An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Family History’

After I’ve Gone


My friend Edith inherited her parents’ house, a 1940s showplace in its day. The house has been mostly empty for 30 years, but Edith can’t bring herself to part with it and its memories. She plans to leave it to a daughter rather than having it sold and the money divided. “Better ask your daughter if she wants it,” a friend counseled. And rightly so. The house and grounds require a lot of upkeep and the kitchen, built for a servant, has the inviting spaciousness of a TWA airliner galley. Edith’s daughter probably lacks her mother’s attachment to the place.


A few days ago, a neighbor mentioned the shock of driving by a deceased friend’s house to see a dumpster and a Deseret Industries truck parked in front. “My children better not do that with my things,” my neighbor said. But they will. With few exceptions, the worldly goods we worked and sacrificed to obtain—the treasures we packed and lugged on moves and spent our time cleaning and polishing—haven’t the same meaning for our children. Objects will be discarded. Houses will be sold, and the money used to buy their own treasures which their children will eventually toss into a D-I or Goodwill bin.


It’s tough to realize we are mortal. Our lives will end while the lives of our loved ones continue. They will remember us, but think of us less and less frequently as the calendar pages turn. My mother died 60 years ago; few people who knew her remain alive.


We don’t like to think of ourselves dying—our lives erased by time. One function of religion is to soften the blow of obliteration. Mormonism is especially strong in this regard. We do genealogy—collect information on ancestors, record family histories, write our own memories—and alleviate the fear of being forgotten. Harmless activities—unless nostalgia for the past and hope for the future crowd out the present.




Lifeless Life Stories

Sister Prim, my visiting teacher, told me her husband is writing his life story and she needs to get started on hers. The Prims have unusual experiences to write about—having served as LDS missionaries in Africa—and I hope they write them up in an engaging way. Unfortunately, most Mormons following Church admonition to write their life stories create autobiographies about as interesting as Gospel Doctrine lessons.

Two of my aunts who are sisters-in-law shared their life stories with me. Except for the names of towns and nuclear family members, the stories are nearly identical—and formulaic. Each story tells place of birth, genealogical information of parents, grandparents, and siblings. A few childhood memories are included then a jump to their marriage, births of children, their marriages, and birth of grandchildren. Church callings are listed and a testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel.

Aunt Charity and Aunt  Mercy were rugged individuals with very different personalities and ways of seeing and dealing with the world, but they—the main characters—are missing from their life stories. Descendents who may read these stories will not learn of Aunt Charity’s zest for learning or Aunt Mercy’s earthy sense of humor—and I doubt the obligatory testimony bearing will strengthen anybody’s faith.

The oral histories I did of my uncles are filled with hilarious stories. Recording and transcribing their stories was great fun as their personalities and our weird family sense of humor exploded onto the written page. I wish my aunts had just told stories that were meaningful to them instead of trying to follow a pattern that would be “faith-promoting” for their children and grandchildren to read.

Of course, it’s easier to tell a good story than to write one. And some people even censor themselves orally. When I recorded Uncle Duke’s stories, Aunt Charity tried to stop him from telling about the time my dad had worms as a child. Worms were pretty common in those days, but Aunt Charity didn’t want that information in our family history.

I started writing pieces about my life after taking a class from Mormon poet, Emma Lou Thayne. She encouraged us to write stories about meaningful events rather than autobiography. I created several good pieces during her class then set it aside for other projects. I recently started writing about my teaching experiences at Utah State Prison and found that unconnected stories didn’t work well because I’m writing about a place I need to describe for most readers. I started a chronological narrative, read through it, and was bored. How could that be? I was writing about an interesting place full of unusual characters.

I thought about the most fluent writer in my writing group. Ron is the only one with no college degree and his narratives flow. He often starts writing just a couple of hours before we meet. Why were his narratives so full of life and mine as dry as a vacant lot in St. George? Fortunately, a friend urged me to read Sven Birkerts The Art of Time in Memoir. There it was in black and white: Put yourself in the memoir.

Ron is not hampered by academic detachment. He responds and reacts to the events he relates. My narrative was essentially a list of events—many of them strange—but with little indication of my responses. Now I’m revising my experiences to include what I was thinking and feeling while navigating the perils of prison employment.

I suggested Emma Lou’s class to Sister Prim. Maybe I’ll lend her my Birkerts when I’m through. Or if she prefers an LDS author, Signature Books has published Breathe Life into Your Life Story: How to Write a Story People Will Want to Read by Dawn and Morris Thurston. I haven’t read it yet, but have heard good things about it.

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