PRESERVING THE PAST: WRITING YOUR FAMILY HISTORY
By Trudy Kempton Dana
Author of: "THE KEMPTONS: Adventures of a Montana Ranch Family, 1880-1964"
Published by Farcountry Press, 2019
The past matters! It matters to the present and it matters to the future. That is the reason we want to preserve and send on the unique stories of our ancestors- our family history. Most of us, at one time or another, thought about writing our family history. We recognize that this information will likely disappear when we're gone, and we also bemoan that we didn't ask our parents more questions while we yet could. We believe it's important to share our history, and the stories of our ancestors with the present and coming generations. We value our family past.
The opening page of my first book in a series of three about my Montana ancestors begins with a photo of four generations of the Kempton family along with my following quote:
"FAMILY HISTORY DOES NOT HAVE TO FADE AWAY OR CEASE AS RELATIVES LEAVE THE EARTH.
WHEN MEMORIES BECOME STORIES, WRITTEN OR TOLD, FROM GENERATION TO GENERATION, FAMILY HISTORY IS PRESERVED AND CONTINUES INTO THE FUTURE GENERATIONS."
While we value family history and the effort of preserving it, still few of us actually begin the process of getting this information down on paper. And then, even fewer of us actually complete the effort.
Why is that? When we think it's important and valuable, why can't we seem to get going and follow through? Here's a list of the most common roadblocks and how to overcome them:
WE'RE JUST AN ORDINARY FAMILY. THERE'S NOT MUCH OF INTEREST.
Every family has stories that are worthwhile to pass along. Just the daily lives of our ancestors is interesting to us today- both their everyday doings as well as their special events.
I'm not talking about just the genealogy, although that is the backbone of one's family history. The statistics such as birth and death dates are important, however, it's the years between that make up a lifetime. Remember the history of humankind was made up of the lives of individual people. Things that seemed unimportant when taken together made up great deeds.
In our mechanized world, there is interest in how folks in the past did the things we now so easily accomplish. How did a woman do all the laundry from start to finish? How did a man clear the rocks and stumps from his land by his own might? How were the many children cared for with parents so busy? How did families manage to survive intensely long cold winters? We're interested in how those before us coped with the many challenges they faced.
ACTUALLY, I'M ASHAMED OF SOME OF THINGS MY FAMILY DID.
We all have "skeletons" in our closets. No family is perfect. The stories you write about those incidents could serve as cautionary tales to future generations. Also, keep in mind, the shame of misdeeds seems to ease with the passing of years. If the person you are concerned about is still living, perhaps you could delay that part of your history. If they are no longer alive, the misdeed is already a part of past history.
The skeleton in my closet is alcoholism. Along with my Grandfather Berney Kempton's positive attributes, there are a few tales of drunken nights when Berney's sons (probably my father included) pulled their dad out of a bar and took him home. My grandmother was furious, and rightly so, and there were threats and promises made probably by both of them with each recurring incident. I have outlined and started a chapter called, "Firewater and the Kemptons", but frankly, I am still unsure how to tackle this topic and keep putting off working on it. So who am I to give you advice about including incidents that might be better off left alone? This alcoholism affected generations after Berney as well, so how does one deal with that?
I'M NOT A VERY GOOD WRITER.
So you're not a Steinbeck or a Hemingway. You didn't get all A's in English, maybe not even C's. Don't worry- no one will be grading your family history and there will be plenty of opportunities for editing what you write. Your credentials for authoring this work are simply your membership in a family and that you care enough to undertake this task.
You're not hoping for a Pulitzer Prize. No, this is simply a work of love and a desire to give your children, grandchildren and those yet to come a look back into their past.
If you want to improve your writing along the way, join a writer's group in your area, attend writing workshops, or conferences. Join on-line literary groups. If there isn't a writers group in your area, if you have time, begin one.
Read, read, and read good literature and note the style of famous authors. Steeping yourself in good books will rub off in your writing.
Find someone who will critique your work, be your editor. Free of charge is great, but you may have to pay a little for this service. Beware of internet editing services or on-line offers. They can be extremely expensive and not worthwhile. Make sure your skin is thick enough that the editing doesn't hurt your feelings. Take it as constructive.
Write, write and write to improve your writing. Don't worry too much about quality- the most important goal is just to get the information down on paper.
