Categories
Kitchen Garden

Editor’s Desk #8

First kale harvest, April 11, 2021.

Red Russian kale over-wintered so we had fresh kale for our stir fry dinner Sunday night. I mixed it with some Winterbor and Redbor leaves collected while re-potting plants for final growth in the greenhouse.

This year’s garden work is just beginning.

I’ve been on spring break from writing my autobiography. If asked, I am working on the book. It’s been a long spring break. More accurate is the project is stalled and in need of a completed manuscript. It’s time to set aside new writing, crank up the engine, and edit what I have: some 170,000 unedited words.

Writing the book has been like mining a vein of coal to see where it goes. I often got caught up in its adventure and that part of the process is not finished. Why write an autobiography except to experience and find meaning in memories?

I spent Sunday afternoon considering two photo albums I made years ago. One of photos taken beginning in 1962, and another of images of Father taken over the years he and Mother were married from 1951 to 1969. I didn’t write anything. I simply looked at the images and tried to remember some of the moments. This is part of the autobiographical process, but doesn’t work toward a finished manuscript. More material from the vein to be sent above ground toward the tipple.

To get things on track, I will review the outline, then go through the words written. Last winter I spent time on the first five points of the outline. I previously wrote at length about the 1980s and 1990s. I know the story ends either at the beginning or end of the coronavirus pandemic, yet how it ends is unclear. That meaning must be extracted from the tumult and tension of daily living.

I don’t argue with other writers who say a daily goal with follow-through is needed. As today’s shift begins, gardening and writing are both on the schedule. I’ll add an hour to work on a plan beyond today.

Categories
Writing

Easter Sunday 2021

Lilac buds on Holy Saturday.

Easter was a time for us grade schoolers to don special clothing and attend Mass with Grandmother and our parents. There was a special Easter dinner, an egg hunt, a basket of treats, and Grandmother’s insistence on photographs of us dressed in our special outfits. We anticipated Easter throughout the year, which for me modeled the liturgical year.

Easter celebrated the Paschal mystery and was a special time, equal in its celebration to Christmas. Its main subject is the passion, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ – the work that God the Father sent His Son to accomplish on earth. Easter is central to being Roman Catholic.

What I didn’t realize then, but do now, is celebration of Easter with Grandmother was a cultural heritage derived from peasant life in Poland and carried to the United States by her grandparents. I wrote about the settlement of the Wilno, Minnesota Polish community and the bargain of establishing Saint John Cantius Catholic Church there. In a rich cultural life, Easter played an important role on the Minnesota prairie. Church life was also central to my growing up. It was a cultural impetus that eclipsed everything else in my life for a long time. In college, I even considered studying to be a Catholic priest.

Father attended Easter Mass with us but was not baptized Catholic. His interest, he told me, was in associating with the church community to locate patients for his nascent chiropractic practice. He was in process of conversion at the time of his death and neither made it to a chiropractic practice nor Catholicism before he died in the meat packing plant accident. Even so, the church was packed to the rafters at his funeral Mass celebrated by the Right Reverend Monsignor B. L. Barnes.

It is hard to shed the culture in which I came up, nor would I want to. Although Easter doesn’t mean as much these days, and I may go to hell because of it, I continue to note the occasion if only by celebrating the spring renewal of life all around us. Our grasp on today is tenuous and the well of our experience is both thirst-quenching and a potential drowning site. On Easter Sunday we must find renewal where it lies and work toward the potential for good rather than doom. The Pascal mystery teaches us there is hope and that’s a fit lesson for this time of contagion.

Categories
Writing

Concertina of Spring

Spring Flowers

A lone concertina-player walked on a darkened stage playing single notes of Love Makes the World Go ‘Round to begin the overture to the Michael Stewart and Bob Merrill musical Carnival. Because of the close relationship between the schools, our high school stage crew helped Saint Ambrose College produce the musical a few years after its release on Broadway.

