Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, December 05, 2012 9 comments
My great-grandpa trained horses for Ringling Bros.
Yesterday, my nephew asked for help gathering enough family history to write a ten-page college paper. I quickly piped up with the most zany pieces of family lore I could remember. How a great grandfather ran off and joined the circus. How a great aunt had been in the Ziegfield follies. How my dad worked as a sideshow freak as a kid. (They called him Lizard Boy--he had ichthyosis, a genetic skin condition.)

One of the coolest things about being last born, and a late-in-life child, was having my parents to myself as they entered late middle age and became obsessed with legacy. I loved hearing the colorful stories of my grandmother meeting Boris Karloff when he did the Vaudeville circuit because the family boarding house was a usual stop for Vaudeville troupes. How my grandfather lost so much weight in dental school because he had to eat lunch in the anatomy lab, where formaldehyde-soaked cadavers lay partly dissected.

But I equally cherished hearing how harsh my paternal grandfather was and why my maternal grandparents divorced when my mom was seven. These stories are far more deeply important because they explained so much about who my parents had become, why my dad was such a softie, why my mom was terrified of drunk people.

That I was so steeped in family lore in my teens and early twenties surely shaped my sensibilities as a writer. Because it made clear to me that the past doesn't stay in the past. It always has implications for the present and future.

I'm guest posting at Tessa's blog, and when she asked what I hope readers will take away from my novel Never Gone, this is one the points I emphasized:

"Getting to know your parents’ stories is an essential part of growing up the relationship. It’s easy to misjudge them when you don’t know what struggles, hardships and heartbreaks they’ve endured, and how those things have shaped them."

You can read more of my interview with Tessa Emily Hall HERE.

Do you know your parents' stories? How might learning family history help you better understand family members and their interpersonal dynamics? 


photo credit: keyseeker at morguefile.com

9 comments:

  1. Love this post! I think that's really interesting that your parents weren't ashamed to talk about the past and how the past truly was.

    Delving into my own family history, it seems like one of the most common threads is that people are often so ashamed to talk about real problems and issues that it's hard to determine what their lives were really like.

    I'm glad you come from an open family.

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    1. I think it often takes a major tragedy to get people to open up. That's been my experience at least. In my family we have major mental illness cropping up, and all the family therapy afterwards, to thank for creating more openness.

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  2. Thank you for this post. As I get older and watch my family I can see where alot of my quirkey traits come from, and why. Knowing people's past helps understand them alot better.

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    1. I've found that when I know the past, I can be a lot more understanding about some traits that are frankly annoying, too. Like the clingy relative who suffered a lot of abandonment as a child. Once you know where the fear comes from, you can be supportive rather than run away (which triggers more fear and more clinginess).

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  3. That is so cool! My family has a lot of tragic stories in its past...hard to hear, but beautiful to see the strong and holy people my ancestors became because of terrible things that happened to them.
    And my WIP is about a girl who ran away to train horses in the circus! I only wish I had a family history of something like that to talk about at school visits someday. :)

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    1. There are plenty of tragic stories in my family too. I went with the colorful, interesting ones here, because...well, they're kind of fun. I'm glad to hear you've found an encouraging redemptive thread in your family history.

      My family connection to "show biz" during the era of traveling troupes of Wild West shows, Vaudeville acts, circuses is both cool and in a way tragic. My great-grandfather literally ran away--from his wife and two kids--to pursue his horse training career. So yes, there's a dark side to some of the stories too.

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  4. Gosh I love that, Laurel. The older I get the more fascinated I am with who my parents were. I wish I could go back and spy on them in their younger just married years.
    But as being a first child, I had to endure all the mayhem of brand new parents getting their feet wet. Happy to report, I made it out alive. lol

    Thanks for your warm wishes on my blog. Hope Never Gone is doing well!

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    1. I'd encourage you to ask them to tell their stories while you still can. Life is short, and the next generations need to know where we and they come from.

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  5. Your family stories are fascinating, Laurel! Your father was honestly in a sideshow? Have you thought about writing historical fiction? It's so neat that you're passing on these stories to your kids, too. Great job!

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