I DON'T HAVE TIME TO DO THIS.
Anything you do will be better than nothing. Even if you are adding to a previously written family history, your new information will update the history and add perspective.
Your efforts can be all consuming, simply a way to fill some spare time, or an hour tucked in here and there in a busy schedule. For me, it's been almost daily since early January of 2014. At that time, I had been retired for a few years, had finished my third book- a 300-page manual for a law enforcement audience, and had free time stretching out far in front of me. It was an ideal time in my life; however, even if it had not been, I still would have found time somewhere to write about my ancestors.
Remember, you can't lose by making a start and who knows where your beginning will lead and where it will end.
IF NOT YOU, THEN WHO?
Usually, there are not multiple family members clamoring to record the past. Don't expect that someone else will do this if you don't. Whatever you accomplish will be more than what was there before you began.
The thought that when I was gone, many oral family accounts would be lost, was sufficient impetus for me to begin writing the stories my father told me about growing up on a large horse and cattle ranch in eastnen Montana. Instead of fairy tales, Dad told stories about wild horses, cowboys, Indians, cattle drives- the mystique of the open ranch and the Wild West.
I thought the stories might fill a small book, but I quickly discovered there was much more to tell. Now after five years, I am wondering if I should try for a fourth book in this series, as there is still more to tell.
I ascribe to the motto: BEFORE YOU GO, LET THEM KNOW.
Have you ever thought about writing your family history, so those who come after you will be able to read about their ancestors, when you're no longer around? Does your family have an interesting past that could well be entertaining, inspirational, or helpful to present or future generations? There's not a family around that doesn't have stories worth documenting. Family life is made up of stories- some are from our everyday life, and some tell about exceptional events. Our lives are full of stories, and if these are not passed down in some way, they fade, then disappear completely. Don't let that happen.
The purpose of this blog is to encourage readers, everyday people like you, to begin the process of recording their family histories in writing. Maybe you've considered doing this, but don't think of yourself as a writer. Perhaps your life is busy and you have little time for a project like this in your full schedule. Here's the clincher: IF YOU DON'T DO THIS, THEN WHO WILL? And what a shame when information is permanently lost as ancestors leave the earth.
Your family and future readers don't care that you're not a Hemingway or a Steinbeck. Your credentials for this effort are simply your membership in a family, and that you care enough to record the memories and life stories. That's all! You can devote hours and hours, or just a few hours to this project. That's up to you, because your job will be to serve as a recorder and just make a start. If this has not ever been done before, then anything you do is better than nothing at all. You can't lose by making a start!
When I write about recording your family history, I'm talking mainly about the everyday family stories, not the structured family genealogy, although that is also vital to the next generation, as well. However, it's the stories of loved ones that are the most important. It's the accounts of their everyday lives, the big events as well as the small details that are the most precious to future readers. Strict genealogy is significant, but it's the days between one's birth and death that really tell the story of one's life.
That's how it all began for me- as a simple effort to write down a few of the stories my father told me about his childhood on a large horse and cattle ranch in eastern Montana. Instead of fairy tales, Dad told of cowboys, Indians, horses, cattle drives, and the open range- all the mystique of the Wild West. Over the years, I told these stories to my daughters and granddaughters, and sometimes to my friends.
My oldest daughter strongly encouraged me to write down these oral accounts. I began to do that in January of 2014, and now in the fall of 2018, Farcountry Press will release the first of my three-book series. Having three books published was not my initial aim, but it is a nice achievement. These are my fourth, fifth, and sixth books, so I know from experience that most authors do not get rich. My riches lie in the stories of my family that are now recorded for history.
It's been fun, interesting, and rewarding, but also tedious at times. I'll tell you all about that in future blogs. But for now, I challenge you to be the family historian. I encourage you to be the one who puts the oral stories down on paper, (or in computer files), for your family's benefit.
Let me know if you have any questions or need encouragement. I wish you the best of luck and look forward to a lively interchange as you begin this process. Congratulations on your efforts to record the history of your family. You will be glad you did!
Trudy Kempton Dana
I'VE INCLUDED A SAMPLE CHAPTER FROM MY BOOK: "THE KEMPTONS: Adventures of an Early Montana Ranch Family," published by Farcountry Press, Helena, Montana (see Learn More). The first book in this series is now available at your local bookstore or from Amazon.