Friday, July 30, 2010

My Photographic Memory

People often ask how on earth I manage to remember crazy little details from 30 and 40 years ago. For some reason, remembering details from the past is easy. Just don't ask me what I ate for lunch yesterday.

Mom used to say I had a photographic memory. My major professor in grad school said the same thing. If so, the camera is selective. I had a very hard time memorizing anything for school and struggled to learn my lines for any theatrical productions.

Some of remembering is paying attention. I talked a lot about the more interesting events of my childhood or heard them talked about enough to have them permanently etched in my memory. The stories on this blog that started me down the path toward writing a book have been told and retold hundreds of times over the years.

Writing about the things I remember unlocks other memories. Sometimes the memory is just a snapshot--a mental image from a particular event or location in my mind's eye. Sometimes it's like a short video clip on YouTube. Now and then I unlock a previously hidden door and discover a treasure chest of forgotten memories.

The book is rapidly approaching 200 double-spaced pages. I've gotten better about picking up where I left off instead of starting at the beginning. Sometimes I make so many changes I have to back up and re-read to pick up the flow again. Every time I do, I make more changes.

I started back at page one earlier this week and have since worked through the first 154 pages. I've made it through the last 50 or so pages once before. They're all bits and pieces that jump all over the place but are now mostly in chronological order. I'm hoping to make it through to the end again sometime this weekend.

Once I make it to the end, I'll print it off and read through it again. Hopefully by then I'll be ready to stick a fork in it and call it done. The edges are still fuzzy but now I know where I'm going. Can't wait to finish so I can start on the next one!

Monday, July 26, 2010

All in the Family

Lately I've been spending too much time on Having played with it for a couple of weeks now, I've mostly figured out what I'm doing. I've certainly learned an awful lot about my family I never knew before.

By far, the most interesting information comes from the U.S. Census. You can see where a person lived (county and state), who lived with them, each person's age, and the relation of each individual to the head of the household. Knowing where a person was every ten years makes it easier to track down births, marriages and deaths.

Nothing is easy. Things you would expect to remain constant over time, like names and birthdays, change with each new census. I've run into six different spellings of my last name--all referring to the same person.

It's easy to make mistakes. Making a mistake early renders the rest essentially worthless. I've discovered several and am now in the process of working my way back through to make sure the connections I've made are correct. It's tedious stuff. My tree now has more than 600 people in it.

I'm 95 percent sure of the identity and significant dates for all four of my grandparents. My paternal grandfather was born in either 1885 or 1891. The 1890 Census was destroyed in a fire or I could verify one or the other. I'm inclined to believe it was 1885 but there are a lot of sources suggesting it could have been 1891.

I'm about 85 percent sure of the identity of all eight great grandparents. One of the eight is a question mark. It's not a complete dead-end. Based on Census records around the time of the birth, I suspect one of three sons was the father but will never know for sure.

I've got first and last names for all but one of my 16 great, great grandparents. Three of the 16 were born in Ireland. The rest were born in and around Central and Southeastern Kentucky. Some owned slaves. Some worked as laborers and servants.

On Dad's side of the family, I have first and last names for 11 of 16 great, great, great grandparents. They date back to 1803 and were all born in the same parts of Kentucky. On Mom's side, I have only found 5 of the 16. Those I've found were all born in Kentucky. Most of the rest were born in Ireland.

When I started my research, I knew very little about my grandparents and nothing about prior generations. I've learned a lot about the people I grew up with, too. I'm proud of my Kentucky roots and curious about the kinds of lives my ancestors lived.

I'm not ashamed to have discovered an illegitimate birth or two in my family tree. Such details don't mean all that much in the overall scheme of things. Unless of course you're the queen or something. But me, I'm just...

The Crotchety Old Man

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Family Fact-Finding Expedition

The book is progressing nicely. Turns out, writing a memoir is surprisingly educational. Despite my extensive knowledge of the central character, I've had to do an astounding amount of research.

The backdrops for various parts of my story have stories, too. Thanks to Google, historical information about some buildings and institutions is readily available. My first church and school date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. I had no idea. Sure, I knew they were old, but never knew how old or thought that much about it.

I have 16 aunts and uncles, not counting the people they married. Except for two uncles and four aunts--all on Dad's side of the family, they've all passed. Mom is the sole survivor of her clan. My memoir is largely about growing up in this huge extended family network.

Even though I really only knew one of the four, my grandparents are an important part of the story. Their circumstances influenced how my parents grew up, which in turn influenced how they raised me. No man is an island.

Finding dates for births, marriages, deaths and other significant events has been a huge challenge. The longer ago the event, the harder it is to find someone who knows. Conflicting answers and differing interpretations of events abound. The frustration mounts with each new dead end.

Tracking down the details is worth the effort. For the first time I know exactly how the people who were around me my entire life are related to me. Now I know how I'm related to the people my aunts and uncles talked about in the stories they told about growing up.

How much of your family's story do you know? Jot down as much of your family tree as you can. Pick up the phone and call a grandparent, elderly aunt or other family member to fill in what you don't know. You may never get another chance.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Old Friends

Last week I ran up to Lexington for a quick visit. It's the first time I've been home since a high school reunion in 2006. Thanks in part to Facebook, I was really looking forward to the trip. I had plans to connect with friends I hadn't seen for a very long time.

My partner stayed home to take care of the dogs. He could have come if he wanted, but spending three days listening to people his parents' age reminisce about the good old days didn't appeal to him. Shows how much he knows.

For road trips longer than about four hours I like to rent a book on CD from Cracker Barrel. Listening to a good book makes the trip go by faster. The day before the trip, I discovered the CD player in my car no longer functioned.

There wasn't enough time to have a new one installed. But the thought of a 400 mile drive without a book motivated me to action. I drove out to Best Buy and bought a $25 boom box with a CD player and a $30 adapter so I could plug it into a cigarette lighter. Classy. It worked, but tended to skip a bit on bumpy roads.

Part of my reluctance in making the trip is the drive. Picking up I-75 in Atlanta traffic can add two or three hours to the driving time. U.S. 441 is a straight shot out of Athens, but traffic around Pigeon Forge can really slow you down. Road construction is always an issue no matter which way you go.

Last week I went up 441, but detoured around Cherokee, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge via U.S. 74. The drive through the North Carolina mountains was beautiful, and about an hour faster than the more westerly routes I normally take. I made it in seven hours, even with construction. I'll definitely use the same route the next time I go to Lexington.

My "dates" in Lexington were close friends from a long time ago. Some I hadn't seen for 30 years or more. Several are new friends--people I knew long ago but didn't really get to know until recently.

Mostly I came away from the visit glad we connected. I can't wait until we have another chance to hang out again. Yeah, there were exceptions. Sometimes people grow in different directions. Even so, few things help you appreciate how far you've come like a nice visit with old friends.

Thanks, ladies. I had a ball, even if I was maybe, on occasion, just a tiny little bit...

The Crotchety Old Man
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