Put Life Into Your Life Stories!
by James W. Petty, A.G., C.G.R.S., BS (Genealogy)
Paris Wimmer opened his photograph file to add a new image and negative of his great grandmother Elizabeth Wimmer’s headstone, taken at the cemetery at Fairview, Utah. Paris loved photography, but more than being an artist with a camera, he was a historian, and a homespun genealogist at that. Since his retirement from the cabinet making business, he and Violet had filled their lives with every activity imaginable, but genealogy was of particular interest, and at any given time the dining room table in the Wimmer household was covered with a dozen small piles representing projects they were working on. Two or three of the piles always pertained to an aspect of his photograph collection.
A down-to-earth Renaissance man, Paris had loved playing the violin in his youth, but close encounters with a band saw in his cabinet shop left him a couple of digits short of hitting the high notes. For relaxation he and Violet would sit together in the evening and write poetry. He loved reading his verses to anyone who would listen. He had lots of curly white hair, and when he smiled, all the wrinkles in the room would jump onto his face to join in the applause.
Paris was on constant watch for new pictures of old people on the family tree. He wrote letters to relatives and people all over the country looking for portraits of their families, and especially grandparents and great grand parents. When copies of these family photos arrived, they would be re-photographed, and a negative made in the darkroom he maintained in the basement of his home. Then it would be catalogued, with citations about where the picture came from, and when the negative was made. Then it was filed in the special file cabinet he had made just for that purpose.
Many of the activities of the Wimmer home revolved around that file cabinet. A family newsletter required a picture of Uncle Robert Wimmer; the Christmas tree was often decorated with favorite family portraits. Family vacations were generally dedicated to visiting cemeteries, or old family homes, where pictures of graves and hearthstones could be taken to be added to the collection in the cabinet. And because some relatives were cautious about parting with long protected family portraits, Paris and Violet were often on the road visiting their long lost kin, and photographing the images in those treasured family albums.
Their enthusiasm regarding their genealogy adventures were shared freely with numerous family members. Both kith and kin alike, received copies of newly found faces, and family headstones. Often the pictures were attached to a request for stories, or updates about each family, that might be added to a larger family history that Paris hoped to complete and publish. But so many of the well-intentioned responses were so general and uninformative in nature that Paris sat down one year and prepared a special (tongue in cheek) personal history which was sent out to all of his family and friends. Sit back and enjoy it with us.
A HISTORY OF PARIS L. WIMMER
I, Paris L. Wimmer was born in a little town. I was named for one of my relatives and lived in this little town for a few years, did the usual things boys do, school, rooster fights, swimming, etc. Then our crops froze late and we decided to move to a warmer climate. We lived there quite a while, my father had a shop of some kind and I helped around a little and herded cows. I had a mother too, and some brothers and sisters. We did the usual things here too, plugging watermelons, playing hookey, etc. Then hard times forced us to move somewhere else. We stayed there quite a while where I went through teen-age dating, riding a motorcycle and the usual things. My family decided to move again, this time a little north where I met my wife who used to live in my home town (she had moved north too).
We moved back south and were married. The early years of our marriage were spent trying to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table, for we were married just a short time before the beginning of the Depression. We did the usual things and had some children and they grew up to be pretty good kids. They are married now and have kids of their own and we enjoy them very much. We built a nice home and worked very hard but times were bad and work was not to be had so we went north again and lived with my family. We raised turkeys but that didn’t turn out well either. When expenses were paid we didn’t even have enough to pay our way back to where we had moved from, so I finally hitch-hiked my way back to where we had moved from and got a job where I worked until I had enough money for my wife and baby. I had several jobs, none of them turning out well and we decided to go out on the desert where I worked for $2.49 a day.
Our main source of entertainment was counting the Abums’ riding the railroad cars and they must have had our place marked for we fed many of them on our winter’s supply of fried potatoes and macaroni. We managed to save enough to go to school and then we moved to a little mining town where I worked for my wife’s father in his shop. Sometimes I made $6.00 a week but usually $1.50. After a year or so of this we went back south again. I worked 7 days a week, 12 hours a day for $15.00 per week. We built a house and stayed there for some time. We then moved to another state where I went into the business for myself and the Depression was over. I was fairly successful. We moved from where we were living, built our present home, and have been very happy. We were very active in church and held several positions. We served two years as missionaries in a far away land we liked very much.
I am retired now and find a lot of time on my hands and decided to look up my genealogy, but my ancestors didn’t leave very complete histories and this made it hard for me and I decided to write an accurate history of my life to make it a little easier on my children when they start looking up my history. We are enjoying our work in research very much.
There may be some inconsequential things such as names and dates that I have left out. But the important things, I have tried to record accurately.
The accompanying family photo was taken a few years ago.
Paris made certain that his family received a corrected copy of his history, complete with names, dates, and places.
This example of Paris Wimmer came to mind while I prepared the lesson material for the LDS Genealogy Research course at Heritage Gene@logy College. Paris’s story illustrates some of the principles of writing a life story. Every life is a fascinating account of personal growth and experience, and it is made valuable and meaningful by the way we relate it. Paris Wimmer’s own history, even without names, or places, or dates, still describes a life full of struggle, toil, heartbreak, and success. But without those few items, much of the story that is meaningful to us is lost.
