Wednesday, August 28, 2013
Preserving the Family History
One of the things I’ve been doing over the past year, when not writing a mystery novel, is a family history, which is now getting close to publication. The family in question died out a decade ago, but left behind a charitable foundation that gives millions of dollars a year to local nonprofits.
It was the administrator of that foundation who decided a family history would be a good idea and brought me in to do it. He sensed, correctly, that time was running out to talk to people who still remember the family members, and that the story might be lost if it wasn’t captured now.
Running down that story (or as much of it as possible) has been one of the most interesting and challenging things I’ve ever done. I find myself in the position of trying to bring to life, for a modern reader, a group of people I’ve never met, and of making their story interesting. The latter isn’t too hard because they accomplished quite a bit; for instance, one of the daughters was the first female district attorney in California when appointed to that position in 1947.
The finished product resembles an unfinished jigsaw puzzle that conveys a definite image, yet one with a number of pieces missing. Some of the people I wanted to interview turned me down. Some that I did talk to died after talking with me (I’m not implying a connection here), and at times I’ve felt as if I’m chasing ghosts, one step ahead of the undertaker.
One of the things that made the task difficult is that the family in question wrote down almost nothing. If they kept diaries or journals, none has survived. Correspondence is similarly sparse. The two daughters wrote letters to each other regularly when they were off to college, but the collection the Foundation has is surely only partial. With the exception of the daughter who was district attorney (and even she, not so much) they weren’t often in the newspapers.
One of the daughters did do an oral history interview with the University of California in 1977, and that was helpful, if far from complete. By and large, putting together this story has been like building a beach one grain of sand at a time.
A Date Would Have Meant So Much
There are several photo albums, one of which has handwritten captions. But on a couple of the really critical photos, there is no date and the caption information is sparse at best. One, for instance, shows a row of people standing stiffly in front of the family packing house. The caption reads: “Ma with Chinese visitors from Honolulu.”
Based on my research, I can hazard a highly educated guess as to who the visitors were, but it’s still only a guess. Without their names, I can’t be certain. And if the visitors are who I think they are, the date of the photo would have been hugely important, but it’s not in the caption nor in the processing stamp on the back of the print.
Experiences like that have led me to some philosophizing. Most of us go through our lives thinking we’re the most important person in the universe, but we don’t act like it in other respects. If we were really that important, we’d figure that people in years to come would be looking at our stuff and needing information. I’ve come to believe that everyone who has family artifacts, should pull them together and catalog them as best possible. You never know who might need the information 75 years from now.