Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - March 3, 2023

From frustrating to fun

It amuses me how two or more seemingly unconnected things can sometimes converge in an unexpected fashion. This is one of those instances.

I've often spoken about how husband Art and I have spent years doing family history. Both of us began out of curiosity, but became hooked. The search-and-find aspect is as entertaining and addicting as any crossword or picture puzzle. And as we gathered things, the idea emerged that we could mold them into a story ... the story of our family.

That, of course, would happen "later." First we had to accumulate enough to make the story complete. Retirement might be that "later" time.

But whether a person collects objects or stories, over time, the sheer amount can become intimidating. The journey has been a great source of pleasure, but the awareness that the story might be too big for me to handle began to get me down.

When I shared this feeling with Art, he suggested I write an autobiography.

I knew he had done that some years ago, but it also sounded overwhelming. He suggested I set aside three hours on a given day one day a week and describe the first five years of my life to the best of my recollection. This might be little more than listing my family members, where they were born, where they lived, and what they did for a living.

Then the following week, I should work on the next five years without going back to the earlier writing. By doing that, in less than three months, I would have an autobiography. If that was enjoyable, I should then flesh out details and maybe even add photos. I took his suggestion to heart and soon found I was having fun.

The second thread arose while visiting our friend Jo a couple of weeks ago and it provided additional encouragement. Something came up about older members of our family and how much fun it would be to ask them about things that happened before our time.

In our own research, we have accumulated family stories that ranged from just a few paragraphs to hundreds of pages, but every one was interesting to me. I had been lucky in that someone had encouraged mothers, fathers, aunts or uncles to write their recollections. But it's much more common, as when speaking with Jo, to have that desire come too late. So just because no one is pressing me today doesn't mean such an effort will not be much appreciated in the future.

A third incident came to mind that added more fuel to the fire. One day when Art's mom was well into her 90s, he was home for a visit when quite out of the blue she remarked, "Maybe it would be better if I was dead!"

She was in great health, lived by herself, had more money than her lifestyle would ever require, was mentally sharp, and, like her comment, was known for speaking in a no-nonsense way.

Startled, Art wondered why she had said such a thing. "Are you not feeling well?" he asked.

"Oh, I feel great," she said. "But I'm no good to anybody."

Art told her that, among other things, she was great entertainment for the rest of us. Yet her comment says something about the human condition. Most of us have some need to be needed - to be of some consequence to others. Women often have a vague sense of this loss-of-purpose after the youngest child leaves home. Men are more likely to feel a sense of aimlessness when they retire. While hobbies and travel can be extremely enjoyable, they lack the contributing-to-others element that supplies a sense of meaning. This is one of the reasons older folks are encouraged to do volunteer work. Others find purpose in helping their own children and grandchildren. However, living circumstances, health conditions, mobility issues, personality and any number of other things can make these options no option at all.

But even busy people have a few hours during the week when they can write a few lines about their lives with the knowledge that their immediate family or extended family will find them really interesting, if not now, then later.

For some, the "But I am not a writer" aspect is intimidating. That was batted aside in a workshop I attended. Local memoirist and writing coach Charley Kempthorne asked us to imagine that on her deathbed, our mother pulled out a sheaf of papers and explained she had written her life story for us. He then asked how many of us would likely say we weren't interested. Even if mom was not a great writer, who would say, "Gee, mom, I think you should have added a comma here" or "You made a spelling error there." His point was simple: to a receptive reader, anything trumps having nothing. A parent's story or an aunt's or uncle's story is also our story. And who doesn't find that interesting?

In my case, I decided to organize my story in outline form, dividing subjects by chapter titles: Chapter 1: Growing up on a Kansas farm, Chapter 2: School years, Chapter 3: College, Chapter 4: Peace Corps in Ecuador, and so on.

My evangelical message is everyone should do it. It takes relatively little time and can be done almost anytime during convenient moments. "Knitting" words together can be as satisfying as knitting scarves, sweaters and blankets. The latter warms the body, while the former warms the heart.

Memory joggers might include answering questions such as:

- What do you remember about the home you grew up in?
- What toys did you play with?
- What pets did you have and what were their names?
- What do you recall about your parents and grandparents?
- Who were your teachers?
- How did you celebrate birthdays?

So that's how three threads converged to transform something that was intimidating to something worthwhile. As a bonus, it's entertaining. I�m really having fun with this!

Top-left: my mother's sketch of the farm she lived on in Morris County, Kansas. Top-middle: opening page of a memoir written by our German friend B�rbel and designed by her son Stephan. Top-right: memories of hanging up a stocking written by my father for our daughters. Bottom-left: first page of a memoir written by Art's great-great grandfather. The records in Silesia where they lived were so thoroughly destroyed by World War II that without these pages written about 1841, learning about this part of the family would have been highly unlikely. Bottom-middle: title at the page top is "Chronic der Familie Graetz" - Chronicle of the Graetz Family. Bottom-right: translation of the first paragraph shows the usual misgivings of anyone who begins a family story.

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