The Family Memoir

Several years ago, my cousin’s youngest daughter got married in a fabulous setting deep in the heart of PA — it was a living Andrew Wyeth painting:  a sparkling pond, rolling green hills, deep blue sky, old red barn silhouetted against the blaring hot sun, a rustic stable opened to provide a dance floor and seating where you could take the barbeque that was served on the adjacent side porch.  A little stone house where the bride had the privacy to dress.  A hundred friends and family, kids running around, playing ball, playing games.  People rocking out on the lawn.

And there I was, sitting with my husband, thinking:  this perfect day, when, maybe, someone is found dead in the pond;  or maybe that little girl in the yellow dress disappears and someone doesn’t want the mother-in-law to write the family memoir.

Honestly, it was the best wedding ever.

And subsequently, a couple of years later, my cousin asked if I’d like to read those memoirs, with his mother-in-law’s permission.  This was such a privilege.  The author is in her 90‘s;  she wrote about 28 single spaced pages.  Her voice, dry, humorous, pragmatic, came through so clearly. And there was so much more under the surface that I wanted to know. And I wanted so much more of HER — her reactions, her responses, her true feelings.

What a gift to her family, that she’s able to translate her memories into words.  I told her all this when I wrote back, and that I hoped she’d continue to add to the memoir, more of her, more of what she experienced, what she felt. I had particularly strong feelings about it because now that my parents, and aunts and uncles are gone, there’s no one left who knows all my family history.  And no one who had the wont, the patience or the will to write it all down. They were children of immigrants who’d had unspeakable childhoods and just didn’t want to talk about it — ever. So a first wife we were never aware of, a brother whom no one knew was really the child of a first marriage, a runaway child, — all nebulous stories dredged up through cryptic statements over the years which told no more than that.

I was struck forcibly that I knew nothing, really, about our grandparents in either family.  We do have my maternal grandfather’s immigration papers from which we make inferences and piece together some of the story,  but dad’s history remains opaque: I know his mother came from Romania to join her sister in America.  She was the second wife of a man with two children. Her husband died very early in the marriage after she bore him four children.  She never wanted to talk about any of it.

My sons know everything about their dad and me, but I never thought, maybe never maybe could envision a time when my parents wouldn’t be there to answer questions.  And for some reason, one never asked.  Later, when I got curious, my mom didn’t much want to talk about it either.  Or claimed she didn’t remember.

I now have a bound booklet of those memoirs, complete with pictures.  How lucky my cousin is that his mother-in-law decided to talk about her life in a concrete and lasting way.  It inspired him.  He now wants to aggregate as much of our maternal family’s history as possible.  I’m happy he wants to take on that pleasurable task and I‘m hoping he can fill in some of the blanks.

But better than that, it leaves me (selfishly) free to contemplate the fictional problem of who was killed at the wedding and the even greater pleasure of writing it..

As you can see, I’m obsessed by my family’s history now. What about your family?  Is someone writing a history? Researching the family tree?  Have you ever been at an event where you were plotting fictional murders while talking to your husband’s boss or a relative you hadn’t seen in years?

Thea Devine is the author whose books defined erotic historical romance for which she was honored as a Romance Pioneer by Romantic Times.  The Darkest Heart, Pocket/Gallery, June 2011 is her 25th novel. Visit for excerpt and video.


12 thoughts on “The Family Memoir”

  1. This was great, Thea! Thanks for sharing. i would love to do a family tree and figure out our history, but there are so many twisted branches, I’m sure I would get lost in the trying. LOL

  2. You’re right, Thea, when my dad was dying of cancer he wanted to speak of Ireland and his family, my sister listened and got a lot of it–me I couldn’t or wouldn’ acknowledge he wouldn’t be here for my whole life. The same for my mother, I only wanted to talk about how she would heal, selfish, yes–it’s hard to let go when you love them so much! Marian

  3. Great story, Thea! I love genealogy! I’m lucky from a research standpoint in that no one on either my father or mother’s side of the family came to the U.S. or Canada after 1830, so there are many, many family trees out there that connect up with mine and it’s been a “relative” ly simple job to figure out most of the lines of descent — not that I’ve gone about verifying anything. I was able recently to solve a family mystery to my own satisfaction, though some of my distant cousins don’t accept my theory! For the curious, my paternal great grandfather was illegitimate. The story that was always told in my branch of the family was that his mother was young and had run off with the child’s father, a Native American from a nearby reservation, leaving Great Gramps with her parents. (Other cousins have a slightly different story, saying that it was the child’s mother who was the Native American). He died before I was born, but Great Gramps seems to have been quite a story-teller. Now that so many old newspapers have been digitized, I was able to piece together a tale that makes a heck of a lot more sense. It seems that in 1874 or so my GGGGrandmother, Laura, filed a lawsuit against a prominent local shopkeeper for “loss of services” of her daughter. The daughter had been working as a servant in this shopkeeper’s home, and had become pregnant. The jury found the shopkeeper responsible and awarded damages. The child’s mother seems to have disappeared, and census records clearly show that my GGrandfather was being raised by his grandmother, Laura. I believe I’ve found his mother (my GGGrandmother) living out in the west, where I posit she followed her brothers who left to become gold miners. I may write this story, someday!

    1. Oh, you must write the story someday or it will be lost and some great great grandchild will be piecing it together sixty or seventy years from now. Fascinating!


  4. Hi Thea, I’ve been interested in family genealogy for years. Happily, my father’s brothers have done much of the work on their own side. As you say, though, it is better to hear the story first-hand. On my mother’s side, it’s a mystery. Try as I might, I can’t get anywhere with it. And the South, especially the Deep South, holds its secrets tight.

  5. Hi Thea,
    When I was younger, I never gave it a thought. Now that I’m getting older, I am more interested in knowing about my family and its history. In fact, I visited the Ellis Island website and found my great grandfather and my grandmother and her sister. That is a very interesting site to visit because it will even tell you who sponsored them (back in the day they had to have a relative here to insure they had a place to live) and even how much money they had in their pocket. Over the summer I plan to travel to Massachusetts to research more on my father’s side. Unfortunately for me, everyone I could ask has passed on. I want to secure the information for my son and his family. Thanks for sharing.

    1. I haven’t been to Ellis Island (can you imagine??) to research my maternal parents’ immigration information. My grandfather came over from Russia first in 1932, then my grandmother and four of their six children. The two left behind were of army age and weren’t allowed out. Forty years later, my surviving uncle traced the surviving brother and brought him to the States to be reunited with my grandmother. She knew him instantly, my mom told me, the family resemblence was so strong. Amazing moments.


  6. Funny your post is about family history today, for I just returned from a trip upstate to visit my dad. While sipping Crown Royal, he shared a number of family stories. He even talked about his little sister who had died young. I’m determined to write these stories before I forget them. (Maybe he told me for a reason?)

    I thought I was the only one who sees a story in every situation…imagining all sorts of what ifs and whys. LOL

    1. Jolyse, you are not the only one with that “curse.” Just write everything down, no matter how inconsequential, because you never know.


  7. Thea, loved your tale. I have one too, but no time to write it, but my husband’s family “the Harrisons” have an amazing history. It has been throughly written about. You will find the Harrison house in Branford, CT, settled by the Harrisons in 1644, then Newark, NJ. They came here in 1638. It is an incredible history. Founded churches, towns, cities. And my husband’s father discovered “Cheerios.” There is more…

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