Early on in the Covid-19 pandemic, I was having a conversation with a new friend. A person of a “certain age,” my friend lamented that he was going to shelter fully in place, not seeing his son and son’s family, which included a beloved toddler granddaughter. As is well known, children have been less affected by the coronavirus and could potentially be carriers of the virus, infecting more vulnerable populations, like senior citizens. While the family members routinely visited by video chat, it wasn’t the same as an in-person visit.
As I heard him recount his current situation, I was drawn to a series of hard-cover books by the Chronicle Books company. The series included titles such as Letters to my Grandchild, Letters to my Friend, and Letters to my Sister, among others. The small book includes promptings with questions or occasions in which the giver would write a letter and include in the book for future viewing. Since his granddaughter was so you, I suggested that my friend might get a copy of the book and include letters, some referencing his experience during the pandemic, as well as life-long advice from which she would benefit. My friend, an historian, seemed interested, so on one of my last trips running errands in Manhattan, I picked up a copy of the book and mailed it to him.
Our conversation drew me to a larger idea. For years, I have gathered a number of reference books that are designed to provide a blueprint for those wanting to research and chronicle their family’s history. While not really a genealogical exercise, these books are more literary in orientation. They invite a person to not only tell their story, but to “interview” loved ones so that their perspective can be integrated into the work. Perhaps it’s because I was once married to an archivist or maybe it’s due to the significant losses I faced as a child, but I’ve been a big fan of these sorts of projects. I always regretted that I didn’t have a greater appreciation for the deep, often sad, but also inspiring, stories of my family members. My maternal grandfather wrote his autobiography before he died, but it was actually an example of what NOT to do. It offered a sanitized version of his life, filled with magical thinking and avoidance of the truth. I think the most beautiful works in this genre shine a light on the good, the bad, and the ugly. God willing, our country and the world will move through this pandemic and come out the other side. I hope that, while we will be bruised and battered, that we will have a deeper grounding in the real purpose of our lives and our place in larger communities. As I have these conversations with others, I would like to be a facilitator—a helper—in their desire to write their own family’s story. Can I help you write yours?