"Have you thought about writing your family history, but found yourself stuck from the start? Writing a family narrative can be a daunting task, but Karen Jones Gowen found a way to bring her mother's story to life." (Homespun Magazine)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Lost Art of Writing Letters

Let's say you want to write a memoir for publication, or a personal history for family use. One of the best sources of material is LETTERS. Too bad letter-writing is such a lost art. Hopefully, you have saved your letters and those of your family members.

I have postcards written by my grandmother in the early 1900's. The handwriting is a bit difficult to decipher but worth the trouble, as it gives a clue to what mattered to her. Who visited, what gifts she received at Christmas, what was served at a special dinner. These are the kinds of details that are precious gems when writing from life. Because our memories can't be trusted. But letters, diary entries, and photographs can keep the accurate record of daily activities. Even a grocery list from 50 years ago can be a valuable resource.

Gone are the days when people communicated via letter. Unless you have a son or daughter at boot camp, that is. So this topic gives me an excuse to share some precious letters that arrived at my house this week. They're from my 18 year old son who's been at Marine boot camp in San Diego for 3 weeks. Each segment tells a little story:

Dear Mom and Dad,

"I have only wondered why I am here a few times, and only on certain hours of really bad days. Overall it isn't super duper bad. Today we got haircuts, and the barbers are super angry Italians who have no idea how hard they are pressing that razor against the heads of recruits."

"Today we practiced drill with rifles and it was pretty sweet, but holding an 8 pound gun right in front of you for an hour is super exhausting."

"I have yet to be IT'd, which is where a drill instructor takes you aside and makes you do pushups/situps/jumping jacks and running in place while he is yelling at you and making you shout things."

"DI's hate whistling more than Mom does. Getting caught whistling is like condemning yourself to only eating steamed carrots for time and all eternity."

"The one thing I will look forward to when I get home other than the lack of swearing, abundance of females, no more group showers and eating a Snickers, is taking my time while eating and not getting shouted at while eating."

From these letters, I'm getting a picture of what it's like for him at Camp Pendleton. Sometimes I wish email and cell phones had never been invented. It's convenient and cheap sure, but it has turned letter-writing into a rare thing indeed.

Another letter came today! Here are more excerpts from Recruit Gowen:

Dear Mom and Dad,

"Who would have guessed that drill instructors say 'heinous'. I don't even know how to spell that word." (Yes, he did spell it correctly!)

"Grandma's house is great and I love it here. (When he was preparing to leave, I couldn't say 'boot camp' so I said he was leaving for 'Grandma's house.') I get to drink apple juice every day and I get pudding almost every day. I sure wish that I had eaten a Snickers before I left because I have wanted one since Day 1, so don't forget to bring one to my graduation."

"I decided that my last letter lacked stories and adventure, so I will tell you about my adventures today. I spit up blood, did push ups on a red ant hill, learned about Marine Corps history, ate pudding and did drills. One of the best times was when a few of us recruits were cleaning outside, then a DI jumped through an open window to tell us that we were moving too slow."

I'll admit I had tons of anxiety about my youngest boy going to Marine Boot Camp (which is why I called it 'Grandma's house') but after getting these letters, I am comforted and even entertained. I know he's doing well. And the letters he gets from home will keep him going strong.

This post brought to you by the proud parent of a U.S. Marine

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


It is cold in the house today. I made soup yesterday, and it is so yummy. Last night I took the pot over to a neighbor who broke a leg or something, but she never answered the door, and today I don't want to go out, or call anyone or do anything but think about stuff and eat the soup.

Sorry neighbor, I tried.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Goodbye Summer. I will miss you.

We turned on our furnace yesterday, so it's official. Summer is over. Even though the lawn is still very green and lush, when the leaves turn colors and fall off, it can't be denied. End of summer.

Some years I am so sick and tired of summer that I'm thrilled to see it end, but not this year. Spring was cool and wet, and by June I wanted it to be hot, hot, hot. I love the dry oven heat of Utah--90 degrees is perfect summer weather here. So July and August were great. Now it's cold again, and I'm sad.

Goodbye garden. Goodbye my hungry pond fish with your busy lives--soon you'll be still at the deepest corner of the pond, waiting out winter. Goodbye my flower beds that I ignored all season, too late now. Goodbye afternoon read-ins under the fan in the living room.Goodbye falling asleep at night to crickets chirping. Goodbye to the smell of fresh-mowed grass. Goodbye grass.

Goodbye, Summer. I will miss you. And it will be so long before you come round again. Sigh.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Painting the Basement

Monday, October 18, 2010

Writing Exercises for Family History

The Story and The Person:

    When sharing family history, there are two elements of the utmost importance: The Story, and The Person.

    Everyone loves a story. Children who roll their eyes and say, “Oh no, not again,” when parents and grandparents try to tell them a moral or lesson learned based on their own lives, will listen eagerly and learn readily when the lesson is clothed in the robes of the story.

    Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. Stories have characters- people or animals that others can relate to. They connect the storyteller and the listener through shared emotion. Sometimes they are sad, sometimes suspenseful, sometimes funny. But always a story will cause us to feel something, and to be a better person for the experience. We improve our storytelling skills, either spoken or written, through practice.
    The other important element is the Person. When I put my mother’s stories together, I noticed the sound of the young Nebraska farm girl. I could hear her voice. When my kids read the book, they said, “It sounds just like Grandma. It is like knowing Grandma as a little girl.”

    Family history stories shared with our children can help them to see their grandparents in a whole new light. We could always see pictures of my mother as a young girl in the 1920's, but now we have her voice. We hear her talking about her mom and her dad, the country school she attended through 8th grade, her description of the dust bowl days, how she felt about the changes brought to that area by the Great Depression.

