Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Ye Olde Family Reunion

By Martha Reed

People often ask me where I get my story ideas and I tell them that mostly I craft them together from the bits and pieces I overhear at cocktail parties, or from something I hear while riding on the bus, or from an earlier experience in my own past. Sometime folks think that I base my characters specifically on them, and I can honestly say I never have, but it is true that a personal idiosyncrasy or two may work itself into a character I’ve already created if it fits into the previously established outline.

There is one other source for my gift, and I got a huge dose of it this weekend: it’s my family, and we celebrated our family reunion on Flag Day, June 14th, 2008. It didn’t hurt that the reunion was held in a big, spooky old house full of ancestral ghosts with grim black and white portraits staring down from the walls while the lightening crackled outside the long casement windows and the rain poured down in buckets. It was pure Agatha Christie or just like the opening credits of the PBS Mystery series.

One of my cousins retired last year and the real treat of the event was an eight generation family tree she created. You may scoff, but let me tell you once you get into studying the lines and tracing the descent, the stories come out. I was afraid folks would get bored and stand around, but it was standing room only in that conference room where the chart was laid out. It’s human nature to try to make connections – even where none exist – and I pulled up a chair and let it go, listening to Aunt X reminding everyone that her great-uncle disappeared to Texas at the turn of the (last) century and how he took the family recipe for sour-mash whiskey with him or that Cousin Y traced her descent back to a Puritan minister’s wife taken captive during Prince Philip’s War. (I had to look that one up, anything before 1776 is pretty sketchy, I had a public school education). We’ve got bankers and bootleggers, schoolteachers and ministers, and a couple of pretty good painters. But it’s the faces in the pictures that haunt you.

Another cousin brought in a garbage bag of old photographs from his mother’s estate, and for the first time I saw the faces of some of these people. In particular, there’s one picture of six sisters – six! – ye Gods, I can barely contain my own two. They are all fully mature women, and you can see the life written on each one of them. I’ve seen pictures of these women as girls, all young and fresh, but this photograph is different. One woman, a widow, lost her young husband at Antietam and you can still see the sorrow in her eyes. She also has the most carefully dressed hair, all severe part and tight curls, and I don’t know what that means or implies. The youngest sister, still in her twenties, is smiling into the camera, but I know her future, too: her husband will turn out to be difficult and her only child will die at a very, very young age. I’ve seen the grave.

So where do the stories come from? I think they come from having a sympathetic character and a disciplined, trained imagination. I can see a photo, or a perfect setting, and turn my focus on it, and something begins to stir. Sometimes it’s a feeling, sometimes an image, and honestly, sometimes it doesn’t work out and the idea flickers and dies. But every once in a magical while, the story gets stronger, and little connections get made, and they link to bigger ones, and then some detail from my memory creeps in and fills a small gap, or I hear a perfect bit of dialogue, and I write it down, and then one bright and marvelous day the story stands up and totters on its own like Frankenstein’s monster, and it’s alive.

18 comments:

Annette said...

Our family reunions are always simple picnics. I want to know more about this spooky old house. Where is it and can I borrow it for our next reunion?

I love listening to old stories of relatives long-gone. Unfortunately, most of those who knew the stories have passed on. But at one family gathering recently, my nephew who had had the family bible restored, brought out an old letter he'd found in its pages. I had the rapt attention of young and old as I tried to read the faded, scribbled words written over a hundre years ago.

Annette said...

Make that HUNDRED years ago. Must. Get. Coffee.

Tory said...

Martha: love the movie clip!

I have several boxes of old photographs in my attic, and the few times I've sat down with them, they really are amazing. I start out not knowing who anyone is, and then I recognize a grandmother, and the other photos show who she's related to, and soon I know the whole family tree.

Wish I had more time for these investigations. But I do know one of my forebears was a pirate!

martha reed said...

Annette, I wanted a picnic but got out voted. Maybe next time, and good thing since it did pour down rain.

The event was at the Howe-Childs Gate House with Chatham University and the Gate House is right on Fifth Avenue in Shadyside. Members of the Childs side of the family lived their and you may remember the house was part of a big lawsuit a few years past - it has a historical marker and the new owners were trying to to tear it down. Luckily, they lost the fight, and the big old spooky house won.

Martha Reed said...

Tory, my cousin with the pictures wants to downsize and he said he's giving me all his mothers 'papers'. I thought he was talking about a couple of boxes, but when I joked: "I'm gonna need a bigger house" he agreed with me. Gulp. I'm thinking a climate controlled storage unit might be the answer.

Pirate, eh? Know who he/she ran with? Anyone famous? It wasn't Jack Sparrow, was it?

Annette said...

That's CAPTAIN Jack Sparrow, Martha.

But I think it would be more fun to be related to Barbossa. Arrr...

Martha Reed said...

Anything by Geoffrey Rush gets my vote although he did look a little crusty in the last Pirates movie...

Joyce said...

Excellent post, Martha!

The Tremel family reunion is held the last Saturday in July in North Park. I think it's just an excuse to get together and drink beer and eat homemade sauerkraut. Yinz all stop by--just look for the German flag.

My side of the family doesn't hold reunions anymore. I think the last one was when I was in high school. Maybe if I suggest a spooky old house, they'll resurrect the reunions.

You can rent the mansion at Hartwood Acres for events, too. Josh played piano for a baby shower there last year.

Young Frankenstein is one of my favorite movies!

Joyce said...

I forgot to mention that some of my relatives on my dad's side of the family were Mormons and one has that side of the family traced way back to Jean Mouginet who came from France and served in the Revolutionary War. He changed his name to John Mozena. Doesn't quite have the same ring to it.

martha reed said...

Joyce, a friend of mine in Canada immigrated from Germany and they registered his family name as Killer (used to be Kehler). They kept it, and later, in a golf tournament he was paired up with another player named Dave Bundy. Imagine that playoff team: Bundy and Killer.

I swear that is not a joke.

Annette said...

Our family names underwent some severe editing, too. My mom's father's family came from Germany as Mueller and became Miller. My dad's family, also German, started out as Reigell and became Riggle. As for Dashofy, which is Hungarian, I understand it was always pronounced the same, but originally had a lot more letters in it.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

I was just at my wife's family reunion. Talk about fodder for interesting characters!

I better not say anymore.

martha reed said...

C'mon, Wilfred, spill. You must have heard something you can share...inquiring minds want to know.

Joyce said...

Um, Wilfred, speaking of interesting names...

AB isn't going to sell out to InBev are they?

JennieB said...

That sounds like quite the time. You should consider working some of those stories up into a book or two. The kind with family papers, family secrets, geneaology, research in the past, maybe a ghost or two... I love those books!

martha reed said...

Jennie, I did use genealogy as a big clue in my novel The Nature of the Grave. Sarah, the protagonist, only finds out about a missing brother by looking in the family Bible. Once she starts asking questions, all h*ll breaks loose. That's the nature of family secrets, I guess. Got any family secrets you'd care to share?

Wilfred Bereswill said...

All I can say (about my job) is that I'll keep coming back to the office until they change the locks.

JennieB said...

No family secrets that I know of, sorry. My dad was a foster child, so I don't know anything about his relatives. There's something there, obviously, but nobody talks about it. Nobody may know exactly what happened. My mother's family is perfectly normal, or was until my grandfather died and left his house to my mom, and her brothers got in a snit and didn't talk to her for 20 years. My husband has some stories, though. His great-grandmother was one of 13 children, and by the time she was in her mid-20s, every single one of the others had died. One drowned, one got sick, one got scratched by a rusty nail and died from lock-jaw...