When I think about my grandmother, my mother’s mother, I smile to myself. I loved her so much and almost everyone who knew her loved her too. When I write my family history I have to get across, to people who have never met her, the reasons why I felt that way. I can’t rely only on details of height and weight. I need to show how she welcomed me at the door, her wispy hair that she combed so carefully, her flowered apron with candies in the big pockets.
People are the most important part of a family history. They are the core and the heart of what you are telling about. Their physical description is important, but more important is your interpretation of their character, and why you responded to them in the way you did. The aim is to make anyone reading your story feel as if they almost knew this person; that they would recognize them if they met them on the street.
Start by jotting down your memories of this person – just sentence fragments, like “The time when…” Include all that you can think of so your character is fully rounded, with all their foibles and eccentricities. Think of them in different periods of their life. The uncle who could climb trees and fix the roof – and the same uncle as he faded away after his stroke.
Take out the photograph album and study photographs of the person. Memories can sometimes play us false. You might remember grandfather as a very tall person. Then you look at the photographs and you notice that he really wasn’t tall. So what was there about his character that made you think of him that way? Explore your feelings and your memories because his character will become clearer to you as you start to understand the reasons for this.
Try to remember what they told you about their earlier life because this will give context to later events. My little grandmother had a brother who was large, imposing and had an important job. I was in awe of him and hardly opened my mouth in his presence. My gentle grandmother nagged him all the time. I couldn’t understand this until I realized that he had been her youngest brother. Even into their seventies and eighties she still felt she had to keep him in order.
It’s highlights like this that will bring the people in your family history alive. What were the contradictions you saw in people? When did they step outside their normal patterns of behaviour? How did they respond to crisis or to the unexpected? When did they show themselves to be unexpectedly strong or weak?
People, as you reveal them clearly, are the richness of your family history. Enjoy your memories as you share that wealth.