Thursday, January 17, 2008

Writing family narrative is more difficult than it seems.

At first blush, writing family narrative should be easy. It's confessional, it's personal, and it's a topic that's close to your heart. What to tell and what not to tell, how long to keep it and how short to make it all end up cramping things a little. Especially when it's written for a class.

I'm not especially proud of this, and it's too cheesy to be profound, but it's a first go and I feel like I need to air it somewhere so that it can dry out and get a little crackled around the edges before I give it another go.

The assignment: Find a family heirloom or personal artifact and try to obtain its story from an interview. You can tape record or make notes or, in the manner of oral tradition just remember it. Bring the story and the heirloom (or representation of it) to class.

So, I'm excited about being in a class. I'm excited to do readings. I'm so excited to be sitting in a room with students and a professor listening to lectures that it's all I can do not to be THAT kid who arrives 20 minutes early and reviews all their notes on the readings, then waves their arms about wildly when the instructor asks a question. That said, I'm not sure I understand the point of this assignment. There must be one. Will it relate to the long, toothy piece on generative and iconic metaphors we read from our course reader? By sharing these stories with the class will we get to experience how difficult it is to impart knowledge we know deeply and intimately, with only a limited opportunity to give supporting contexts? Hopefully that's the point of the exercise. Otherwise, it starts to smack of show-and-tell.

Not that show-and-tell is altogether bad. Essentially that's what teaching and even basic communication are about, right? But it feels a little like secondary school, you know?

On a pessimistic note, if it is more of just a "sharing" exercise, then I think I can even take a "teaching" lesson from that--what a student hands in is, in someways limited by what the assignment requests. Mass is conserved or transferred; you get out what you put in.

So, without further adieu, a little "drying out."

(If all goes as plans, and my next big life project pans out, you may see more of these family histories (and a re-worked version of this one!) in the future.)

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Sometimes an heirloom comes in the form of a physical object, other times this "artifact" takes the form of a family tradition, or location. Like an "heirloom vegetable" or "heirloom quilt pattern" often it's the seed, or idea that's really the most important component.

In the case of my family, the story of such an heirloom "seed" begins with my great-grandmother, passes through three generations, and lands, finally, in my hands. The tradition in question is that of travel—particularly, travel to Hawaii. On January 15, 2008, I interviewed my mother about how this tradition developed, and how the heirloom “trip” was handed down through the generations.

The story begins with Grandma Sue, my great-grandmother. In the 40’s and 50’s, Grandma Sue worked as a typist at the county courthouse in Tacoma, Washington. She grew up during the Great Depression, and was quite frugal by nature. Her husband, Joe, an employee at a worker-owned furniture factory, was still a young man when he died in a collision with a train. Grandma Sue found herself left alone, on a limited salary, trying to make ends meet, and raising a young son (my Grandpa Bob).

Grandpa Bob was a talented guitarist from an early age. Grandma Sue enrolled him in music lessons, and he began to learn some of the Hawaiian-style songs that were all the rage at that moment in time. This landed him a spot on a local radio program, playing jingles for a music studio. Whether sparked by her son's music, the exotic, Hollywood cache of Hawaii, or the opportunity to escape her daily grind, Grandma Sue fell in love with the idea of Hawaii. As fate would have it, right around this time (probably in her 40's or 50's) she received the opportunity to take a tour of the Hawaiian islands with a group of co-workers form the courthouse. She jumped on the opportunity. Somewhere, there are family photos of a young, smiling, Grandma Sue descending the stairs of a small, island-hopper plane and walking out across the tarmack.

One trip led to another, and as the years went by, Grandma Sue saved all her extra money for a Hawaiian vacation once every few years. Even though she was by all accounts a frugal woman in her normal life (saving twist ties, foil scraps, and envelopes for blank “scratch” paper), when on vacation Grandma Sue always stayed in the top-notch hotels, and ate at the most sought-after restaurants.

From an early age, Grandma Sue was a sickly child. Ill-treated by her parents for not possessing the vitality of her siblings, she suffered for years with a dysfunctional kidney. The excess toxins in her system frequently made her ill, and never allowed her to feel particularly healthy. Traveling to Hawaii, she found, eased those problems, and made her feel significantly better--even if only in a psychosomatic way). On these early trips she vacationed with work friends, and with her eventual daughter-in-law’s mother (my other great-grandmother, Sadie). Even so, a single woman glamorously jet-setting around the Pacific must have made quite a stir.

When her first grandchildren were born, Grandma Sue's Hawaii trips made the leap from indulgence to “heirloom.” Beginning with my mother (oldest of 7 children), she turned her grandchildren into her traveling partners. When they turned 11 or 12, she’d whisk them off on a whirlwind trip through palm trees, ocean beaches, guava juice, and plumeria blooms. These trips became an eagerly-awaited indication of “growing up” in the family.

In the years that followed, as the grandchildren grew up, married, and took their own trips, many gravitated back toward Hawaii. But whether it was for a honeymoon or just a vacation, they’d always remember to bring back mementos for Grandma Sue—leis, mugs, fresh flowers. I remember visiting her as a child and how her house was always filled with "Hawaii" things. After all her "grandchild trips" wrapped up, it wasn't long before her great-grandchildren began to arrive. As we became old enough, Grandma Sue decided to extend the tradition to yet another generation. First trips on airplanes, pictures with floral leis, memories of humid air and sweet guava juice--she brought all those things to the next "tier" of her family. Unfortunately, she only made it through the oldest two great-grandchildren, before her health worsened and she could no longer travel. I was the second and last great-grandchild to make the trip. My mother believes that this was also her final trip to the islands.

While the "gift of Hawaii" wasn't exactly a physical "heirloom" from Grandma Sue, she did pass down a tradition of travel and exploration. Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren have nurtured this seed of adventure and have gone on to travel the world, collectively exploring 6 of the 7 continents. Many of her great-grandchildren born after she died have since accompanied their parents to the islands. Though not "handed down" in the most literal sense, a trip to Maui or Oahu has become an "heirloom" that each of her 7 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren can all share.

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(postscript: it definitely ended up just being show-and-tell. We placed our objects on desks around the room, and set the little write-up we'd done next to them--mine was by far the longest--and then walked around the room looking at what other people had brought. Criticisms: it wasn't quite apparent how this related to the goals of the course, and we didn't get to know one another better as a result--you weren't standing by your object, you were wandering the room, so there was no face-to-name-to-story element. Oh well. Refer back to that part about ultimately getting out of an assignment that which you put in.)

1 comment:

Celeste said...

What a beautiful story and a lovely tradition! Family history can be such a fascinating topic to delve into and find out about those unique characters that inhabit it.