I feel like that concertina player during these beginning days of spring. I must get my notes out before the rush of spring’s portending promise leads to a bustling season. While the arrival of the coronavirus vaccine may not have been “direct from Vienna” like the carnival in the musical, there is hope enough people will get vaccinated to move on from the dull winter of contagion.

Already lilacs are budding, grass is greening. While it was exceedingly dry the first months of 2021, today’s forecast is rain. I’m torn between needing rain and wanting to work the soil enough to get early lettuce and peas in the ground. Such is spring.

I planted a tray of 50 beet seeds in soil blocks and moved them from the greenhouse to the heating pad under a grow light. They are germinating. The purpose is to get them started and have more success when they go into the ground. Beets grow when direct seeded, yet by starting them in blocks and planting them evenly there are less complications. I have big beet plans this year.

Spring is a time to increase outdoor exercise. I met with a dietician yesterday and she reinforced the importance of exercise in regulating glucose. I don’t know that what she said was new to me, but it finally sank in. Exercise uses sugar stored in our muscles and liver. As our body rebuilds these stores, it takes sugar from our blood. This is a good thing when it comes to living with diabetes without taking medicine.

Grandmother was about ten years older than I am now when she was diagnosed with diabetes. While living in Mainz, Germany, a package arrived from her unannounced. It contained all of the gelatin and instant pudding boxes from her pantry along with a note. With diabetes, the doctor said she shouldn’t eat them any longer. Her frugality insisted upon finding them a home. My A1C is below seven percent, yet having the diagnosis now will help me live longer with it. Since there isn’t a cure, that may be the best I can do.

Also this spring I began listening to internet radio. I found a station in Hanga Roa on Easter Island that plays blues, reggae, and progressive rock… the good stuff. It’s here if you want to listen during the pre-dawn hours of an early spring day.

Categories
Writing

Spring in Louisville

Spring flowers pushing up

Editor’s note: This was gleaned from a March 20, 2009 post on my Facebook page. My work in transportation and logistics exposed me to the deepening relationship between Chinese manufacturers and American markets during the 1990s. It was in Louisville I attended some Elite Eight basketball tournament games while attending the truck show. I also attended concerts arranged by show management with Alabama, Kenny Chesney and Reba McIntire. While geared more toward independent contractors and small companies, I was able to meet with staff from our company’s major suppliers.

During our descent, I saw the white flowering dogwood spread over the city. Grass was green and skies clear, a great day for flying and learning about the culture of trade shows. Our host sent his concierge to pick us up at the airport and deliver us to the Mid-America Truck Show.

This trade show is a chance for manufacturers, insurance companies, massage therapists, truck stops, software companies, advertising outlets and everyone who seeks the dollars found in trucking to show up. Back in the 1990s, we bought a copy of the attendees list, and discovered that the vast majority of attendees come from within a 250 mile radius to the show. It is a big event, and local in focus.

Some folks plan to buy their new truck here. Hawkers demonstrate how to reduce knee and back pain. Recruiters hope to take a driver application. Truck stop operators hope to meet up with clients. There are too many booths to take it all in.

What I did notice was a number of booths set up by Chinese companies. In one, I found Buzz, a ten-year acquaintance, introducing the Chinese manufacturers to his American contacts. In others, five or six Chinese sat in small circles in the booth in front of their wheels or oil seals, looking like they were isolated from this sea of truckers, tattoos, and facial hair. That they were here is a sign of the times, and if their behavior seemed odd this time, I am confident that they will learn how to work this crowd. One of my traveling companions said that he was surprised to see the Chinese here, instead of working the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) crowd: that is where their best impact could be made.

The Louisville Truck show is our industry writ large. It was okay to see it yesterday, for what may be my last time. Louisville in Spring is, for me, more about the dogwood.

Categories
Writing

Trip to Minnesota

Saint John Cantius Catholic Church (rebuilt), Wilno, Minnesota, July 1991.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from a memoir in progress during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020-2021.

The river between two hills, where a house would have been on either side, looked just as Grandmother described it. It was more stream than a river, though, and the land forms were rises in the prairie rather than hills. Nonetheless I recognized the place.  

