Finding a Theme
When teaching memoir writing and I mention the value of a theme to a story, a commonality running through each person’s, each generation, listeners are sometimes puzzled at the suggestion. They believe, not without some justification, that the family relationship as a commonality is a sufficient theme. To a reader, this makes sense but, to a writer, we not only have a tendency to need a theme but we recognize why one helps the story progress. Finding a theme is not easy, which makes the need for one even more unnecessary to many novices. If a genealogical tree with deep roots and many branches is the framework holding the stories about the many apples on an apple tree together, what would associates or distinguishes one apple from another? If a skeleton represents the parts of a family in genealogical research, what distinguishes one bone from another? An apple tree is a more apt metaphor for a genealogical tree than a skeleton because there are far more persons in a genealogical chart of a family than there are bones in a human being.
A theme is important to a family history work because it gives the reader special knowledge about something important which links the parts of the family tree, the individuals, to each other. Just as branches and twigs link apples together even if they are thirty feet away from each other on the apple tree, the strength and health of the tree continues to produce apples that are similar in most ways. We have a Granny Smith apple tree in our back yard and we recently planted a pear tree about fifty feet away, separate from the apple tree by a plum tree. I was not concerned about cross-pollination with the plum tree but I am with the pear. Genetically, apples and pears have many similarities. People cross-pollinate in a way, too. As each new marriage and new children are introduced to enlarge the orchard, the genetics change, too. And yet, we can find families in whose photographs or paintings we can find amazing similarities of facial and body features across many generations. This is a kind of theme in and of itself: the power of genes.
In many families, a non-genetic link is often present which can be mentioned as the writer expands upon each new character. The link may be a talent, a specific intellectual skill, a unique hobby or interest, or a physical prowess. What do a blacksmith, a taxidermist and a civil engineer have in common? What do a quilter, portrait artist, cartoonist, pastel artist and creative writer have in common? As you develop the character of an ancestor based upon research, what job and non-job related skills can you list? Readers of all genre want a sense of meaningfulness in the story and characters. People who read want the work to have meaning to which they can relate. Readers subconsciously want the story to be relevant to an interest they have, e.g., military action (combat, weapons, deployment, specific units), herbs (growing, spices, taste), publishing (print, POD, Internet), or cooking (gourmet, BBQ, crock-pot, vegetarian). Those who have kinship to the subject, which occurs only with family history, memoir and personal essays, look closely for meaningfulness in their reading.
Family readers are not looking only for facts, they hope to discover some uniqueness to the relationships and generations that have been revealed to them. Turning the page, they want to be surprised to find something about an ancestor that relates to them more deeply, more fundamentally, than occupation or choices of residence location. Very a specific talent, like playing the piano; but not just playing the piano, playing certain Bach or Beethoven concertos, bring excitement to these discoveries. Finding a link like this between individuals in generations creates a page turner. The reader begins to wonder when and how her interest or talent began. Was it when she was a little girl, looking at the pictures of a great, great grandmother whom she resembled, who was sitting at a piano, and mom said something like, “Oh, she loved to play classical music. She was so talented. She played Bach for the city symphony in the summer every year.” Or perhaps, like my grandmother, who played the church organ for decades, the appreciation and enjoyment of playing a musical instrument was seemingly inherited by my uncle, who passed it to me, and gave me the first instrument I learned to play, a clarinet.
These attachments are precious. The more similar, the more interest is raised in your reader. These facts become a theme in your family’s story. They can become the glue that binds, the seams that make the quilt and its patterns interesting and warm, an heirloom. Readers recognize interpretations of talents so I recommend not straining to find a similarity in a difference. When you believe you have uncovered a theme, ask yourself if it is important to developing the character of each family member who appears to possess it. The theme might be maturity found at a certain age. It might be an occupation, but not merely an occupation, being an expert in the field.
