Learning from Those Who Came Before

So, I spent the morning researching a creature for my D&D campaign, and during that research, I found a reference to a Germanic “house pet” of myth (think Dobby). I so wanted to ask my mom about her experiences growing up with the Northern German legend, but I can’t. My mom passed four and a half years ago. Yet another missed opportunity to learn about the past from someone who lived it.

This week’s writing lesson for me is the value of our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and older friends. My grandparents on both sides are gone, as are many of my aunts and uncles. As far as elder friends, well, that’s me these days. Want my impression of the ‘sixties, ‘seventies, ‘eighties, ‘nineties, and ‘aughts? Ask First Reader or me. I was a kid in the ‘sixties, so I can only share my child’s memories of play with the fondness of good times and as much mischief as I could get away with.

My paternal grandparents would visit every other summer after my dad landed in California. Most of their time was spent with the adults or engaged in activities that either didn’t include me (Grandpop taking the boys fishing) or things in which I wasn’t interested at the time (Grandmom canning the myriad of fresh fruits I picked during the summer). In the evenings when the adults chatted, they chased us “kids” out of the house and told us to go play until we were called (we knew our boundaries and stuck to them because we also knew the consequences).

When my parents were alive, they were reluctant to talk about their respective youths. My mom lived in Northern Germany during WWII. I suspect my maternal grandfather was a Nazi sympathizer by the way my mom and aunt talked about him, but I would just be taking a SWAG about that. I managed to get more family history from my aunt (Mom’s younger sister) than from my mom. As for my dad, I would love to have talked to him about some of his adventures, but his military career was a bit on the “hush-hush” side if you get my drift. He didn’t talk about his family, but his surviving siblings are all great folks. Every time First Reader and I have visited that part of the country, they have a dinner party at one of my aunts’ houses and invite everyone. It’s always a good time.

But we never talk about the past. We are too busy catching up with each other because it’s been so long since we’ve seen each other. Living almost 2000 miles apart has its disadvantages. I know my paternal cousins mostly through short visits and Facebook. I don’t know my maternal cousins at all to speak of. I try to stay in touch, but I’ve been living my own life for so long that I’m terrible at reaching out. I’m one of those friends you read about on Facebook: “We don’t talk to each other for ten years but take right up where we left off. Feel the love.” Yeah, I’m that person.

I know little about either side of my family because we were military nomads. Mom walked away from her childhood and didn’t look back. Dad did pretty much the same. Because my dad was American, he stayed in closer contact with his family than did my mom with hers. We never got to really know my mom’s family—except for one sister, who also married an American serviceman. I know Mom wrote letters to her surviving siblings over the years, but as they passed away, the letters trickled to a halt. I never did find a stash of letters in her stuff as I went through the boxes; my sister never said anything about the things she went through.

I would love to have some personal stories for my writing repertoire, but I’ve missed that opportunity—at least within my family. So, how does one go about finding anecdotal material?

If you are a more extroverted and interview-focused writer than I, you can visit a nursing home and talk to residents there. I would almost guarantee that many of those folks don’t get enough visitors and would love to chat you up. Who knows, maybe you’ll make a new friend along the way. Another option is your local library. Just look for published diaries—both non-fiction and fiction.

If you’re writing apocalyptic fiction, search the stacks for pre- or early industrial lives. You can also read war histories and fiction to discover how others got into the heads of their characters. I’ll admit that much of my writing so far has been my imagination and my imaginary friends telling me their tales as they happen in worlds other than our own. I haven’t needed personal stories, but it would be nice.

I owe my aunt a visit. Time marches on, and she isn’t getting much younger. She’s getting fragile, as we all do when we reach our Wisdom Years. If I want to learn from her, the time has come. This time, I’ll bring a tape recorder.

One thought on “Learning from Those Who Came Before

  1. Yeah, it is difficult when they are gone, and now there are so many unanswered questions. Worse, you are now the repository of Family History. Horrors! I hope you do get to talk to your Aunt. Mine filled in a lot of detail when my Mom was too senile to do it (just before she died).


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