    It was important for me to keep that voice true in the narrative, so I kept it in first person, and I kept her way of talking. She wanted me to correct some of the grammar, or to rewrite certain phrases, and I said, “No, Mom, this sounds like a Nebraska farm girl. We don’t want it to sound like an English teacher.”

    And she said, “Oh, who would want to read about that silly little girl.”

    Lots of people, because that silly little girl came alive in the book. The reader can hear her voice, and gets insight into her personality and character, and the fact that she is kind of spoiled and flighty endears her to us. Because if I had portrayed her as a perfect little girl, she wouldn’t seem real, since no one is perfect.
Values of Preserving Memories through Writing:

    Writing preserves the life and the memories of the person’s history, and then it becomes a time traveling experience to the reader.

    It allows you to know and to learn from someone you’ve never met.

    When we look up from our lives and want to treasure the moment, writing preserves these moments to be treasured and relived by you and your posterity and others as well.

Writing Exercises that Awaken Creativity and Preserve Memories:
    You have to start somewhere, and that might be just sitting down and writing for five minutes on any given topic. Perhaps a word you find in the headline of a newspaper, like airplanes, economy, France, peace, soldiers. This exercise will open doors to creativity, stimulate ideas, and get you over your fear of writing.

    They can also work for children, giving them one word topics and having them write for 2-5 minutes, then have them read what they wrote without criticism. Try words like animals, purple, fuzzy, pumpkins, feet, or have them come up with their own choices. There are certain rules to this exercise.

#1. NO COMMENTS OR CRITICISM! Even comments can be damaging, as one child’s work might elicit enthusiastic praise and the response to another, less enjoyable piece of writing might be “Oh, that’s good, too.” Kids can see through the comments, so better to not say anything.

    #2. The writing can take any form they desire, such as a song, a poem, or just a list of words, or a little short story. The idea is to stimulate creativity, not to stifle it.

    How do we go from these simple writing exercises to preserving memories? One woman wanted to write her memories of her mother. She set the goal of one page, but once she got going, she ended up with three typed pages. Her sister read the pages, and they both cried together, remembering their mom who had passed on. Setting small goals can get us started on the path to preserving our precious memories before they fade away.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

84 Grams of Fat in One Meal

I've posted about the simple things for awhile, now it's time to go to the other side. The other side of hell that is. I just read about the worst hamburgers in America, and I feel ashamed to live in a country where people eat more calories in one meal than a family in Namibia might get for an entire week. And I am not making that up about Namibia. My son spent nine months there and I heard about it firsthand. Well, secondhand. He and his companion found a starving man behind a trash bin. The man was skin and bones, covered in garbage. They wouldn't have noticed him except he moved a bit and it caught my son's eye. They took him to the hospital, but it was too late to save him and he died several days later.

Here's the hamburger link but don't read it on an empty stomach or it will make you nauseous. I sit here blogging and checking my email and come across this on Yahoo. Before breakfast. And yes, I am quite nauseous right now just reading about these hamburgers. Okay, I admit that I despise excessive and habitual reliance on fast food. It's on my list of What Destroys Families and Makes Americans Fat. We have kitchens in our homes and supermarkets around the corner, why not cook real food? Why not make a simple sandwich and take it to work? Or if you're a construction worker who uses 8000 calories a day, how about two sandwiches, two bananas, some peanut butter cookies, and a handful of almonds? What is the attraction of the fast food? It's disgusting, expensive, and unhealthy. And it's an abomination to eat 84 grams of fat in one hamburger.

In my church, the members are encouraged to fast once a month, to abstain from food and drink for two consecutive meals and then donate the money saved (and to be generous in the donation) for the welfare of the poor and the needy. I love this. Think of what our world could be like if every person did this. Once a month. Give, give, give--that's what makes our world a better place. Not consuming as much food, fuel, stuff as fast as we can.

Okay, I am done with my rant, sorry if I offended anyone. I like a hamburger occasionally. And hot dogs, and fries. But please, a little moderation is called for! Okay, I'm done for real now. Peace Out.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Nature is Scary

I live surrounded by mountains. They're beautiful but dangerous. Every year people get killed there doing all the seasonal mountain sports--hiking, rafting, skiing, snowboarding. One year a mother and daughter just disappeared while hiking. Several years later their bodies were found. Sometimes someone will disappear and never be found. That happened to a little boy on a hike with a Scout troop. No one ever knew what happened to him. It's the saddest thing to hear about these things.

See my two boys over there? They hiked Angel's Peak, one of the supposedly most dangerous hikes at Zions, where hikers are killed each year. In fact there had been a death there already that summer, and there was another one after our visit. I was scared, and they laughed at my fears. (As you can see.)

I was talking to my mom about this and she said, "The same thing happens here (Minnesota), only it's on the water since we have all the lakes. Boating accidents, drownings while swimming--every year we hear of several deaths out on the lakes."

When my son was in Namibia, he looked out upon the wilderness just off the road and thought about parking the car and heading out. Not that he would, since he's under strict obligation to not go "exploring". He asked his African companion, "What would happen if I took off out there and just started walking?"

His companion laughed and said, "You would never get back alive." Instead, he just took a picture of this giraffe by the road.

What kind of dangerous environment do you face where you live?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

If Money were no object

If money were no object I would:

Hire a housecleaner

Get new carpet

Fix up the whole rundown house (Er--I mean pay to have someone else do it)

Go buy new clothes NOW

Travel but not too much

Buy my husband a new car

Be thin (I know they're not related but I just figure if I was rich I would also be thin)

Many other things too numerous to mention

What would you do?