Some Things that Could be Important
Remember when you were an infant? Many of us don’t have any memory of those developmental early years. If we have picture of us as infants, we cam imply or perhaps even infer something, e.g., happiness of the moment, sadness of the moment, or from the surroundings in the picture, a nice home, a well kept home, perhaps some degree of comparative wealth. For example, look at the following pictures:
In the left, you see a man, well dressed in a long-sleeved shirt, vest and tie, with nice leather shoes, about 50 years or so of age, holding a small child, perhaps about one to one and a half years, who is also well dressed. The picture is hand dated “1924” in the bottom left corner. The home is seemingly well painted clapboard. It has a sidewalk and concrete step up to a screen door. In the right, five children range in age of appearance from about eight to ten years to one to two years. The girls are well dressed. The boys are well kept, hair combed and carefully parted, each wears denim jeans that are well worn. Each appears to be wearing some sort of “tennis” shoes and the two oldest boys wear sports coats that look well kept and sized. The home, presuming such, appears somewhat rustic, with wooden log poles holding the porch, wooden porch flooring, and what appears to be a screen door behind them. The right picture is undated. Setting aside my inferences related to “quality”, can you estimate the year the picture on the right was taken? Can you estimate the income level of the family?
We draw inferences from pictures. The pictures you include in your family history may infer facts about the family members that they do not wish to have revealed to the general public or even other family members. Perhaps they don’t want to be reminded of that time in their life. In the picture above with the well dressed gentleman and the child, it appears to have been taken outside a home. In the second may have been taken outside a home or a mountain cabin. On a mountain vacation, children, especially boys, are going to be wearing jeans and not slacks. A viewer cannot tell whether the building is a home or a weekend retreat cabin. The point is: use care when you infer facts from pictures. When you are using pictures in a project, think about what inferences a viewer or reader may draw from the pictures.
Organization is important to all writings but, family history works have a peculiarity to them that puzzles many writers. Do you organize according to generations, era, families (in itself an organizational nightmare), levels of knowledge about families, latest to present (but starting with whom?), or turning points in the family history. Other possibilities: professions, occupations, notoriety, maternal, paternal, and name. When you write, with ostensible authority, about other people who are shared ancestors (don’t forget about all those cousins out there who may come looking to speak with you), readers who find relations in the work are looking for meaning, substance, or something worthwhile, worth the time reading. Organization may come in surprising forms, as a note from “Letters Written During a Shirt Residence in Sweden,” which said, “The same energy of character which renders a man … would have rendered him [differently] to society, had the society been well organized.” The essential character of an ancestor may be a source by which organization appears – an ancestor of literary note, of religious fervor, of political desires, or of artistic bent. Science has revealed what was before literary myth; that talent may well be in the blood.
We are imperfect beings raised by the imperfect, though many hesitate to speak ill of our parents or ancestors, we are not making less of them by describing the peculiarities that make their characters signal. If one has a great uncle who murdered another person, what affect does that have upon the living person? Is there any shame to it? If so, it is undeserved and unearned and anyone who ascribes to it ought to be ashamed. If a father was an alcoholic, as noted essayist and memoirist Scott Russell Sanders frequently writes, there is no reason to feel shame and, if there was at one time such as childhood, the son need not follow the father. A person who lives cannot escape being tarnished because life brings challenges that are sometimes inexactly or partially met and our mistakes, when recognized, may be seen with self disrepute. Sometimes we undertake some act that we are certain is right, only to be proven wrong, confused, or misdirected. Why do we feel guilt where there is none? One may feel guilty at a mere accusation, regardless of innocence. Why do we feel guilty at those moments? If at the moment we were trying to do the right thing or were actually doing a good deed, why does life turn on us at times and bring us an undesirable outcome? Do we think of these possibilities when we read of an accusation against someone or, do we assume that where there is smoke there must be fire, e.g., the person accused must be guilty of something or she would not have been accused. I know from my experience as a police officer and as a criminal defense attorney that some people are arrested, booked, held in jail, accused, and even brought to trial, and they are entirely innocent of the charges. Notice I did not say not guilty (a jury’s prerogative) but, innocent. Entirely, totally, and completely innocent.
It happens when law enforcement is led to the wrong conclusion by circumstantial evidence. It happens when false police reports are written and requests for prosecution are sent to the prosecutor. Fortunately, the former occurs more frequently than the latter but, both occur with stunning frequency. Mentioning this in discussions about the criminal justice system, I have been met with disbelief and, now and then, an accusation that my statement is false. I offer the following as an example that occurred to a client of mine who was also a grandfather of eleven grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
A Latino man, 56 years of age, had six minutes previously departed a Greyhound bus at the city Greyhound bus terminal at 1 a.m. The terminal was located in a downtown area but within two blocks was a series of industrial shopping stores that sold hardware, tools, toolboxes and similar items. He was carrying a paper grocery bag that held a change of clothes and a few opened and partially consumed food items. On the way out of the Greyhound station, he threw his ticket stub in a trash can located on the public sidewalk. Two blocks away, he was walking past a hardware store when he caught movement in the dark store and looked up. A young Latino man was running at the window from inside the store, holding a toolbox. That older man stopped, startled. The toolbox came crashing through the store window, raining pieces and shards of glass all around. He was knocked the sidewalk when the young bumped him, carrying a cardboard box, and ran away. Several small tools fell from the box onto the sidewalk. My client dropped his bag, spilling it, and sat on the sidewalk, afraid to put his hands down in all of the broken glass. As he glimpsed the young Latino man disappear around the corner, a city police car came around the opposing corner and the two police officers inside saw him sitting there in the broken glass.
