My sister and I stood with tears streaming down our cheeks as we watched the family homestead burn. The old farm house was actually two houses put together to make four rooms. They were joined long ago when my grandparents still lived there. A back sleeping porch was added many years later after my two sisters and I were born.
How could so many reminders of a free, adventurous childhood disappear before our swollen eyes? The wood-burning stove in the kitchen beside the place where our Daddy “rode the cot” in the afternoon as he planned the next day’s jobs. At 92 years of age, he still had a job list. Or the old refrigerator that he defrosted with a blow-torch. The calendar on the wall he never changed from the date our Mother died. The sloping, linoleum-covered floor where we “made” butter by rolling a jar of cream back and forth across the room.
Ours was probably the only house in Northwest Arkansas that had a bathroom with three doors. This got exciting when company visited. Wood trim around a broom closet in that room still marked the changing height of growing girls. On freezing winter nights, our parents would stand each girl on the toilet lid, wrap us in quilts heated by the stove, and carry us out to the sleeping porch—snuggling us under even more quilts. What delight.
The porch floor had an imaginary dividing line separating our two rooms. My sisters slept on one side and I on the other. My toys, my pictures, my clothes were all on my side. Where there is no privacy, one invents territorial space. “Don’t come into my room without knocking,” was a familiar statement delivered with all the importance only a little girl can muster.
No other people had held title to this land, this home. A land patent from President Buchanan gave ownership to my ancestors. Daddy grew up with the solid, southern sentiment from his mother admonishing, “Never sell the land!” And we didn’t until after we were all grown, married, and moved to other states and careers. The land then sold to family members and went the way of many homes during the recent property-value collapse. Then the purchasing developer went bankrupt.
One morning this summer, we got a frantic call from our older sister, “The house is being burned.” We didn’t hesitate—we knew which house. But why? Racing across town to the farm, we found the fire department using the old house as a training practice for beginning firemen. They had no idea why two women were racing up the dirt driveway crying and keening the entire way. Being hometown guys and kind men, they readily understood our story and our grief. Too late.
I could write books—and should—about what freedom of range gives a child. Climbing trees, wading creeks, skipping rocks, picking blackberries, and—yes—scratching chigger bites. As our bodies ran free, so did our minds. Books were devoured, imaginations flourished, and a love for land and home became embedded in our DNA.
The only way my children and grandchildren will ever know of the life that—totally foreign to their city birthplace and world travel—shaped who I am—and, in a way, who they are—is if I tell the story. If I don’t tell the stories, who will?
I used this thought as a kick-off to my blog on writing family history. Can you hear the tears and laughter seep through the words? Can you hear the song of oak leaves stirred with a fall breeze, feel the soft, brown dust puffing between bare toes? The call of a love-sick owl in the night answered by his mate?
I can. The key is to tell one story at a time. A lifetime of love, sadness, secrets, blissful moments can only be captured one chapter at a time. But unlike the smoldering embers of a lifetime in ashes—our mind, ears, and eyes still hold fast these treasurers. Waiting to be shared.
Thought: An excellent way to bring the authentic times of your family to life is through the places they have lived, or live. Start by making a list of the different places your family lived beginning with where they settled when coming to this country (or earlier). Or where your family lived even before settlers overran their land.
Does the neighborhood still exist? Farm land undisturbed? Corner store preserved in an historic downtown? Take pictures. Imagine what their everyday life entailed. Do you picture relatives sitting on the front porch, walking to church or school, waving and calling out to neighbors? Or do you see the hard work it took to keep the farm prosperous enough to feed the family?
I believe that “place” is an important part of the makeup of a family and a heritage. Capture the “place” and you’ll be well on the way to writing a true and captivating story of your family. (Excerpted from www.chspublishing.com)