Whenever I start teaching a class, or give a talk to a local civic group, about writing your personal and family history, I start by telling them that I developed my instruction for those “Legacy Writing” classes because I was interested in prodding my own grandfather to write down the stories he’s told me over the years. I thought that I could find a key to getting him to put pen to paper, and while I was doing that, I ought to share that knowledge with others, as well.
What I also admit, at the end of the first class (or the end of the prepared remarks if I’m speaking to a group) is that even though I’ve developed a curriculum for Legacy Writing, and even though I’ve helped hundreds of other people start writing their own life stories, and even though I’ve developed a workbook to walk someone step-by-step through the process of getting started, I have never gotten my grandfather to write his stories down.
Change of Tactic
Last year, before Christmas, I did, however, get him to tell me some of the stories again, and this time, I recorded them. I have about six or seven hours of recordings focused on his earliest memories, his childhood years, and through the time he spent in Europe after WWII as part of the Allied occupying force. If one way of solving a problem doesn’t work, we sometimes have to change tactics.
Obviously, these recordings are very important to me, and for a while now I’ve had it on my “to do” list to make transcriptions of those conversations and get them to him so he can revise and edit and make corrections. (And then, of course, we can continue with another round of talks.)
This week I bought a dictation foot pedal and transcription software which help me to get his spoken words onto the computer. (You can see the bundle I bought, here, at this Amazon affiliate link.) I started listening and typing, typing and listening; I rewound to hear just what that word was: Did he say “a branch of Violin Creek?”
And then, I consulted the all-knowing Google. Is there a Violin Creek in Owsley County, Kentucky? (The answer: No.) What I had heard as ‘violin’ was a verbal hiccup of sorts. He said, “Island,” but it sounded like eye-a-lyne.
Beware the Rabbit Trail
While I was “off task” and consulting Google, I typed in my great-grandmother’s name. I was curious because I thought, Here was a woman who died in the 80’s, before the internet. Would there be any record of her, beyond the census data that Ancestry.com mines for many of its dramatic finds?
Up popped a photograph that was depicting the exact time that I was writing about, as I translated my grandfather’s words. Here’s what I had just written, only moments before:
I can remember Grandpa Mays when we moved into that other house, and I must have been three years old. I remember him riding a horse to go to Boone—he was a deputy sheriff, then. At one time, he had been a US Marshal, and sometimes he would stop and bring us candy. I remember the candy. But he got very sick, then bedfast. Before that, I was down there one day, he put a pistol up on the back of a chair and held it and let me pull the trigger. I remember that part. (Did you hit it?) I don’t know that I was aiming at anything. (laughter) We looked forward to him coming by there because he usually brought us something.
When he got sick, I remember him spitting up blood, and he died in 1930. He passed away when I was maybe three and a half years old.
We moved into the house they had built on McGuire Fork of Island Creek.
Here I was, faced with a scene only months before the death of his grandfather: the Bowman-Mays reunion photo, taken in summer (likely) of 1930. Just a few months before Grandpa Mays died. My grandfather is the little boy, Junior Becknell, on the far left. My great-grandmother is holding my grandfather’s sister, who is only a few months old. Grandpa William Mays, a US Marshal who would die in November of that very year, is seated at the far right of the first row. There are others in this photo who play a part in the story, but you get the idea.
Personal and Family History is a Generous Gift
This all came to me because someone named Gayle Phillips Bausmith had donated this photograph (and the names she knew, or which had been recorded somewhere) to the Owsley County History and Genealogy Society. Gayle is some distant relation, obviously, though I’m not enough of a genealogy buff to know how, exactly. What I do know is that because of the internet, there are many, many connections that we can’t even dream of.
Not only is my great-grandmother “on the internet,” I found a way of inserting myself into an even more-full understanding of what I was writing in just a few clicks.
I always encourage my Legacy Writing students and clients to mention the names of people for just this reason: someone, somewhere may be looking for a little more information about a relative or long-lost friend. A missing link in a genealogy puzzle. Some hint to their own origin.
More and more, our words are being digitized and remembered in ways that were inconceivable a few years ago. By writing a personal history and leaving a copy with a local historical society or giving it to friends and loved ones or even publishing it as a series of blog posts, we can help other people find information that they may be looking for.
I’m sure when Gayle Phillips Bausmith gave this picture to the Owsley History society, she didn’t think it would result in a blog post by a writer in Florida. But her generosity helped me with my writing. It certainly piqued my curiosity and added a sense of time and place and emotion to this work I’m doing with my grandfather’s stories. And for that, I’m grateful.
Google can be a major distraction when I’m trying to write. There are a million rabbit trails that open up every time that “search” button is pushed. This time though, I think it was worth it.
So, just I have to admit, as much as I encourage a “no Goggle while you’re writing!” policy, there are times when using the tools at our fingertips can make our writing better.
Sometimes, it’s even okay to Google yourself.