. With time, she grew to love the forested, mountain views of this new home as much as she loved the soldier boy who had stolen her heart.
Ben and Hilda raised five children, and one of them later brought me into this world.
So this Valentine’s day, I am remembering a valiant war hero, the faithful young woman who married him despite what some might call “disability,” and the life they shared together until Grandma Hilda’s death in 1988. Ben worked blue collar jobs full-time until retirement, and never acted “disabled,” thanks to Hilda’s refusal to see him as such. He soldered their wedding bands together after Hilda’s death, then wore them around his neck every day. He joined Hilda “on the other side” in 2011.
I love you and miss you, Grandma and Grandpa!
~ Ben’s dad lost a limb then lost his wife; Ben lost a limb but gained a wife. His story is one of triumph in the same situation!
~ I was later called to serve a mission for my church to Italy, where my grandfather lost his arm.
~ I chose May 1st as my wedding date, before ever seeing the date on my grandfather’s fateful dance ticket (posted above).
~ I had forgotten Grandpa’s hospital was in Atlanta, yet my mom was just in Atlanta this week (visiting friends-so-close-we-call-them-relatives), so maybe her trip caused Grandpa and Grandma to relive some precious memories together. Could they be the ones who prompted me to write this blog post today?
P.S. below is a picture of some patients at Lawson General Hospital in Atlanta that year. How I wish I knew who they were–please share this post in cyberspace, and maybe we can pass it on to some of their descendants:
Last night I couldn’t find my chapstick. I can’t live without my Burt’s Bees lip balm, especially in winter. I ransacked my purse, all jacket and coat pockets, my bathrooms, but to no avail.
I tried just ignoring the pain for a while, but found myself almost unable to function because my dry, chapped lips hurt so bad! I kept wondering,
“If it hurts this bad for me, how did my poor ancestors survive before lip balm was invented?”
This question sent me on a history hunt!
I just *had* to know how my ancestors kept their lips from developing dry, cracked, and bleeding sores.
Here’s what I learned–it might come in handy when writing about dry, brittle winters in the lives of my ancestors:
- The most well-known commercial lip balm (Chapstick) was invented in the 1880′s
- Chapstick was invented mere minutes from my home! (In Lynchburg, Virginia, as you can see in the ad, above)
- I’m betting local apothecaries had been making and selling lip balms even earlier than this date
- Home remedies for lip balm appear in recipe books as early as the 1600′s
** The Remedies/Recipes
The remedies, from Toilet of Flora (1779), a highly entertaining book of vintage remedies that you can download to your Kindle for free:
Speaking of lip balm (and completely off the topic of ancestors), while doing my research on this topic, I stumbled across the coolest lip balm invention: check out these lip balms that come in gun cartridges!
This thanksgiving, are your ancestors invited to the celebration?
Sure, you will be with your living family during the holiday, but you don’t have to limit your guest list to the living—Try inviting your ancestors to the gathering!
Here’s how your ancestors can be a part of the celebration:
- Skip that “everyone list what you’re thankful for” go-’round-the-table game and introduce the “unseen guests” at your dinner table instead. Hand each family member a card that introduces that unseen “ancestor guests” (ie-“We’d like to welcome Mary Johanssen, from Saint Paul, Minnesota. Mary was born in 1859 and married at fifteen to Paul Onstadt. They had twenty children, but seven of them died as babies. Mary is your great-great grandmother. As we eat our dinner, let us be mindful of all that Mary suffered during the great famine of . . . ) then go around the table, having each family member read their card aloud.
- Family Bingo: Distribute blank bingo cards. Players must fill in the blanks with the names of all the ancestors/relatives that come to mind. The bingo-caller then draws family names from a jar; five names in a row wins a small gift.
- Story Circle Game: Frame a topic, where the participants will relate a life story or memory of dearly departed relatives. One question might be, “What things were rationed in World War II and how did you deal with it?” You might ask the question, “What is your favorite memory of growing up in Grandma’s hometown?” Before commencing the actual storytelling, you should let the people in story circle know that you want to gather their stories for posterity. Be prepared to capture the stories manually in the event that anyone objects to audio- or videotaping. Remember that the information you collect should be documented with the name of the person who tells the story, the date and location of the story circle, and any dates and places the person relates. You never can tell what research leads you will pick up in the process.
- Table Teams: While waiting for dinner to be ready, cover each dining table with a disposable white plastic tablecloth (this plastic comes in a roll especially for such occasions). Put a few markers on each table top, then invite family members to draw their family’s family tree on the plastic cloth with the magic marker. Full names, birth dates (and death dates in some instances), marriage dates, spouses’ names, and children can be brainstormed while everyone is waiting for the dinner to start (beats watching television!
