Don’t rush to publish – a family stories gift for Father’s Day?

For his 85th birthday in late May, my dad was thrilled to see the manuscript of his family history that I had put together from old interviews and some genealogy searching. I was thrilled to see his brother and most of his family at my dad’s big birthday party – cousins I hadn’t seen or had contact with in maybe 20 years! Recognizable, but with unrecognizable kids now all grown up. We had a great time catching up and reminiscing.

I gave my uncle and aunt a hard copy of the manuscript to take home and let me know of any corrections or any additions they’d like. I emailed the manuscript to one of my cousins to look over and add to. I discovered he had stories and photos from a trip to Holland where he found the church our ancestors attended. I also discovered another cousin used to sit with our grandmother when she was sick during her last year, and Grandma told many stories. This cousin was not at the party but will be visiting her parents this month and they will go over the manuscript together.

I am very glad I did not just publish what I had so I would have a nice present for my dad’s birthday or for Father’s Day. Dad did love skimming through the draft and reminiscing, but then my sister took it back to finish editing it, to catch any typos or grammar errors and find any parts that were awkwardly worded or unclear.

When I called my dad to wish him a happy Father’s Day, he had the manuscript back and had reviewed it. He was a happy dad, delighted with the manuscript but we need to clarify some parts of my grandmother’s interview transcript. My dad has contact information for one of his cousins he hasn’t see in many years and hopes to meet with her next month and show her the manuscript. Maybe she will have something to add. I will look forward to getting more stories and comments from my cousins and sister. The book will become a bigger story with all of us!

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The Poetry of War

I like to say that poetry can be a form of life writing. The Ghosts of Babylon by Jonathan Baxter is an impressive example of that. Baxter was a US Army Ranger in Afghanistan and Iraq, then a security contractor. After his third deployment, he began writing poems to capture his “average” experiences as honestly as he could. He has seen it all and his honesty is hard and cuts to the heart. I felt the damage war does to the souls of soldiers. How do they cope?

Everything is solely
What you choose to make it mean for you
Whatever you need to believe
you can make it all come true. . .
– from Theories of Relativity

Jonathan’s poems are raw but beautiful, many lyrical, and he is more literate than most of us would ever expect a volunteer soldier to be—surprise! Bits of Shakespeare or classic famous works including The Epic of Gilgamesh introduce each of his story poems. I don’t favor modern poems that rhyme because so many feel strained or too contrived, but Jonathan follows a traditional style that made us love the poets of old. His rhythmic rhyming lines flow into the heart of the dusty danger he lived. The influence of Edgar Alan Poe is strong and dark. I hope many people read this book to get a better understanding of what our men and women in combat situations go through. I commend Jonathan for being brave enough to share these intimate thoughts.

Jonathan is a jaded soldier. And why didn’t he just stop and come home? That’s a story poem he tells, too, about the bonds between warriors, the addictive rush of adrenaline. When a soldier is killed, don’t say what a waste of a life, he lived life to the fullest. When you live with death, every moment is alive.

An Appendix gives a list of resources for combat veterans needing help. One of them is Vets4Warriors, an organization of veterans providing 24-7 emotional support for those in service, veterans, their family members, and caregivers. 855-838-8255.

On Memorial Day, remember those who died in war. Remember those for whom a part of themselves died in war.

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Writing the immigrant story, in truth or fiction

“Imagine being a sixteen year old boy, walking across Europe and leaving your whole family behind. Imagine being a young girl, the poor daughter of immigrants, trying to bridge the gap between your parents and the world they now live in.”

The above is from cover copy of Amy Cohen’s new book, Pacific Street. What was life like for immigrants coming to America in waves back in the 1800s and early 1900s? I discovered my Dutch ancestors were a hard-scrabble lot hoping for a better life in the US, a common story. Whether it was better here is debatable, but their journeys helped make me who I am today.

Sharon Lippincott, of The Heart and Craft of Lifewriting, gave a shoutout on Facebook for Amy Cohen and her historical novel, Pacific Street. This is Amy’s first book, and what I read on Amazon’s Search Inside was well-written and made me excited to ask her to be a guest on my blog. She had researched her immigrant ancestors and decided to write about them as historical fiction. Why? Let’s find out. . .

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Amy, what got you started on documenting your family history?

When my first grandson was born in 2010, I realized that he was the next link in a long chain of generations. It made me think about my own mortality, and it made me wonder about all those who came before me. I knew almost nothing about them, and I realized that someday my grandchildren and their children might want to know their history. I started slowly at first, got frustrated, came back two years later with a mentor to guide me, and have been pursuing my family history with a passion since then.

Where did you find the stories of your ancestors, versus just genealogy names?

The stories came from numerous sources. Sometimes from family members, sometimes from newspaper stories, and sometimes from memoirs and letters written by family members long ago. Also, it is often possible to piece together stories from records such as birth, marriage and death records, census records, military records, and immigration records.

What made you decide to write a novel instead of a family history book?

I first recorded my research only on Ancestry.com, but then in October 2013 I was encouraged to start a blog by a second cousin whom I had recently found. She helped me set up the blog, and from there I started telling the stories I uncovered through my research. But those stories did not follow a specific sequence, nor were they very accessible for someone who wanted the big picture of one family group.

I wanted to write something that would tell a complete story in a format that would be enjoyable even to someone without an interest in my family or in genealogy. Again, my grandsons were my inspiration. I thought that if I wrote the story about my grandparents, their great-great-great-grandparents, as a novel, focusing on their childhood and young adult years, it might be a book that they would read on their own as young adults. Since they are now only three and seven, whether that happens remains to be seen! But many others have read the book and enjoyed it.  That is very rewarding to me.

Is there a message you hope readers get from your book?

The novel tells the story of my maternal grandparents from 1899 through 1915. My grandfather was born in Romania in 1888 and walked out of the country to escape oppression and anti-Semitism in 1904 when he was just sixteen. He settled in New York City, living alone until the rest of his family arrived in 1910. My grandmother was born in 1895 in New York City to poor immigrant parents from Poland; her father died when she was just five years old. Somehow these two poor young people, neither of whom had a high school education, managed to survive in New York City. How they matured and handled adversity is a theme of the novel. It is also a story of hope against all odds, a story about families and love. It is the story of all of us who descended from immigrants—those came to America seeking a better life.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about this genealogy/writing journey?

When I started dabbling in family history back in 2010, I had no idea that it would become such a passion. The research is challenging and keeps my brain working, the writing satisfies my creative impulses, and the contact with newly found relatives and other genealogists is rewarding emotionally. More importantly, I feel like I am doing something meaningful by recording this history—in many ways, a history that we all share. The people I’ve learned about fascinate me. They overcame so many challenges, and they made it possible for me and my children and my grandchildren to live good lives. Without their courage and their sacrifices, I would not exist. In some ways I feel it is my duty to honor them by telling their stories. It is the least I can do to thank them all.

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My thanks to Amy for this beautiful story, and I hope she has inspired you to start or continue writing your ancestors’ stories. Please take a look at her book, Pacific Street. It is on my To-Be-Read list now. If you read it, be sure to leave her an honest review—especially for independent authors, reviews pave the street with gold.

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Posted in book talk, heritage, history, lifewriting, overcoming | Tagged , , | 9 Comments