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Family Stories: How to Tell Them

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 10, 2013

Tom Kimball – Signature Books’ marketing man, so you can meet him at virtually every Mormon-themed conference with a dealers’ room; also, as evidenced by his Facebook pictures, an avid hiker and proud father – posted this wonderful picture on Mother’s Day, with this caption:

My mom, 1943. Located on the Hill Cumorah farm my grandfather ran for the LDS church from the late 30s through the 40s. My parents had been pen-pals though the war. After my father was discharged from the Air Force, he took a military flight to Buffalo, hitch-hiked to Palmyra, and met my mom for the first time. She was a senior in high school and had been the Rose Queen (Miss Palmyra) that year. Before my father left, he proposed to her at this spot. Happy Mother’s Day mom.

(Mom is Esther Louise Anderson Kimball, and she’s standing by the Hill Cumorah Monument. Dad is Elden Clifford Kimball. Owen Benjamin Anderson and his family served their mission at Palmyra 1939-1947.)

Then on Father’s Day, Tom posted this:

My Dad was born in Salt Lake City in 1925. From what I can gather from his oral narratives, during the great depression my grandfather was often looking for work and my grandmother likely suffered from clinical depression. My father and his brothers would often run the streets of Salt Lake together. Their daily goal was to earn enough money to get a meal and catch a movie.

Dad said he shined shoes, shagged golf balls, sold newspapers and panhandled at the trolley stops. Sometimes, instead of just giving him money, a kind lady would simply pay Dad’s fare and he would have to ride the trolley up a few blocks and then walk back to his brothers.

At some point my grandfather joined the Western Pacific as a railroad-bull and the family moved to Sacramento. At church, Dad drew my mother’s name out of a hat to become pen-pals.

Dad joined the Army Air Corps in high school to avoid being drafted into the regular army. While training to become a flight engineer on the bombers, he would often sketch portraits of the other soldiers for a dollar so they could send it to their girl back home. My father told me that he got caught doing this by an officer and worried that they were going to make him do KP duty for a month for making money off other soldiers. Instead, they pulled him off the training line and he became an illustrator for flight training manuals.

As the war was coming to an end and Dad was in the process of being discharged, he was able to catch a MAC flight to Buffalo, NY and hitch hike over to Palmyra where my mother was still attending high school. Here they met for the first time after corresponding for several years. My father proposed to her a few days later and then returned to Sacramento where he prepared to enter BYU on the GI bill. My mom finished her high school course work and followed him to Utah. In time, Dad earned a degree in Ancient History. Poppa loved the Greeks.

“Rage! Rage! Sing o muse the rage of Achilles!”

Dad even did some course work toward a Masters degree.

These were still hard times. Dad taught seminary for a few years and then went to work at the smelters over at the local copper mine.

Dad once told me that his dream had been to have a studio someplace and sell his art. Instead, my father settled for sketching portraits of our neighbors on butcher paper which covered the banquet tables at ward events. These would be admired by those at the table, but usually rolled up and discarded after the event.

Dad liked books. I’m sorry that he passed just when he was becoming interesting to me.

Here are a few self portraits he drew when he was 17 and preparing to enter the service.

I miss you Dad. I love the Greeks too.

I asked Tom to let me post both stories here as wonderful models of family history writing. I think they’re charming enough to survive our deconstructing what makes them so good, in hopes of encouraging you to record some of your own stories:

Both bits actually do tell stories rather than merely recording names and dates, or even just character traits. In a story, something happens, something changes, something is different at the end than it was at the beginning.

There is action and movement; the characters aren’t just standing still while Tom describes their personalities. Dad goes places and does things, and his personality is on display through the things he does. There is movement in the first bit, too, brief as it is: being Rose Queen suggests something in your mind (dancing, being crowned), and even the picture, taken at a place that is not her home, implies walking (and, under the circumstances, an animated walk, with handholding, flirting, and laughter – although this picture was not necessarily taken that day). Dad comes and goes.

There is visual detail. As you read, I’ll bet you spontaneously created a little movie in your mind: Did you see either one sitting and writing a letter with pen and paper? Perhaps opening a letter, with an eager and happy smile? Did you see a boy chasing golf balls? a teenager drawing a name out of a hat? a young soldier hitchhiking? a man sketching? paper being torn off one of those cheap folding tables in a church gymnasium, with a penciled portrait disappearing in the crumples? Did you feel regret when you saw that, even though you didn’t know Tom’s dad and it wasn’t the portrait of anyone you knew being wadded up?

It is told naturally. There’s no straining to find “literary” language – there’s shagging and panhandling and hitchhiking (not “retrieving” or “soliciting” or “making his way across this great nation of ours”). There is also no concern for filling up the narrative with “important” facts – full names, precise dates, Dad’s exact unit in the service, pedantic descriptions of trolley systems, flight engineer duties, or the GI bill. The story is what matters.

The details aren’t all neatly tied up: Tom leaves you wanting more. What did Mom’s parents think about their very young daughter becoming engaged to a stranger? Why the ancient Greeks, and how did Dad share his love for their stories?

So much is implied, without being overtly stated: Dad was a hard worker, but Tom never actually says that in so many words. Instead, he shows us a boy scrambling for nickels, a man unafraid to take the hard way of traveling across the country, a man seizing the chance for a classical education rather than mere job training, a man working a hard job to provide for his family.

Possibly because they were written on nostalgic days when hearts  and memories naturally turn to parents, these bits are chock-full of nostalgia and an adult son’s appreciation for his parents. There is sympathy and understanding — and it’s all between the lines. There isn’t any analysis or lecturing; the emotion just is.

