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How To Turn Artifacts and Research Into a Family Memoir

A century’s old family heirloom acted as a clue to the past for author Cornelia Maude Spelman. Here, she shares how to turn artifacts and research into a family memoir.

For many years I had kept the heavy brass nameplate engraved “S.A. Schneider” on my own desk, but until I was writing my memoir, Missing, I hadn’t understood why it was so important to me. Over a hundred years old, that nameplate once sat on my grandfather Sam Schneider’s desk in a bank in Mason City, Iowa. Sam died in 1918, when my mother was seven years old.

How To Turn Artifacts and Research Into a Family Memoir

This nameplate was a memento of a life so far in the past, yet it held an emotional resonance for me—it was like an artifact of a lost civilization. If we have the interest—and the persistence—each of us can venture back into the lost civilizations of our families, even years and years after our people have been gone. In doing so, we open ourselves to learning about our own lives.

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Do you have family heirlooms or keepsakes, objects that have a special emotional resonance to you? They might be photographs, home movies, scrapbooks, diaries, letters, pieces of jewelry or clothing, furniture, or other possessions handed down. Such objects can be our clues to the family story or stories we know and want to tell, or things yet to be discovered.

All I knew about my grandfather Sam was that he had died of a ruptured appendix. My mother had never told me about what her father’s death had meant to her, yet even when I was a child, I sensed that his nameplate, which she kept on her own small, polished, wood letter-writing desk, was precious to her. Only once had she spoken of him to me, saying, “Oh, he would have loved you so!”

If you want to write a memoir about your family, perhaps you can begin by contemplating your “artifacts” and using them as clues. Do the clues from those emotionally resonant objects point you toward unspoken stories—stories that will uncover hidden truths?

How To Turn Artifacts and Research Into a Family Memoir

Or perhaps you already have a sense of what you want to write about, yet wonder about how to structure your memoir—your “artifacts” may help you do that, too.

To explore your ideas further, draw a family tree, including all you know or heard about each person—their names and who they were named after, their dates, the places that were associated with them or special to them, their type of work, their time in history, their illnesses, the losses they experienced. Were there divorces, surprise births, deaths, or adoptions?

Write or record what you think is the most important story of your family’s life. This may be a story you were told, or, more likely, a story you may have to uncover, because no one talked about it. Do you know who you were named after? What do you know about that person or persons? Write down at least three ways this story or stories may have affected your own life.

My grandfather’s brass nameplate had been in front of my eyes for years before I “saw” it. I wrote my memoir in order to understand what had happened to my mother that caused her to change from a bright, lovely, and energetic young woman to the depressed and addicted mother I knew who after a decade of crippling chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, smoked herself to death at 63.

How To Turn Artifacts and Research Into a Family Memoir

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Writing Missing was a journey of emotional discovery, clarifying for me how my mother’s entire life had evolved from that moment when her father Sam had suddenly died, abandoning her to a Victorian mother who was emotionally incapable of helping her daughter to grieve and who became harshly judgmental. “She likes things better than people,” my mother said of her. And if that sounds too simplistic—as, of course, there were many other factors in my mother’s life—how can one explain, after my mother’s lifetime of silence about her father’s death, the coincidence of her dying on a day and time only seven hours from the exact moment of his in 1918?

If we have letters, photographs, and family papers, and if we have relatives who are willing to share information, we can find out a lot. Sometimes, however, that may not be sufficient to answer our questions. In writing Missing, I also utilized other sources of information like vital statistics, newspaper archives, wills, probate documents, cemetery and funeral records, census, property, and court records, private libraries and local libraries, the internet, military, church, and school records, and I traveled to Iowa to visit a courthouse, library, three cemeteries, and the houses my mother and her grandparents had lived in (one was subsequently torn down.)

But it was not only my grandfather Sam’s love which had been missing in my mother’s life. My oldest brother had been missing for many years (this was before the internet made disappearing difficult). He had abandoned his young wife and baby, later sending a telegram that he was sorry but could not accept any responsibility. His whereabouts were unknown to my parents until he reappeared, then disappeared again, finally returning to collect an inheritance upon our mother’s death, and abandoning another wife, leaving her a note saying, “I will not be home tonight or ever,” and disappearing for good. It was while I was writing Missing that I filed a Freedom of Information request and finally learned his fate.

These things and much more were the startling consequences of a hundred-year-old brass nameplate.

Memoir 101

The goal of this course is to teach you how to structure your stories, develop your storytelling skills, and give you the tips, techniques, and knowledge to adapt your own life stories into a chronological memoir.

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