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The Past in 3D: Writing’s Power to Preserve Family History

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About seven months after the Titanic sank, my maternal grandfather left his home in northern Italy on a ship bound for Ellis Island. Barely 17 and all alone, he had little education, didn’t speak English, and had no family to greet him when he arrived in western Pennsylvania looking for work in the coal mines.

Yet he became a quintessential immigrant success story – a talented musician, a devout Catholic who raised 11 children with my grandmother, a successful entrepreneur who guided his auto service station through the Great Depression and served for decades as a civic leader in his small town.

How did he do this? What qualities made his success possible? And what lessons could I learn from him that might benefit my own family? The older I get, the more I wonder.

There’s much I’ll never know because, as is so often the case in the midst of busy lives, our family history has been preserved sporadically at best.

Still, while my grandfather died more than a half-century ago, even now we can salvage substantial parts of his story. In 2019, in honor of the 100th anniversary of our grandparents’ wedding, my brother asked their six remaining children and many of their 26 grandchildren for written memories of our grandparents. He produced a 34-page written narrative, illustrated with old photos, that offered numerous details about my grandmother and grandfather. Around the same time, I was working on my own family project: a 4,000-word reflection on faith and meaning from my 95-year-old uncle, who has been a Catholic priest for six decades and was among my grandfather’s children.

There are of course several ways to preserve family history. Video and audio recordings, photography, and archival research are all excellent methods.

Yet, in our own efforts to capture our extended family’s story in recent years, my brother and I have found that writing might be the most powerful documentary tool of all.

It offers three unique advantages:

Writing brings order to confusion

In many families, significant historical records already exist in the form of scattered recordings, journals, papers, photos, genealogies, and other sources. They are all important pieces of a larger puzzle. The challenge: rarely does anyone put the full puzzle together.

I’d heard much spiritual wisdom from my uncle, for example, based on his long service in the priesthood. But these thoughts existed mostly in bits and pieces – transcripts of recordings that occasionally surfaced among family members, homilies, letters sent over decades, second-hand recollections from relatives.

There were rich insights in all of these sources, but individually their impact was limited. Distilling them into a single written document made it possible to provide greater context, highlight the most interesting points, and put all of the material in my uncle’s own voice. It became possible, in other words, to tell a streamlined, structured, and textured story.

Writing renders family members in 3D

Our ancestors swiftly become two-dimensional – reduced to pleasant faces in old photos or platitudes about how kind or smart they were. While it is certainly appropriate to show respect for the dead, they and we deserve a more nuanced picture.

We benefit from knowing that our ancestors were actual people with concrete strengths and weaknesses, just like us, and that we have a great deal to learn from their successes and struggles.

My brother’s 100th wedding anniversary project collected input from two dozen relatives, all of whom had unique perspectives on my grandfather and grandmother. Their contributions yielded three-dimensional portraits, like those in novels or biographies, that would be difficult to capture completely in any form but writing.

My grandfather, we learned, was deeply attached to his children and devastated when his boys left for military service. Yet, in the fashion of Italian fathers of that day, he didn’t express affection to them or his daughters. An image emerges of a disciplined, driven man who succeeded against steep odds, whose deep feelings simmered beneath the surface, generating awe, respect, fear, and also some resentment among his children.

It makes me stop and think about my own parenting – and also encourages me to tell my own kids, when they face challenges, that their family has a long history of getting through tough times.

Writing creates a portable product to share

There’s also a purely practical value in written family histories. They’re easy to store, easy to share, and digital versions can also be augmented with images and links to videos, podcasts and other materials.

It’s a lot more convenient to distribute a single, comprehensive document than it is to share a thick sheaf of random papers or a box full of old VHS or cassette tapes and DVDs.

Those keepsakes shouldn’t be thrown out; they can be safely stowed away for archival purposes while the written version circulates more widely. And as new information emerges, the written documents can also be updated easily too.

A brief word of disclosure: my brother and I are both professional writers. He’s an award-winning short story writer, and I’m a veteran journalist and speechwriter. This prepared us perhaps more than most for the family history projects that we undertook. You don’t need to be a professional to do this work, but hiring a writer or editor will make a good deal of sense in some cases.

Whether or not you do your own editorial work, the preservation of family history is well worth the effort – and the sooner you start, the better.  It’s not just that the older members of your family will likely appreciate a chance to share their memories and experiences. Younger family members can also start benefiting from their wisdom right now.

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