Recently a friend rediscovered her late father’s handwritten journal. It’s full of family stories and she’s busy figuring out how best to handle this treasure. Does she transcribe it into type so that it can be shared without damaging the original? Will she write poems based on the information he has left her? That’s a good possibility, as she has already written a raft of wonderful poems about family members. What do we do with family stories? What do we do without them?
Without a long-lost journal from a dead relative, we make up stories to add to what we remember. But how true is memory? How true is imagination? Not very factual in either case. So here lies the bright line between historian and poet. Poems and memories rely on a kind of truth that reveals deeper thoughts, feelings, and stories than fact. If a father left every thing unsaid, what does that mean? It means we dig deep into what we do know and interpret the rest. Any story, in truth, is a fabrication. Not a lie, but a made thing that bears its maker’s marks.
As a child I heard stories about my maternal great grandfather, George. This George was, in the accepted version, a master weaver in the textile industry that flourished in the late 1800s in New England. Census records list his work as “folder in a bleachery.” He also claimed to have run away from home at the age of seven and to have hidden in rabbit holes. Mighty big rabbits to make tunnels that would accommodate a boy that age, Alice in Wonderland not withstanding. But, George was an Irish immigrant and had the gift of story telling. And he had the curse of the drink, so his stories were not factual. I never heard them first hand. He died before I was born. This family history was filtered through buckets of beer, a wild imagination, an urge to achieve something more than menial labor, and two generations of wary, but loving offspring. So the real story is how George’s stories came to me. And that’s worth thinking about.
If you have family stories and want to do a guest blog about this idea, let me know. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I welcome hearing how the stories came to you as well as the stories themselves.