-ooOoo-

What if you were to take Tom’s approach to writing family history? When a photograph or other object prompts the memory of a story, what if you were to write a caption-length version of that story (right then, while you were feeling the emotions recalled by the story, not put off until later)? What if you made it a habit to remind your siblings once in a while of one of these stories in email, and then saved the email? What if you told all of your family’s stories this way, one at a time, now and then? Maybe you’d eventually want to pull them together in a single narrative, this time paying attention to the names ’n’ dates ’n’ other facts – but you’d have done the hardest, most interesting, most valuable work already. And even if you didn’t ever string all the pieces together, any piece you did write, every story you rescued for the next generation, would be one more treasure than you’d have otherwise.

Thanks, Tom.



17 Comments »

  1. Ardis, this is absolutely brilliant! And a big thanks to Tom K. (I know Tom but hadn’t seen his postings before.) This isn’t just family history. It’s biography. It’s reviving old bones with blood, muscle, sweat, etc. It’s more than chronology. It’s emotion, it’s capturing lightning in a bottle. It’s incredibly difficult. But when it succeeds, it’s truly amazing. Thank you both.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — July 10, 2013 @ 9:16 am

  2. Fun read about Tom’s parents, and good suggestions afterward, Ardis.

    Comment by David Y. — July 10, 2013 @ 9:58 am

  3. This is a brilliant follow-up to Tom’s recent SUNSTONE article which touched on his family history. Tom is an institution of Utah.

    Comment by Brian Whtiney — July 10, 2013 @ 10:15 am

  4. Thank you for the explanation, and what an enjoyable pair of stories.

    Comment by Amy T — July 10, 2013 @ 10:42 am

  5. Facebook as family history. Nice thought. Beats the usual political tripe of all sorts often shared there. The sad truth is that family stories that really help us to know our ancestors are often lost in as little as two generations, and then these folks just become names and dates on a pedigree chart. I’ve been fortunate to find and pass on to my family some great stories about grandparents and greatgrandparents that I never know. Thanks to Tom for such great examples to follow.

    Comment by kevinf — July 10, 2013 @ 11:02 am

  6. I wish I had his skill in writing. I suppose it would come with more practice, but it seems to come naturally for him. That may be the best indication of how good it is. I read it and I have no idea why I like it, but I know I do.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — July 10, 2013 @ 11:35 am

  7. Tom was, I think, only half-joking when he gave me his own explanation for his skill in writing these: “As a publicist, I write short catalog text for a living. I just wrote a catalog text for my parents.”

    :)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 10, 2013 @ 11:38 am

  8. Thanks to both Tom and Ardis for all this. Wonderful stuff…more, more!

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — July 10, 2013 @ 11:44 am

  9. Thanks. I’m going to share this and print this.

    Comment by Carol — July 10, 2013 @ 11:53 am

  10. Oh I love this! People always seem to put off family history because they see it as a monumental task. But if you just take 5 minutes to write down the story your grandfather just told you at the dinner table, or write a memory down the moment you think of it, it’s not so big a task. And like you said, each story would be “one more treasure than you’d have otherwise.” Thanks!

    Comment by Meghan — July 10, 2013 @ 12:18 pm

  11. Excellent ideas and a great read: probably most useful for those whose families are on facebook (my peers aren’t, and I’m not fbk friends with my kids)- what a great use of the software, confound those advertisers too!

    Comment by Anne (UK) — July 10, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

  12. Thanks for this. I love this idea. My brothers both died when we were all in our early 20s. I’ve wanted to write down stories about them so my kids will know them as they grow up. But it’s always seemed like a Herculean task. Maybe I should just start anyway and not worry about whether I ever finish.

    Comment by Cowgirl — July 10, 2013 @ 12:37 pm

  13. This is great stuff, Ardis (and Tom). Thanks.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 10, 2013 @ 1:17 pm

  14. My thanks to Tom and Ardis, both great people in my book–talented as well as nice. Tom’s stories are priceless. My brother did a similar thing several years ago when he decided to write his personal history up to that point. He wrote chapters as complete stories on various subjects, touching only lightly, or not at all, on the dates and places that usually start a history. One chapter I remember was called “The Kitchen Table” where he told stories of the family sitting around the table eating, talking, even interesting foods. Then he lamented that now the table has been moved from the center of the kitchen to a place against one wall and his mom and dad sit on tall stools and eat at the bar.

    RootsTech conference talked a lot about telling Stories. One keynote speaker showed a video she and her sisters put together in her mother’s kitchen as they made her mother’s famous banana nut cookies.

    This post has inspired me. I’m going to take Tom’s approach and start telling my own family stories.

    Comment by Maurine — July 10, 2013 @ 1:56 pm

  15. You should teach this as a class at BYU Education Week. It would be a huge hit!

    Comment by Chad Too — July 10, 2013 @ 3:48 pm

  16. I really loved these stories when I first read them on Facebook; I like them even more presented as models for personal history writing!

    Comment by Mina — July 10, 2013 @ 5:12 pm

  17. Every story you rescued for the next generation would be one more treasure than you’d have otherwise

    This sentiment motivated me a few years ago to type up a number of funny stories from my parents and grandparents. The sort of thing that would never make it into official histories, but always come up at family get-togethers. I ended up with 50 of them, so I matched each story to a week, and printed them up in a book titled “Almanac of Humorous Moments.” I gave it to the family as a Christmas present.

    Stories like these are nothing essential–like temple ordinances for the dead–but they do much to turn an old black-and-white photograph into an actual person.

    Comment by The Other Clark — July 10, 2013 @ 5:47 pm

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