I don’t believe anyone can seriously dispute Graham Greene’s assertion that childhood is a writer’s capital. Whether or not we admit to it, we all draw from our personal past for material, or simply to confirm or deny the real-life plausibility of some idea we are trying to express in words. But I would like to expand on Greene’s famous comment to propose that the larger realm of family, and indeed that of genealogy, presents an even richer source of creative inspiration.
What I’m suggesting here is hardly new. Humans have long recognized the impact of intergenerational and multigenerational approaches to storytelling. No doubt, conversations around campfires of the preliterate past rang with accounts of ancestral heroism and villainy. And as the more skillful tellers began to note how their listeners reacted with keener interest when they embellished their tales a bit, artistic license came into being. Oral tradition, myth, and legend were born.
Purveyors of the written word, too, journey time and again to the well of family history, with profitable, and sometimes otherworldly, results. “For as long as I can remember, we have danced,” Roy Hoffman muses in his recent New York Times essay, “Dancing Across the Generations,” which illustrates the transmission of appreciation for this particular art form from his parents—who actually met at a dance—to Hoffman and his sisters, and on down the family line. Novelist Louise Erdrich provides readers with hand-wrought ancestry charts illustrating the often complicated relationships of her Ojibwa characters; and she often employs shifts in narrative voice to affect what are essentially conversations between present and past. Ian Frazier, author of the genealogical memoir, Family, initially sought comfort through research in the wake of his parents’ deaths, but as he delved further into their personal papers and photographs, the essayist sensed that he was onto something else entirely:
I believed bigger meanings hid behind the little ones, that maybe I could follow them to a source back tens or hundreds of years ago. I didn’t care if the meanings were far-flung or vague or even trivial. I wanted to pursue them. I hoped maybe I could find a meaning that would defeat death.
While the above examples represent different modes and genres of writing, a common message nevertheless unites them: namely, that we are the sum of our genetic and cultural parts. Paul Thompson concretizes this notion quite well in an academic essay, “Family Myth, Models, and Denials in the Shaping of Individual Life Paths.” Here, Thompson is writing about the analysis of oral history recordings, but his words could as easily apply to the crafting of memoir, personal essay, or even fiction. “Telling one’s own life story,” he states,
…requires not only recounting directly remembered experience, but also drawing on information and stories transmitted across generations, both about the years too early in childhood to remember, and also further back in time beyond one’s birth.
Every year, as I drive across town with my kids to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas at the home of a paternal cousin, I’m reminded of the extent to which Thompson’s analysis is spot on. My story—like everyone else’s—runs far deeper than my own existence. My parents, born during the late 1920s, were each the youngest child of their respective families. As things turned out, I too was the last born of all my cousins. By the time I came into the world, an only child, in 1963, my mom and dad had already been married for fifteen years—so I grew up mainly in the age cohort of my cousins’ children.
My mother’s ancestry is fairly clear-cut and available. Whatever artistic talents I might possess have likely descended from this maternal source. My grandmother, Margaret May, was born in Louisville in 1895, but grew up mainly in Cincinnati. Her father, Charles, worked as an actor in “variety theatre,” the bawdy, nineteenth-century precursor to the somewhat tamer, better-organized Vaudeville. He was a good bit older than his wife, Margaret’s mother, and in fact had likely been married once before. (The 1880 federal census shows him boarding at a Springfield, Illinois hotel, along with a “wife” by the name of Lulu and a traveling troupe of fellow actors. Their stay in Springfield was only temporary: long enough for the rowdy theatre company to wear out its welcome and, according to the local papers, to be run out of town.)
In 1913, Margaret married Kenneth Gavin, my maternal grandfather, whom she met—in a manner similar to Roy Hoffman’s parents—at a dance. The difference, however, was that Kenneth was a professional musician, and his orchestra had been hired to play that night. Kenneth, also born in 1895, had left his Indiana home at the age of fourteen, along with his older brother, to blow trumpet in the Robinson Shows circus band. Later he joined up with Ringling Brothers for a time, and for the rest of his brief life, he toured with various dance orchestras and concert bands. My mother and her siblings remembered him as being mostly out on the road; though in the end he died, at home, of a heart attack in 1940. My mom was eleven.
I didn’t always know this information; indeed I’ve come upon much of it only in the last few years. And my reason for including it here is not to bore readers with yet another ancestral exposé tracing an American life going “all the way back to the Mayflower”—which was decidedly not the case for my family. Instead, I share these particulars because, when I came to know about them, certain things I’d always taken for granted suddenly began to make better sense.
For one thing, I now recognize the extent to which music performance has been an integral part of my maternal family going forward. Several of the grandchildren, including myself, have even gone on to become working musicians. And the gatherings at my grandmother’s house always included singing too. But it was never a formal thing. It simply happened, and was usually instigated by her. Moreover, her choice of songs was, I now understand, distinctly turn-of the-twentieth-century in origin: “By the Light of the Silvery Moon”; “Shine on, Harvest Moon”; and other catchy numbers that might appeal to a woman who had grown up around show business people, and who’d married the trumpeter of a dance band.
Another tradition trickled down as well. Whenever my mom’s sister Zenna came to town, she and my parents would, after a few cocktails, indulge me with a form of dress-up game, where we would each disappear to a room and devise a costume in an attempt to outdo the other. On one occasion, in 1975, my mother, aunt, and I even joined forces to pose as the Marx Brothers.
At the time, it was all just great fun for me. But later—after having researched my ancestry more fully—I came to recognize the almost spiritual connection between this form of play and the theatre life of my great-grandfather a century before. As a writer, I have yet to explore this idea further, but I’ve already conjured preliminary ideas for both fiction and personal essay pieces.
I realize that I am lucky to have amassed this detailed a level of information regarding my mother’s ancestry. I have not been so fortunate with my dad’s line. For whatever reason, my paternal grandparents never disclosed the particulars of background to their children. Whether their silence was due to sadness or estrangement was never clear, but my father and future aunts and uncles intuited early on that it was probably not a good idea to press the issue with questions. So none were asked, and my line of Browns developed as a family without an ancestral past. All of its traditions—and its collective memory—arose out of the experience of this singular unit. For my father and his siblings, there was never an overarching system of grandparents, cousins, uncles, or aunts. Indeed, there weren’t even any names that might serve as temporal anchors. It was as if the family story unfolded, lotus-like, at a point during the early twentieth century and proceeded from there. The extended Brown family emerged only after the eldest of the siblings, my aunt, married near the close of the thirties. She had her first child, my oldest paternal cousin, shortly after the United States entered World War II.
As a genealogist, I find this yawning documentary gap on my father’s side supremely frustrating. On the other hand, my writer’s instinct is drawn to it as a potential wellspring of fictional material. Genealogical dead-ends are a sort of artistic negative space, after all. As creative beings, we cannot help but address them with wonder and a dedicated speculation. For us, they can become plot- and character-building exercises. In fact, one of my earliest short stories (and consequently, not a very good one) arose out of my ponderings over what might have happened to cause my grandparents’ silence about their origins. Now, with a few more years of writing experience and confidence, I may return to that piece and deliver the necessary improvements.
Family tradition, whether it is deep-rooted or more recently developed, is our truest and most fundamental inheritance. And for those of us who construct worlds out of words, ancestry represents a fabulous, and virtually endless, store of material. We are all part of something bigger, and if we can hone our skills of observation—training ourselves to adopt the eyes of a cultural anthropologist, the ears of an oral historian, and, most importantly, the sensibility and style of a prose writer—then it is all there for the taking.