We must love our friends as true amateurs love paintings; they have their eyes perpetually fixed on the fine parts, and see no others.
WHEN THE BOOK BEGAN
In 2012 I swabbed my cheeks to get a DNA readout from National Geographic Genographic Project. Briefly, the Project determined that my “deep DNA” was about 41% Germanic, 41% Mediterranean, and 17% Southwest Asian. The NGGP results piqued my curiosity about the three generations of Dutch (half), German (quarter), and Welsh (quarter) ancestors immediately preceding me.
HOW THE BOOK PROGRESSED
I wouldn’t know much about those people, except that my mother and to some degree my father saved everything, which brings me to the second stage of my work. Since my parents died in the aughts, I had stored away boxes and boxes of documents and photographs and negatives, some going back a hundred years or more. My intention was to toss everything I could, but I decided that I should examine every document before disposing of it.
WHAT I FOUND
Hundreds of letters my mother wrote (I’d never before read them); letters my grandfather wrote to his hometown newspaper from France when he fought in WWI, with naïve but fresh descriptions of the Atlantic, the British and the French people; letters to and from other relatives; a dozen issues of Jayhawkerinfrance, a newspaper published by my grandfather’s Kansas Army regiment tracing their movements through France; journals my mother, my maternal grandmother, and my great-grandmother kept, as well as my father’s journal covering the two and a half years he spent in the South Pacific during World War II. In addition, I located newspaper cuttings that pertained to many family members, including ornately written obituaries from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I came upon creative writing; art work; photographs, and much more revealing the joys and heartaches of my family.
WHAT I DID WITH THE INFORMATION
First, I felt compelled to write about my nuclear family, portraying how my parents (both with rather nonnurturing mothers) raised my brother and sister and me. I felt compelled to tell about my sister with Down syndrome and how her disabilities affected our family life, both positive and negative. I included a chapter about the tiny house (750 square feet) where I grew up, almost a character in its own right, a dark dwelling where many sad yet joyous things happened. In another section I write about my parents’ youth: my mother’s life on a farm in Kansas; my father’s life in suburban New York City. In the next section, I write about my maternal grandmother and her parents, a great-grandmother who suffers the loss of her first husband to a flood. I write about my maternal grandfather and his parents, even my third-great-grandfather who hails from Wales in 1790 (consulting several books having been written about him by other relatives). I then turn to my father’s parents and their parents, who live in Breda, Holland for many generations before my grandparents emigrate to the US. From my memory and from documents and from extrapolation I glean instances of abuse, premature deaths that cripple the family, shotgun weddings, mysterious decisions (like not placing my grandfather’s name on his crypt in New York), psychological and physical illness, severed hands and time spent in hospitals, missed opportunities for education, and much more. In the fourth section I return to revisit ghosts of my sister and my parents, once again bringing up the past but in an atmosphere of forgiveness, seeing everyone in his or her full humanity. Acceptance.
WHERE I AM NOW
I have written four drafts. In the first I submitted, over a two-year period, one chapter per month, to my writing group. After studying their critiques, I wrote a second draft; this time returning to my research to include information that had, the first time around, seemed irrelevant. In the third draft, I finally abandoned the idea of directly addressing each ancestor and relied on first and third person. Now, most recently, I realized, finally, that the inner chapters were not presented in the most felicitous order, so I am reordering them and dealing with the ripples that such a change makes. I feel close to the end, having read the six-hundred-page MS aloud multiple times for rhythm and to eliminate clunky language, not to mention other errors that only seem to rise to the surface when read aloud (such as omitted articles or verbs). I am ready to give birth to this monster and hope to wrap things up as soon as the thing presents itself to me. I have never enjoyed writing a book as much as this one, but I am ready to be done and move on!
I shall keep you informed!
Take a look at members of my tribe in the slideshow below.