I’ll confess that I usually switch on the television while I eat my morning cereal. Yesterday, HBO was showing the movie “Titanic” in my breakfast time slot. I’ve seen the movie a dozen times, but somehow it never gets old. There are so many aspects of the tragedy to contemplate, but the movie seems to touch on most of them. The movie viewer understands the maritime mistakes (ignoring the iceberg warnings), the construction mistakes (not enough lifeboats), social inequality (1st class passengers loaded in lifeboats first), and the ship’s physical demise when it finally sinks (splits in half).
When Walter Lord wrote the non-fiction book “The Night to Remember,” about the Titanic in 1953, he interviewed nearly 60 survivors. Each person’s story was different, and the facts didn’t always agree. Lord preserved the contrasting views with overlapping chronologies, and by doing so, provided a more complete narrative of the tragedy. Lord’s unique style was a literary first, and the book went on to become a bestseller.
As I write my childhood stories, I’ve taken the time to research my mother and father’s past. In doing so, it became apparent just how much their “before I was born” years impacted mine. Our family friends were people Mom and Dad worked with. My father’s family raised their own vegetables, and so did we. My mother loved horses, and I was provided with horseback riding lessons. It’s funny that I wouldn’t realize the patterns until now, but I suppose that’s what writing a memoir is all about.
The research method for my mother’s and father’s story, however, has been completely different. My father is still alive, and I’ve been able to spend hours with him as he walked me through the “before I was born” years. There’s no better resource than Dad, when telling Dad’s story.
Mom’s story has been harder, as she passed away in February 2012. I’ve had to piece together her lifetime by memory, but also relied on family friends and various old papers to guide me. Just like Walter Lord interviewed the survivors of Titanic and read related documents, I’m pursuing living witnesses to my mother’s life and reading old documents. It’s been fascinating to hear what people have to say about my mother, but it’s been equally fun to collect old papers and piece together her experiences. I recently found a complete collection of her school report cards from elementary through high school, and some from college. The themes of her interests, science, history, language, and government, were already present. The Mom I knew had a Ph.D. in linguistics, served as an elected official, subscribed to science magazines, and quoted history regularly. Yet, somehow, I know much more about her by reading those report cards.
I plan to use the description of my mother and father’s life as background for my own childhood stories. It’s hard to compare the different narratives though. The details of my father’s life are clearly more accurate, but the details of my mother’s life will somehow be more complete.