When we write life stories we must remember that it is the detail that makes an account live. When we record stories about people we have known, or about ourselves that we want to share with our family, remember to use some of these ideas:
1. Describe the person you are writing about. You don’t have to describe everyone in the story, just the main character or two. By doing this it focuses the mind’s eye upon the central figure that you are talking about. Describe features, such as their hair, and the way they combed it; their eyes, or mouth, or which ever feature stands out in your memory. Or mention other physical attributes such as a slight limp, or the way they cocked their head when they were listening. These little things may not have any eternal meaning, but they brighten the picture in the mind like a brilliant flare.
2. Point out that your description is just that, your description. It should be an account of your memory and your feelings. Don’t worry if it isn’t how someone else saw that person. They can write their own story. It is fascinating to see how differently people see and describe the same things and people.
3. Relate events that happened in your subject’s life, particularly events you were associated with. This gives a sense of reality, and truth to your story. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t tell stories that you weren’t involved with. If you have information about an event you weren’t involved in, relate it as something you were told, so that the reader knows it was your interpretation.
4. Don’t worry about writing a whole history. In fact it is best to write a variety of stories. This way the life story doesn’t become difficult to write, and therefore difficult to read.
5. Share the memory with everyone that you can. Send copies to your children, siblings, parents, or other people in your family. Your memory may stimulate a memory in them and you may receive a return story from them about their memory of the same person or event.
When will you get around to it? This is the biggest stumbling block for every family history. How about right now? Before you go to work. Or perhaps after returning home from Church. Or before planning your day’s shopping and other activities. Take ten minutes and start. For example, pick out an experience from your childhood, about a specific person or place or event. Let your mind wander back to that day C as you think about it forgotten memories will creep into your mental image, memories you can add to your written account. Think about the surroundings, the odors and smells, the feel, and the sounds of that experience. Try to describe those feelings in words and write it down. Then tell about your subject. Use as much detail as you can draw from your memory, and just let it out. And do this all in ten minutes; that way it stays fresh. You can always come back later and expand on it… because you will remember more. Don’t worry about wording or structure; that can be edited later.
For instance, while I was writing this article, the memory I thought about was Amy’s secret place when I was a little boy.
We lived in a red brick home with white trim in Provo, Utah. It was a modest house in neighborhood near the local hospital where my father practiced as an ophthalmologist (eye surgeon). This was way back in the days when doctors worked from 8 A.M. to 10 P.M. and made house calls to meet with their invalid or elderly patients.
We had a large yard, with far too much grass for a boy of ten to mow with a wooden handled push mower. The yard was surrounded with a wire fence and bordered with a garden. The fronts of the garden was reserved primarily for flowers, but the back of the garden, up next to the fence were trees spaced with a variety of bushes.
In the northeast corner of the garden the bushes had grown tall, perhaps eight or ten feet high, and the branches curved up and out over the flowers, drooping down to where they hid the unsightly fence behind. But they also spread up and over the fence, and since they were set out from the fence about one and a half or two feet, the branches created a little tunnel into the secret world behind the greenery. The bushes also were planted in a circular pattern in that corner, so that the space between the bush and the corner of the fences opened up into a larger area.
The property west of our yard was bordered with a row of short bushes and weeds. It was a rental home, and the owners didn’t make a great effort to develop the garden area. The neighboring yard to the north was similar to ours, and their corner was also overgrown and dark, making our corner seem very secluded. We moved into our home during the summer when I was five. I soon found that corner in my exploration of our vast plantation. I could crawl in behind the bushes and no one could see me, but I could watch all that happened around me.
When it rained the leaves over the corner protected my hideout from most of the wet. And on hot, sunny days, my surroundings were shaded and cool. The premises were closed for remodeling during the winter, while the leaves were gone, and we watched anxiously for the spring when our hiding spot opened up again.
This was my robber’s roost and pirate cave. Small boxes of treasure were buried in a dozen different places (and may still be there). My friends and I could have secret meetings and plan our adventures there, and when games began we could play hide and seek following the little trail that took us behind the bushes and trees around the whole yard. This was “MY” secret place for a long time, and then one day I realized I hadn’t visited there in a long while. The entrance was somehow too small to easily crawl into, and when I finally managed to get in, I was surprised to find a pretty little table, covered with a tea set, and small chairs occupied by visiting dolls and stuffed animals. The “roost” had become a garden home for my little sisters. It was now their “secret” place.
When you are done, put your story in a place where you will be sure to see it later on, and perhaps where other people will see it in between. It will lift your heart, and give enjoyment to them. That is all that it takes. If you enjoyed writing a memory today, do it again tomorrow. In a week you will have more of a family history than you ever thought you could come up with, and who knows what you can have after that. If I share it with my sisters I may get a little story about their “secret place.”
For information about Heritage Genealogy College, including names of classes and activities offered on-line, please visit their web site at: www.genealogy.edu.
2002 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.