On an overcast rainy day in July 1991, I made my first and only trip to the Nadolski family home place in Royal Township, Lincoln County, Minnesota.  

Maria Nadolski, Grandmother’s aunt, lived on the far side of the stream that separated the two houses. Maria owned a piano. Grandmother, Mae as we called her, wanted to learn to play that piano. Maria said no. Mae carried that story of rejection with her until the end of her life. Maria’s house and the piano are long gone.  

On another rainy day in Davenport, not far from where I was born, Mae told a story about the stream flooding after a heavy rain, cutting the houses in Royal Township off from each other. She repeated the story from time to time, as she did the story about her aunt and the piano. I believe the remaining house I saw in 1991 is where Mae was born Salomea Nadolski on June 24 or 25, 1898.

After she died on Feb. 7, 1991, I made the trip to her birthplace. The trip was a form of summer vacation when we lived in Lake County, Indiana. After we had lunch in Davenport, we drove to Ames. We spent the rest of the day visiting our daughter’s maternal grandparents.  

I provisioned up in Ames. Early the next day I drove to Pipestone National Monument where I toured the site and bought souvenirs, including a small turtle carved of pipestone. They were intended as gifts from near where the Nadolski branch of the family settled. I’m not sure if there was an actual connection between my family and the quarry.  

“I drove into Ivanhoe about 1:30 p.m., to the county recorder’s office first,” I wrote. I discovered my great, great grandparents Maciej and Franciszka Nadolski had been landowners, and had two acreages in Royal Township. 

Upon reviewing my trip notes for this book, I found I got a lot done those two days. 

“From past trips I realize if I do not write down what happened soon, years from now I will not remember what happened,” I wrote. It was prescient. I would have forgotten much of the trip without the notes taken. 

In Ivanhoe, the Lincoln County seat, I located the Roman Catholic priest who served the Wilno Church where Mae had been baptized. Father Paul Schumacher was at his church in Ivanhoe and we had a conversation outside the rectory. He was preparing to go somewhere. I wrote of our meeting: 

The priest took a $20 stipend to say Mass for the members of the Nadolski family – living and deceased, and to defray postage costs, if any are needed, if he found any record of the wedding (of Frank and Katie Nadolski) or my grandmother’s baptism. He said he was very busy, and these things take time, but there may be nothing. I guess priests have much to do with the living, and the genealogist’s concern must seem a frivolous inconvenience. We’ll see if anything comes from him. Bread upon the waters.  

The next day, July 11, 1991, Father Schumacher mailed Mae’s Certificate of Baptism by the Reverend J.F. Andrzejewski dated July 10, 1898 at Saint John Cantius Catholic Church in Wilno. The original church was built in 1883. 

The certificate showed Mae’s birth date as June 25, 1898 and her parents as Frank Nadolski and Kat Sowinska. Godparents were Ladislaus Kuzminski and Maria Nadolski. Consistent spelling of names and event dates were not the strong suit of Nineteenth Century rural Minnesota. Great grandmother’s name has multiple spellings in different documents. Mae’s birth date and name have multiple variations as well. There was no mistaking who they were, despite the discrepancies.  

Maciej and Franciszka Nadolski first settled this land. When I arrived, the current owner showed me the barn he had recently built and let me use his boots to walk around in the muddy fields. He clearly had plans for the property, and while he didn’t say it, I believed he was preparing to raze the old house. I walked in the field as far as the creek and took photos. Somewhere along the way I lost the lens cap to my camera. I picked up some smooth stones — brought there by a glacier.  

The farmer let me go inside the house, which was one large room in the original structure and two bedrooms upstairs. At some point a kitchen had been built on. By any standard it was small for a family that produced many daughters and a son in a three-generation home.  

More than anything I marveled at the small size of the home and wondered what kind of life they led. I don’t know, but assume their lives included family, church, farming, and relationships with people living near the unincorporated hamlet of Wilno. History shows they were part of a colony of Polish immigrants in 1883. 