- “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” trivia about family members and ancestors. The fastest finger ones also deal with the family. For example, “Put the following family members in the order of their birth.” “Which person was not a nurse?” Be sure to include persons who have married into the family, too.
- Create a centerpiece with family mementos. Using photos, heirlooms, or handed-down ornaments, you can create a visually stimulating centerpiece that may spark up the conversation you have been waiting for.
- Heirloom Show & Tell: Have everyone bring in a family object (clothing, a book, a work tool, a knickknack) with a history. Display the items and, later, make time for a storytelling session.
At one of my own family gatherings several years ago, I printed out a bunch of paper copies of ancestral photographs (with captions and life span dates at the bottom) then gave each grandchild in the family a blank family tree like this coloring page (below), to which they were assigned to paste the photos in their proper order:
When the children had finished, another relative had them all laminated as “family history place-mats” for the kids to use during the big family dinner. We still have those place-mats at our house, and though they are looking a little sad, I love how my kids still talk family history during dinner, because these ancestors are always our special “guests” at dinner, thanks to the place-mats!
You can also take turns at the computer, making digital family tree keepsakes like these (click on the image to view instructions):
I hear this question all the time:
“I’ve spent years on my ancestors’ story. Am I ready to publish?”
“Reasonably Exhaustive Search”
Can you say you’ve conducted a reasonably exhaustive search before going to press? To decide, ask yourselves these questions, also outlined by the BCG:
- Have you examined a wide range of high quality sources?
- What is the probability that undiscovered evidence will overturn a too-hasty conclusion?
Even if your answers to the questions above indicate that you’re ready to publish, there remains that fear–the fear that somewhere out there is a gold mine of undiscovered data that would render your ancestoir irrelevant and/or incomplete. But before you let that fear put your printing project on hold, consider the following:
When speaking with Suzy Barile, author of her ancestral history, Undaunted Heart: The True Story of a Southern Belle & a Yankee General, I asked her, “How did you know when you were ready to publish?”
Barile explained her own “reasonably exhaustive search” details, but followed up with this helpful anecdote:
AFTER publishing her ancestors’ story, Barile was contacted by a woman in a faraway state who had happened upon a scrapbook in a dumpster that turned out to be the scrapbook of the “southern belle” ancestor for whom this history was written. Does this mean that she published too soon? Not exactly. This new information–the previously undiscovered scrapbook–would never have made it to Barile had she not published the book. The book’s noteriety is what helped the scrapbook-finder identify whose scrapbook she had found.
In other words: don’t hold back because there might be more records out there. Get your story published *because* there might be more records out there, whose owners might not know how to find you unless you make your story public. But only do this after you can say you have completed a resonably exhaustive search. You can always publish a second addition or–better yet–a sequel or prequel!
In the meantime, try blogging about your ancestors while crafting their ancestoir. This might help bring informants out of the proverbial woodwork, too.
So keep searching, keep writing, and let me know how you’re progressing!
Today is Scrapbook Sunday, so today’s tip is for people (like me!) who don’t have time to scrapbook, or for people who worry that if they add too many embellishments to their photos, future generations will look over all the doodads and think, “Dang; my great-great-grandma sure had a LOT of time on her hands!”
The solution: PROJECT LIFE. Here’s how it works:
(APOLOGIES–this video is long and annoying, but worth it to see the product)
Whether you are writing your ancestors’ life stories (“family history”), your own life stories (“memoir”), or your life story with ancestral stories woven throughout (“ancestoir.” I invented the word, FYI), you can surely find the time to jot down a few notes today, which we will then shape into an actual story on Wednesday.
To help you all get started with your personal and/or ancestral memoirs today, I will start with a topic:
So hurry and grab your notebooks (the real paper kind) or laptops and jot this down:
- What did you eat for breakfast as a child?
- What did your parents typically eat for breakfast when they were young? (this might necessitate a call to your parents, or some aunts and uncles who remember)
- What did your ancestors typically eat for breakfast? (might require a phone call or a trip to the library to peruse food histories such as 1000 Years Over a Hot Stove)
Now, as you are jotting down those foods, try to think in adjectives. Be creative! Were your Cheerios crunchy? Did grandma’s biscuits ooze with salty sausage gravy? Try to toss in as many creative writing words that will help make the story of your (or your ancestors’) breakfasts sound as delicious to the reader as they are to your memory!
I’ve heard it too many times over the years:
“Jenny, you really should help me get my ancestral history written!”
<Groan!> I wish I could! But I’ve got five kids to raise, an entire house to clean, a dissertation-writing husband to support, and a church assignment that takes up every last scrap of free time I might find.
Still, while I can’t help all of my friends, family, and neighbors one-on-one, I CAN post some guidelines, tips, instructions, and writing prompts to hopefully get you all started. Please follow for this blog, folks, and I will do my best here to help you take all the genealogical data you’ve compiled over the years and turn it into a story!