The client waved at the police and, in Spanish, told them the young man ran around the corner, and he pointed. Neither officer spoke Spanish but they called for a Spanish speaking officer as they helped him up then handcuffed him. After hearing the translation of what he was saying to them, they put him in the police car, drove him to the jail, and booked him for commercial burglary. He had no tools on his person but, some were on the sidewalk around him and they alleged he dropped them after exiting the store. They did not go and search for his Greyhound ticket stub and did not interview the bus driver, who was available.
I interviewed the man for the first time in an interview room at the county jail. He protested his innocence and told me his story. I went over it several times but, I believed him. By the time of my interview, it had been four days (a weekend and one and a half weekdays had passed) since he threw away his ticket sub. The trash can was emptied Saturday evening. None of his fingerprints were on the tools but an employee’s and an unidentified person’s prints were. I found and interviewed the bus driver, showing him a picture of the man. Not a small one by one and a half inch black and white picture in a line-up, but an 8X10 color photo of my client. The bus driver recognized him and said he was a regular and had been for a few years. He always got on the bus in the same rural city, always the same schedule. He remembered that the man was on the bus the Friday evening of the burglary but had not been on the bus the subsequent Friday (he had improperly been told not to leave the area, even for work).
I contacted a retired peace officer (a former lieutenant) who worked as a private investigator and polygrapher. My client passed a polygraph with no hints of lying whatsoever. I provided the signed statement of the bus driver, the picture of my client, his sworn and signed statement, and the polygraph report to the prosecutor. I informed him of why the ticket stub was unavailable: the police had failed to look for it when it had been in the trash can for less than an hour. The prosecutor, a former police officer, called and spoke with the private investigator, reviewed the evidence, saw that my client’s prints were not on the tools found near him but an unidentified person’s were on them, and chose to dismiss the accusation with prejudice. A polygraph exam is not admissible in court under any circumstances in California. However, the private investigator’s opinion was persuasive and the circumstantial evidence was, at best, weak. I had no perfect evidence of my client’s innocence but, I had the basis for successfully persuading a jury there was reasonable doubt of his guilt.
The man now had a criminal record of being arrested for a felony, commercial burglary, although the record would show the charge was dismissed with prejudice. He was not acquitted by a jury. In the future, if he was detained I explained to him that he would have to say yes if he was asked if he had ever been arrested. Or he could refuse to answer the question and risk the consequences. This was a completely innocent man. He wanted more. I file a petition for a finding of factual innocence. These motions are heard by a judge, not a jury. If a court issues an order finding the man factually innocent of the accusation, my client could afterwards say truthfully that he had never been arrested and the court’s order would include that the state attorney general had to remove the arrest from his record and all other records, including the jail documents and police report, had to be destroyed unless they named someone else, but then they had to be stamp “innocent” everywhere my client’s name appeared. Innocence means a great deal more than not guilty. The court denied my petition because the evidence raised reasonable doubt and did not prove innocence, although I argued he was presumed innocent by the Constitution and no innocence had to be proved. Do you see the injustice? Even the police who arrested him, when I spoke with them, agreed with me that he was innocent.
If a grandson was writing a family history and came across these documents, long after his grandfather had passed away, what would he make of it? What would he write? The dilemma is inescapable because the records are public records. How was the deceased innocent and decent man supposed to be characterized? At his request, I wrote a fairly lengthy account of why I believed in his innocence and gave that to him with copies of all the documents, including police reports, private investigator report, court records and everything. He was going to make a copy for his family and place the originals in a safe deposit box to protect his future reputation and that of his family. This was a man who strongly believed in justice and was supportive of law enforcement. His despair was felt deeply.
Living Life Beyond Self.
