Writing is an odd compulsion. It’s something a lot of us do regardless of whether other people will ever see our words, and it’s more socially acceptable than talking out loud to oneself while walking down the street. Writing certainly helps me find clarity, closure, and a sense of peace in my own life. But I think it’s equally true that most of us also hope to communicate our stories and random musings with others, whether those others are friends, family, or random strangers.
When I was taking a Human Geography class years ago, one of the assignments was to talk to family members and to create a narrative of place. Where did all these people come from? What things did they experience, and what decisions did they make, that led them to marry, and move, and become who they are today? Some of my own family’s stories I knew already. As I dove into the assignment, however, I began to see just how much I didn’t know. Little things. Like my grandma on my mom’s side, who lived on a farm when she was young and was scared of the animals. There was my grandpa, who heard good things about Colorado on a radio show and was inspired to move there. My mom grew up listening to Grandpa play Strauss marches at full volume early in the morning to wake up the family. They would get into the car while it was still dark out, and be out on the ski slopes at first light. There were my other grandparents, my dad’s parents, who started dating in high school and stayed together their entire lives. My dad and his siblings grew up as military brats, following their parents around to different military posts. There was the time in France when my dad was little, the foreign language he doesn’t remember being able to speak.
Maybe it’s because of that assignment, or maybe it’s because I myself am getting older, but I notice the gaps in things a lot more these days. Both of my grandfathers are gone now. I know some of their stories. My parents and my grandmothers know more. Beyond us, though, is what? Old photographs, a few pages in a genealogical record, the non-descriptive lines connecting dots in a family tree. Other members of my family have put a good deal of work into gathering the facts of our mutual history, of sweeping together the scattered fragments of stories that still exist from past generations. I admire their work, but haven’t begun to make an effort to join in — Yet. Maybe I won’t. The past, as it applies to ancestors of mine I have never known, interests me a little, but not, when it comes down to it, very much. The things that make a person important to me aren’t shared blood or even noteworthy exploits. The things that interest me about others are the things that make my own life so vivid to myself: daily life, small adventures, hopes, and disappointments. A sense of the world as it exists at a particular point in time — Not the larger world of politics or environmental concerns or anything like that, but the world as it exists on a personal scale. The town I live in. Cooking dinner in my apartment. The endless expanses of sagebrush as I drive down the highway. The path I walk with my dog. The feeling of fall, and the cottonwoods losing their leaves. The first backpacking trip of summer, when the mountains emerge from another year’s snow. These are the kinds of things I would like to see in a family history. They’re the kinds of things I’ve begun to write about here and there, little pieces from my own life. That old school assignment still floats around in my head, a couple of stapled sheets and an idea for something bigger. I may pursue it or I may not, but for a little while at least, there’s still time.