Whether it's fantasy or reality, memories transport us to the past, to moments of pleasure and pain, to times when we were important or diminished, to what lies beneath. The quality of memory is often strained.
Mom sent me an old photograph of my father in his Army uniform when he was young and healthy, when he was alive. I decided to make copies and send them to my brother and sisters when I realized my grandchildren know nothing about Dad or Mom or even me, come to that. My children were partially raised by another woman, my ex-husband's second wife, and she is not a fan of me or my family. She did her best to eradicate us from my boys' memories and what remained was painted in vivid venom. This is what my grandchildren have learned as those tainted memories are passed down. To my grandchildren I am the faceless entity who sends them birthday and Xmas gifts. I exist to give them presents.
I had printed off copies of Dad's picture, took three of them, and inscribed the back with who he was and when the picture was taken. Dad was in his 30s and he looked handsome and smiling. He always smiled in pictures and in life, seldom frowning or getting angry -- unless someone got in between him and the television program or movie he was watching. He was full of laughter and great stories, but how would his great grandchildren ever know? I had to tell them, and I began by sending the pictures to my youngest son's three children.
My oldest son's twins are not yet 2 years old, so their picture will have to wait. Not a problem. I have the photo stored on my computer and online so I can download and print more copies, next time with the name brand photo stock that goes with my 4-in-1 printer.
Eddie, the middle child, has two boys I've never met and have had no contact with. He was the one most affected by his stepmother's tales of terror and it will take time to get an address for him when I reach out with my Xmas gift for 2012.
I've decided to put together a family history of my side of the family: the good, the bad, and the ugly, but only the truth. There are some stellar types in the family and some less than stellar types, but they all deserve their moment on the page. I've contacted both sides of my family asking for photos and letters and histories, if they want to write them. I will add news clippings of births, marriages, and deaths and notable happenings, like the cousin who was governor of Texas and in the car with JFK when he was shot in Dallas that November day in 1963. The old letters I've saved from family who have died and gone on, leaving a legacy of remembrance and colored bits of their life, will go into the books (there has to be one for each family), as will the family reunions and DVDs and CDs with home movies converted to digital format.
I started with the idea of photos and histories, but there is so much material that I'll likely have a few volumes, one each Xmas, for each of the families. I may even convert it all to digital and print so those who don't know that Mom's dad was the sheriff, mayor, and biggest business owner in Alger, Ohio can read about how he captured John Dillinger and took him to the Lima jail where his buddies busted him out and killed the sheriff, or how one of my father's in-laws ran with Dillinger around Dayton and Cincinnati before he went to Alger to see his stepmother and was caught.
There were alcoholics and family locked in institutions. Some were rich and some were poor. There were farmers and business men and ordinary people and a beloved aunt who was married to the Omar Bread man. Name changes and secrets, a skeleton here or there, but a truthful and accurate picture of all my family, including the abject poverty in which my father grew up in Cynthiana, Ohio. Dad's letters to me about growing up and his life in a rural wide spot in the road will be copied and placed in the book, even the part about how backward he was and that his father delivered him in the field when his mother went into labor while bringing lunch to Grandpa Cornwell when he was plowing. The fights with local boys and the jokes and risque stories and the jewel bright moments and my father's funny stories, stories no one could tell the way he could; they will all be in there. Cousins, family reunions, feuds, dreams, madness, and life in all its facets is my gift to my grandchildren.
My memories and the remembrances of as many people as I can beg, cajole, threaten, and interest in contributing is my gift, but it is a true gift and one I hope they will treasure as much as I treasure them.
In this world where few people stay close to their families and still live within a 20-mile radius of home, memory is even more important. It may be the only way to keep in touch with one's roots and the legacy of family. My solution is one way of bringing the past to life, but I'm a writer and words and pictures are my touchstone with life and memory. I live a half a continent away from my family but they are never far from my thoughts or my heart. I want my grandchildren to share a bit of what makes them who they are and to feel all their roots, my side of their roots, too.