When we write about our families, we are writing about characters who have loomed large in our lives, or people who have had an impact on who we are today. We rely on wisps of remembrances, emotional charges, and mental images of places, people and events.
We want to record our memories of people before they are lost to the ages. But how do we write about them? Even if we have no mementos or pictures, we still have our memories to draw from. How do we pull these scraps of memories together into a cohesive picture? I mined the depths of my own childhood for images to create the following portrait of a favorite uncle.
My Uncle Henry was a giant man, well over six feet tall, weighing two-hundred and forty pounds, and solid as granite. He walked with a pronounced limp and would hoist himself into the kitchen chair to park for the evening with his cigarettes and coffee. A stroke had left him with the sagging face of Bell’s palsy. He cleaned restaurants and bars at night, built coffins during the day, and played cards on the weekend. Despite his gruff ways and almost thuggish looks, Henry had a strong sense of good manners, proper language with the ladies, as well as a heart of gold.
There are several types of “stories” which can help us capture elusive details. Vignettes are like smoky old pictures which capture the lights and shadows to give a glimpse of who the person was behind our family member. Character sketches give a flavor of how the person lived in her time, what her values were, or how others viewed her. Incidents show what the person did at a particular time or how he executed the duties of his profession, or how she dispatched a particular episode in her life. Anecdotes are small cameo stories that involve a situation and usually other people.
Whether these forms are memoir or biography or fiction they can be equally effective. The first two genres are from actual people and occurrences, whereas the third genre is imaginative writing altogether. Regardless of how you record these stories, the important thing is just to write them down!