When I was a little girl, I wanted a kitten. I mean I really, really wanted one. Alas, my older brother suffered from severe allergies which meant no furry animals in the house. I begged. I pleaded. I threatened to run away with my stuffed animals. (A threat thwarted by my mother making French toast for Sunday lunch.) Despite all of this, the answer remained no.
My parents, feeling bad, tried to console me with alternative pets. There was a parakeet named Charlie, a turtle named Charlie, and more than a few goldfish (probably named Charlie). They were all perfectly nice, but they weren’t a kitten.
Then one day my cousin Lisa found a stray kitten, and my brother – God bless him – brought it home as a surprise. I like to think it was because of deep brotherly love, although it might also have been a response to my third grade essay railing against his existence because I couldn’t have a cat. (You know it’s bad when the teacher scrolled ‘Get this girl a kitten’ across the bottom of the page.) Regardless, Ginger (not Charlie) moved in, my brother lived on extra allergy medication for the next two years and all was well.
You’re probably thinking this story is going to be a metaphor for persistence or how happiness comes from unexpected sources, but nope. It’s simply a memory from my childhood written down for posterity. We all have memories like this one, moments that seem unimportant now, but meant the world when they happened. These memories will disappear with us. Unless we write them down.
I’ve been thinking a lot about memories and memoirs. One of my goals is to write our family history. Not that my family did anything extraordinary, but because I want to leave my grandchildren and great-grandchildren a connection to their past. I want them have more than a bunch of names and dates. I want them to know who we were and how they came to be.
Sharing Who We Are
On the surface, something like Ginger-the-cat’s story doesn’t seem worth sharing. But someday my great-grandchildren will read how they had a cat-crazy relative whose brother made her dream come true. Maybe they won’t care, or maybe it’ll explain why they love animals so much. One of my most cherished discoveries was, when going through a bunch of old family photos, I found an old typewritten set of poems written by my great-great grandmother, Nancy Brown. As poems go, they wouldn’t win any prizes, but to me, they are the genetic link to my creativity. They told me that when I sit down to write, I’m continuing a legacy that began one hundred years earlier.
“There are few such stories written down, handed down, made part of history alongside the doing of exploration, economics and government,” write Anna Quindlen in her book, Write for Your Life. She’s right. History books only give you the broad strokes of the world. It is the mundane stories of every day people that give history depth. When we share the stories of our past, we’re sharing a piece of ourselves. When we write them down, we’re leaving part of ourselves to time.
I know what you’re thinking: that it’s all well and good for me to talk about writing down history, but that you’re not a professional writer. No one’s asking you to be. You’re not writing to be published. Your ancestors don’t care if you have bad grammar or lousy spellings. They don’t need your stories to sound professional. They just want to read about you. They want to know that you played kick-the-can until dark on summer nights or that you snuck beer into the movie theater or that you once climbed onto the roof of PS 119. Write it all down, same as if you were telling the story at a kitchen table and screw the mistakes.
We Are History
In the musical Hamilton, Aaron Burr laments not being in the room where it happens. Most of are. History has been written mostly by (white) men of power and influence. While they were writing history, the rest of us, the common and forgotten people, were busy making the world spin on. Men explored, women maintained the communities. Men built empires, immigrants and blacks did the labor. In a building, the foundation is as important as the roof. We are the foundation. Our “boring” lives matter.
Don’t we owe it to the world then to share who we are? As Quindlen says, “It is mainly in the stories, memories, anecdotes nd everyday experiences, that the true place of women, people of color, immigrants, all those who had no seat at the tables where the big decisions were made, will not only be told, but will be as central as they actually were in every-day life.”
So sit down and start sharing. Your ancestors will be the luckier for having a part of you.
Write For Your Life by Anna Quindlen is available in hardcover or as an ebook, on Amazon or wherever books are sold.
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