There is no need for everyone to serve a higher calling, that is, meeting a humanitarian or public need that seems right for you. Others could do it, too; perhaps better. It does not matter if someone else could or should meet the needs of so-called society. What does matter is that you live a fulfilling life – in a way that satisfies your sensibilities. Our modern world sometimes outpaces its citizenry with technology. International communities, states that have an economic or technological reach beyond their borders, have yet to work in unity toward a single common goal. Goals that might be achieved if the nations of the world chose to do so include things like feeding the hungry. Non-governmental organizations strive to meet these needs but, avarice sidelines assistance. Have you or someone in your family had a role in an international effort? In Somalia, where Americans died in a humanitarian mission purely due to the greed of local warlords, people continued to starve. Has someone in your family been involved in the war against terrorists we are fighting and will fight for decades? This is a war that began to take shape in the 1950s but, the intelligence community did not adequately react or act upon the warnings it was receiving until the mid-1990s and then not effectively until after September 11, 2001. History could be more important to your family history than you know. Do your research well and make notes about your sources.
Events in History
In the 1930s and early 1940s, did members of your family move from parts of Northern Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado or New Mexico? After their move, did they have difficulty finding acceptable housing for a while or a period of low income? It may have been due to the horrific Dust Bowl and its related drought. Families lost family members to the awful health effects of the heavy dust permeating the atmosphere. Homes and business were abandoned. For several years children and others who had breathing difficulties were found to have lungs coated with fine dust. Many died from related ailments.
The Great Depression began in 1929 and lasted into the late 1930s. Unemployment in the U.S. rose to 25%, and crop prices fell by 60% in some places. The collapse of the U.S. stock market prices on April 29, 1929, made the date infamously known as Black Tuesday. Suicides from economic failure rose dramatically. Did one of these events affect your family history? In Iowa, where some of my ancestors farmed, they escaped the Dust Bowl but no one escaped the Great Depression. How did your ancestors survive? Do you have a family member who live through the depression who today still hoards boxes of cash in their home? This resulted from distrust of banks and the government. Even if the F.D.I.C. insures your accounts up to a certain amount, how do you know the government will be able to meet its U.S. insurer debts? Irrational fears cause hoarding of cash, which in turn makes some susceptible to robbery or assault. Have you spoken with family members who have some recollection of these times? It was not unlike living in a war economy, as the U.S. did during WW II.
If you were around in the 1960s, do you recall what you were doing, whether at school, work, or with family, during the weeks we were losing 500 to 600 American soldiers every week in Vietnam? Do you remember flower power, hippies, their predecessors, the beatniks, or the British Invasion of British rock and roll, featuring the Beatles primarily? Do you recall the idea of free love, the drug culture (marijuana, LSD, mescaline and others)? Do you recall the National Guard being activated in various states to deal with student sit-ins and marches? Do you remember the day Kent State students were shot and killed by National Guardsmen during a peaceful student protest against the war in Vietnam? Where were you the day U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, or U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, or Malcolm X, or Martin Luther King Jr.? Where were you when we watched the first lunar landing on television? Or when it was announced that, with a radio emitting satellite named Sputnik, the U.S.S.R. won the race into space?
These events resulted in major changes in our country. How did they affect your family? U.S. history has carried the people of our nation through great successes, tragedies and amazing events. Our nation has been involved in many military conflicts, most of which represent forgotten history by contemporary Americans, for example (this list is not all inclusive):
- · Revolutionary War – 1775-1783
- · Second Cherokee War – 1776 – 1777
- · Chickamauga War – 1776 – 1794
- · Northwest Indian War – 1785-1795
- · Shay’s Rebellion – 1786 – 1787
- · Whiskey Rebellion – 1794
- · Undeclared police actions against French forces – 1798-1800
- · First Barbary War – 1801 – 1805
- · Spanish – Mexican War – 1806
- · Gulf of Mexico – outside New Orleans – 1806-1810
- · War of 1812 – 1812 – 1815
- · Military actions defending American interests – 1810 – West Florida; 1812 – Amelia Island; 1813-14 – Marquesas Islands; 1814-1825 – Caribbean engagements; 1815 – Algiers; 1815 – Tripoli; 1816-1819 – Spanish Florida; 1818 – Oregon; 1820-23 – Africa; 1822/23 – Cuba; 1824 – Puerto Rico; 1827 – Greece; 1831/32 – Falkland Islands; 1832 – Indonesia; 1835/36 – Peru; 1838 – Canada; 1840 – Fiji Islands; 1841 – Samoa; 1842 – Mexico; 1843 – China; 1846/48 – Mexican-American War – ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo; 1849 – Smyrna, Turkey; 1851 – Ottoman Empire; 1851/53 – Argentina; 1853 – Nicaragua; 1853/54 – Japan; 1854 – China; and the list goes on and on. How many families were affected by these wars – how many Americans died – any of your ancestors?
