Writing Family Stories

By Dr. Marlene Caroselli

“As you are, I once was; As I am, you will be.”

Why revisit the past? Why record family stories? Nestled in the gently undulating hills above Celano, Italy, lies a cemetery. The brittle, silvery leaves of olive trees whisper to the tombstones there, creating the smallest disturbances in the buttery scene. The Abruzzi sun bleaches the air and the marble and the earth to stillness, as it has done for centuries.

In this cemetery, in these hills, one gravestone in particular offers a prophetic insight into the future. When we were children, my father reminded us of those gravestone words whenever we scoffed at the caution learned by those older than we. He tried to change our youthful irreverence, an irreverence marked by brilliant, insouciant optimism. He tried to convert it to awareness — awareness of time and its inexorable progress toward old age. Convinced we would never succumb to toothlessness, hair loss, or arthritic knees, the words barely penetrated our thin shell of experience. The words come back now, though: “As you are, I once was. As I am, you will be.”

The stories that were an insignificant part of my childhood have been transformed, in my own adulthood, into a tribute to my father and the undeniable spirit that led him across the Atlantic Ocean. Newly revisited, that spirit has led me to the tiny graveyard once again, in the corner of my mind in which “useless” information has been piled.

My father’s story is an insight into childhood in a faraway time, a distant land, a time and place so removed that it bears little relevance to children today. On the other hand, perhaps it bears all the relevance in the world. You, too can travel to those times and places. They lie in the heart of every elderly person you know. The only passport you need to enter is the willingness to listen. Visit there often. You’ll learn, as I did in dewy morning conversations with my father, about the past and how it can shape your future. Scan the verses of an elderly person. Learn the meter of their days. Delight in their stanzas before death denies their words a place on blank pages. You can meet your own future by returning to your past.

How to pull the stories out of mental storage

When my father slipped into his 90th year, he continued to deny death, continued to defy life. His voice cracked then but it once roared. As he aged, he shuffled back and forth because his back was “wobbly.” But he used to stride. He used to march, in fact, through the streets of our childhood — his back erect, his head held high. He planted seeds every summer and shoveled snow every winter, but that was before congestive heart failure became his master.

He was a man whose mosaic I will never grasp full sight of. But I have pieces. I have pieces. He yielded them to me in the early morning hours. As I massaged his back to clear his lungs, the way nurses taught me, I asked questions about his early life in a place, in a time I will never know. He unlocked those memories grudgingly at first, and then with greater detail. My father’s story, which is now in print, started the moment he grasped life in the small town of Celano, Italy, and ended — in the memoir at least — the day he left for the land of opportunity.

Drumrolling my hands across his back, I listened as he brushed the dust off old memories. I discovered what sins could be committed in the name of religion. I listened and I came to understand that the violence of the body is nothing compared to the violence of words that can rip the heart and sear the spirit. I realized that the declaration of death may be the very beginning of life and that cruelty can be inadvertent. I found, by reliving his past with him, that small gestures could cause large fissures in the heart. And that there is poetry in the most prosaic of lives.

Find that poetry by:

  • Asking open-ended questions. “Dad, what was school like for you in the old days?”

  • Listening without interruption. Keep paper and pencil nearby so you can write down what you wanted to ask and not worry about forgetting it.

  • Recording what is told to you. In my case, the book was a gift to my father, one he did not realize he would be receiving. And so, after our morning interviews, I would rush to my computer and list all the details from the outline I had recorded as I listened. If a tape recorder is not intrusive in your circumstances, so much the better.

  • Taking time and giving time. Don’t rush the raconteur. Be patient with his or her pauses. Yes, you can prompt but don’t take over. It’s not your story, after all.

  • Using simple, single words. “Dad, when I say ‘apple,’ what memories does it bring to mind from your childhood?”

By spending time with your family treasure, by validating the life he or she has lived, you will be doing more than gathering material for writing. You will be passing along to future generations your family’s legacy. What writing is more important than that?

Dr. Marlene Caroselli is the author of 55 business books and a fictionalized memoir, The Boy Who Braved the Mountains.