That’s how Neil Diamond’s classic song, America, starts.
Remembering How We Got Here
When we lived in Indianapolis, my husband and I saw Diamond kick off his concert with this powerhouse.
Imagine a full house, buzzing, chatter as we waited. Then all the lights went black. Silence. Then bam. Lights and music swirled us away into a fury of feelings and memories and joy.
For those of us who live in America during this July 4th week, it’s good to remember how our families came to these shores. And it’s true regardless of where in the world we now call home.
Capturing Our Histories
Several years ago, I took a memoir writing class, hoping to start on my family’s story. While I’ve just barely begun on that (sigh), a 90-year-old member of the class, Martha, took a bad fall and I was able to help her finish her memoirs to give out at an upcoming family reunion.
While working on that, a good friend, Paula, gave me the gift of asking to help her write up her memoirs. In her explanation of why she was sharing her family’s story, she included these reasons:
“To show my gratitude to my parents who were courageous enough to leave [her native country] suddenly for an uncertain future . . .”
“To commemorate my dear aunts and uncles who contributed so much to our own childhood happiness, who paid the ultimate price under the Nazis.”
In both of these memoirs, there is a wonderful combination of historic context and personal anecdotes.
With Martha’s story, for example, I feel the dust storms and despair of Depression-era Kansas through the lens of her experiences, as well as the pleasures of farm life in a big family:
“Mother baked bread twice a week – seven or eight loaves at a time . . . There was nothing better than a crusty slice of bread with fresh churned butter.”
Ready to Start Your Story?
If you’ve been thinking about capturing the flavor of your family’s life, these three questions* might help you get started:
1. About home life: “What was expected of me; the things that were strictly forbidden.”
2. About dating and romance: “What I remember of my first date; my parents’ advice about dating; where I met the person I married; what was the rage in music, dance, clothes.”
3. About national and international events: “How they affected my life; how I participated in them.”
The last line of Paula’s memoirs is, “By this time, I am the only one of my close family to remember that era, so I feel it’s up to me to tell the story.”
Compelling reason, for me anyway, to keep the process moving on my family’s story.
“Everywhere around the world
They’re coming to America
Ev’ry time that flag’s unfurled
They’re coming to America”
[*These questions are from a book called “My Memories: A Written Record of My Life and Times to Hand Down to My Family,” published in 1984 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Looks like you can still order it through resellers at amazon.com.]