Writing a Memoir – Research Part 1

In my last post I touched on researching for a memoir when I mentioned the problem of family flak. But family can provide a wonderful resource. True, not all family members will see situations the same way, but it is also true that other family members may remember an occurrence that has escaped your not-so-perfect memory. And talking to family members also gives you the opportunity to let them know what you are up to and (hopefully) find out if they have any objections or boundaries. Again, true, it is your story which you are writing, but unless you are planning a revengeful digging-up-the-dirt memoir (and a possible lawsuit), it might be best to try to keep it as non-threatening  as possible – without writing bland.

Make sure you carry something with you to take notes – whether it be a notebook (electronic or the paper kind), laptop, digital recorder, camcorder – whatever you prefer to work with – even a digital camera for “now” family photos.

For my memoir – and this was in the days of writing the original version – I first went through my cousin who is the family genealogist on my mother’s side. That opened information doors on family trees and kick-started some interesting on-site cemetery investigations. For example, we found two spellings on the same headstone for a Strauss ancestor – Straus and Strauss. But it was further digging (pun not intended) on my part which clarified this discrepancy. I talked to another writer named Strauss (and we discovered we are not related, to our knowledge) who explained the mystery of the two spellings.

From the family genealogist I talked to my godfather (her father) who was still living then. When we visited him in the nursing home, my cousin put photographs under his nose and asked him who the people were and the circumstances of the photographs. That elicited a few stories.

Family may also have photographs that you don’t and they may know or have kept track of who, when and where the photos were taken. That opens more ideas and more questions. Ask these family members. They may also send you to other, more distant relatives who knew your parents, your grandparents, etc. and that can mean more fodder for your memoir.

I found it also helped to revisit the house I lived in and my grandparents’ farm where I spent some of  my holidays with my parents. However, finding out who currently owned this farm to get their permission to visit turned into a version of the long and winding road.  You needed the precise lot and concession number to check it out at the Ontario Land Registry Office in Walkerton. The family genealogist remembered only part of the legal location and when I contacted the area property tax assessment office and the church my grandparents attended, neither place had a clue.

But the local library in Walkerton, Ontario did. At least they had information on microfilm. I had to book the day and time on the reader (by Internet e-mail) and take a bus to Walkerton. And a couple of my cousins who live nearby, said they would take me to Grandpa’s farm if I could find out who owned it and set it all up. So I took the slow bus to Walkerton and arranged to meet these cousins at my motel there. The plan was they would drive me to Grandpa’s former farm. I gave myself one day to get the necessary information.

Didn’t work that smoothly. As I write in my memoir:

At 10.25 a.m. I finally enter the library and introduce myself at Information. The librarian has my reader booked, but she’s a fill-in and has no idea how to search land registrations on microfilm, or how to use the reader. Neither do I. She gives me the catalogue and six land registry tapes. We get the film rolling on the reader, but our mutual ignorance doesn’t matter. It’s hunt and hope to find the property. Boxes are labelled “Mildmay,” “Township of Carrick” and “Township of Carrick/Township of Kinross” without any index of concession numbers. The Town of Mildmay proper spreads throughout two microfilms. All six rolls contain random property selections, the owners’ partial history, followed by a few pages listing the upcoming properties. The quality of these original handwritten entries varies from scrawls to creative squiggles that could be Concession 6 or 8, B or D. I hunt through this mish-mash, trying to find an entry, any entry containing my Grandfather’s last name. I find information on the property Grandpa and some of his siblings inherited when their father died. But where is “Grandfather’s farm” that I knew or the other farm with the yellow brick house where my mother grew up?

I skip lunch. At 4.10 p.m., on the sixth microfilm, I see it and my Grandfather’s name with “the estate of” in front. I zoom in and there it is.

(Excerpted  from You Can Go Home, copyright 2010 Sharon Crawford)

However, the microfilm records went only to 1981, so I had to race up the street to the Land Registry Office and get the rest of the information. That went quickly and then I had to call the current owner. In my mind I rehearsed what I wanted to briefly say because I expected to get voice mail. Surprise! I got a live person and she was delighted to be able to meet us. The upshot is my cousins and I had quite the adventure re-visiting both of my grandpa’s farms…and of course, traipsing through another cemetery.

Next post… and I’m trying to write one every seven or eight days… I’ll talk about some other areas of research I used and tell the serendipitous tale of re-visiting the house where I grew up.





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