And in the list I have not been near WW I, WW II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other major actions.
Holidays and Special Times – Atonement and Forgiveness
In some families, especially with hard economic times, and in others simply from tradition, family members drew names to select a single person for whom they would buy a Christmas gift. In this way, money was saved because each person did not buy a gift for every other person. In other families, everyone buys gifts for everyone and sometimes in copious quantities and high qualities. Does our family have a holiday tradition for gift giving? Perhaps it began two generations ago when ancestors lived through the hard times of the Great Depression. Or for Chanukah, did your family choose to become more traditional? Moderation in all things is a wonderful value and teaching the exercise of moderation to children is an amazing gift for them.
Celebrating, by honoring with a special family gathering, the memories of ancestors, teaches children the values of family, honor, togetherness, mutual support, the meaningfulness of life, and the very special value of sharing the history of the family with each other through stories, pictures, and mementos of the past. Perhaps a family was divided or scattered by necessity during a time of crisis and, at this family gathering, the stories of how they found one another after years of separation are shared. This happened many times in history. For example, the potato famine in Ireland, during the westward migration in the U.S. in the 1800s and early 1900s, the Holocaust, times of war, the era of the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, hurricane Katrina in the southern U.S., or hurricane Andrews in Florida. When a family member, especially daughters, changed their last name to that of their husband (a tradition that has waned), and then were widowed by war or accident and remarried. Life passes us by rapidly and we lose track of addresses because of location moves. In a large family with ten or more children, the combination of these things can separate family members for years unintentionally.
Teaching family members forgiveness as children, the importance of maintaining regular communication with each other, regardless of hard feelings or arguments, teaches togetherness and atonement. Children are less likely to betray one another, as children and as adults. if they have learned and accepted these core values. Sometimes sagacity comes with age. Stubborn refusal for forgiveness does only harm to family and, within family, our relationships. A hardened heart becomes a diseased heart. Some betrayals are imagined when a simple inquiry would have shown there to have been no betrayal. Betrayals can be forgiven, perhaps with time, but the sooner forgiveness is extended, the emotionally and physically healthier family becomes. Learning forgiveness late in life sometimes comes at great emotional and familial cost.
A decade after a betrayal by my first wife came an apology and a request for forgiveness for a hard double betrayal. I had forgiven long before but, it gladdened my heart to communicate it. Forgive others for their errors of judgment and hurtfulness whenever possible. Holding on to anger and the negative emotions of not forgiving becomes a lesson to children that grudges are normal and forgiveness if unnecessary. It is not merely a cliché that blood is thicker than water. With relationships of blood, forgiveness should be more willingly granted, even if the person who betrayed you, or you think betrayed you, is uncommunicative. Teaching to do acts of atonement, to ask for forgiveness, is a good thing to teach our children. They need to know, however, that sometimes hearts are so hardened that requests for forgiveness and prayers that another forgive, sometimes are unanswered. Children should be taught to understand that holding on to anger and being unforgiving is unhealthy emotionally and physically. These lessons need not be religious. They need not even be spiritual. But they should be taught.
Truthfulness in telling stories is a value not to be underestimated. Connecting with children, grandchildren and great grandchildren by telling them the stories important to your life is an amazing gift. I have watched the elders in many families of friends and my own pass, dying without sharing their life full of stories, and it is sad to see. Although some stories may have been told to some children, those are soon forgotten, partially remembered, or remembered inaccurately. Imagine how much more can be taught if the stories of these lives is preserved? Having these stories is an inheritance of the highest value. Turning the pages of an accompanying photo album, reading the stories that speak volumes behind the pictures, often posed, can be used as a method to teach value lessons. Stories emotionally connecting a fourth or fifth generation grandparent to a child through lessons taught is an incredible gift. Imagine how much more it means to the future children of the family? In your family histories, ask your future generations to continue the tradition.
 See, e.g., The Force of Spirit (2000) and A Private History of Awe (2005)