For my POV columns, I asked some of my writer friends what they’d like to see my write about. Angel asked this one:
How can family history influence writers?
It’s a really broad topic, one that touches on histocial events, genetics, and decisions and talents that can echo down generations.
I can only answer it for myself and my own ancestors.
I come from a solidly middle class American family, one that never had a lot of money but always seemed to have enough.
After a couple divorces, my mother spent a fair amount of time on her own in my teen years. During those years, she raised me on a teacher’s salary, so I know things must have been tight but I never felt it. We always had food on the table, and there was enough to pay me for doing chores around the house. Money that paid for hot wheels and matchbox cars as a kid, and that fed my comic book addiction as I got older.
Both sides of my family valued hard work and the idea of doing things for yourself when you could. That’s not to say they were conservatives – far from it. But I was taught to work hard for the things I wanted, and that with enough effort, anyone could get ahead in this country.
I’m not sure that’s true anymore. Or that it ever was, for many people. But I believed it then.
My grandparents all had creative talents of one sort or another. With my Grandpa John, it was the gift of gab. As a preacher and an Optimist, he could get up in front of a crowd and give a rousing sermon, and there was a comforting warmth about him which I still remember with great fondness. My dad inherited these conversational skills from him, but they fell a bit short in me. I was more my mother’s child in that respect – quiet, introspective, and bookish, but as I have gotten older, I see flashes of him in my ready smile and cheer about life.
My Grandma Hazel was a gifted cook and baker. You couldn’t visit her house without coming home with containers of cookies and brownies and jars of homemade jams and preserves. She was a genius in human connection, and the glue that held our family together for so many years. I like to think I picked up a little of her baking talent, and as the oldest of my generation, I have picked up her habit of sending every member of my extended family a birthday card.
Grandpa Pete was not blood-related to me – he married my Grandma Joyce before I was born. But he was in every way my grandpa. He was a scientist who worked for Goodyear Tire and helped invent both super balls and silly putty. My dad used to say Grandpa Pete was the only man he knew who read Scientific American – and understood every word. Grandpa Pete had polio as a child, and one of his legs was shorter than the other, giving him a distinctive limp when he walked – I can still see him shuffling back to his den, me in tow, to give me a surprise he’d picked up since the last time I’d seen him. He bought me my first computer – a Commodore 64 – and my first magic kit. From him I learned a respect for the scientific process and a fascination with the mysteries of the universe.
And then there was my Grandma Joyce, pictured above. She was an artist in the truest sense of the word – she captured little bits of the world in pastels, watercolors, and oils, and left behind a treasure trove of physical art. I still have every hand-made birthday card she ever sent me. She was also a playwright and a short story writer – one of these days, we plan to publish her short stories in a collection for everyone to enjoy. From Grandma Joyce came my love tor art and the printed word, passed down through my mother, who, though she was never an artist, loves to read more than almost anything else.
In this time of Covid 19, I also wonder how my grandparents faced earlier plagues and disasters. My Grandpa Pete was forever marked by his bout with polio, but was born just after the Spanish flu, in 2020. My Grandma Hazel was born a year before, in 1919. Grandma Joyce was born in the middle of it, in 1918.
Born in 1915, Grandpa John was the only one who lived through the whole of it. He was just a little kid, but if he were alive today, I would ask him how that last global pandemic changed the world.
I wish I had some grand thesis to share with you here about how my Grandpa John’s choice to move his family halfway across the country from South Dakota to Arizona then changed the way I write now. Or how Grandpa Pete’s time floating above Los Angeles in the Goodyear blimp might have changed his perspective on life, and in the process would come to change mine.
All I can say is that each little thing they did, each bit of who they are, coursed down through my father and mother to become a part of the jumbled mess that fills my head and makes me who I am. And those things pour out of me onto the page in ways of which I’m not consciously aware.
It’s the great irony of living that, once we reach an age to understand the wisdom of our ancestors, they are no longer here to guide us. How I wish I could ask my Grandma Joyce about her writing process, or spend a week with my Grandma Hazel, cooking with her in her kitchen in her little brick house in Tucson.
Still, nothing is truly lost, merely transmuted into another form for another time.
And so early each morning, I sit down at my computer and the words and ideas filter out of my mind through my fingers and onto the blank screen to form stories, the true legacy of all who came before me. Every now and then I catch a glimpse of one of them, in the taste of an apple or a turn of phrase.
I stop for just a minute and smile.
I hope they would be proud.
To my writer friends, what is your own family’s gift to you as a writer? How did your family history, the choices your ancestors made, and who they were shape how you write today?