The name of Mae’s grandfather, Maciej Nadolski appears on a copy of an undated plat map I made during the visit. The road to nearby Wilno is evident on the map. A family story is Maciej traveled to Wilno for church, and was known to drink adult beverages and socialize in town. On occasion, when inebriated, he would fall into the wagon afterward and the horse would take him home. 

Historian John Radzilowski wrote about the Polish community in Wilno in the Spring 2002 issue of Minnesota History

Polish immigrants transformed their environs into places they and their children could call home. In addition, they created an inner cultural and spiritual realm filled with drama and emotion that helped them make sense of their new world. Far from home, amid Poles they hardly knew and strangers from other ethnic groups, they formed communities and a hybrid culture that blended American and Polish customs into a coherent whole. 

During my trip I stopped at the Lincoln County courthouse and photocopied five different warranty deeds in his name concerning two parcels in Section 19 of Royal Township and four warranty deeds for two lots in the City of Ivanhoe. It is said Maciej Nadolski moved from the farm to Ivanhoe soon after buying the two properties. 

Beginning in February 1882, 40 Polish settlers bought land from the railroad in Royal Township. Great, great grandfather bought his parcel on Sept. 22, 1883. Radzilowski puts these land purchases in context: 

The Wilno colony in southwestern Minnesota’s Lincoln County was typical of Polish settlements in Minnesota. It was formed by brothers Franciszek and Grzegorz Klupp with the support of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and the Chicago and North Western Railroad. The archdiocese provided approval for the colony’s Polish parish and Polish-speaking priest, and the railroad sold land to prospective settlers and provided plots for a church and cemetery. 

Colonists were recruited through newspaper ads and by agents who received commissions for the settlers they signed up. Franciszek Klupp canvassed the streets of Chicago and LaSalle, Illinois, and Pennsylvania’s coal-mining towns for Wilno recruits. Unlike settlements formed gradually by chain migration from the Old Country, planned colonies like Wilno were created almost overnight from immigrants living in American urban enclaves. 

Maciej Nadolski was born in Poland. He emigrated through Philadelphia and took wage work as a coal miner in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. He was recruited from there to be part of the new colony near Wilno. In 1887, Marcin Mazany described the area in Winona’s Wiarus newspaper: 

The Polish colony of Wilno, Minnesota, consists of 200 Polish families who work as farmers. The soil here is extraordinarily fertile, the water healthful and clear as crystal and the people are free; the land provides easy sustenance to those who are willing to work on a farm and who wish for clear air and a life that is more agreeable than in the great, overcrowded cities. 

By 1888, the Wilno area was described in Wiarus as “a happy Polish settlement.” 

When my maternal ancestors emigrated from Poland to Minnesota, Poland did not exist. It had been partitioned three times beginning in the late 18th Century and completely dissolved for more than the century before 1918. Serfdom had been abolished on May 3, 1791, yet the partitions mostly nullified abolition. Serfdom’s vestiges persisted into the mid-Nineteenth Century. My ancestors came from the cohort of former Polish serfs. Our stock was peasant subsistence farmers for whom life in Europe, especially after the end of serfdom, made them want something better. 

Most of the Polish settlers in the new Wilno colony didn’t know each other before moving there. The organizing principle of the colony was for the Winona and St. Peter Railroad Company to deed land in Wilno for a Roman Catholic Church and cemetery to support a new, Polish-speaking community to whom they hoped to sell land. St. John Cantius Roman Catholic Church was built in 1883 and served to bring the community together. In this these Polish immigrants began a new, American life. 

Lincoln County was one step out of the frontier in 1883. The first white child was born there in 1869. The first newspaper was published in 1879. In 1874 there was a grasshopper infestation that continued for a couple of years. The presence and perceived threat of Indians was real. There were wolves to contend with. If the Poles were coming to Royal Township to become subsistence farmers, the county had not previously seen a lot of success in it. 

As I studied this period and culture, a couple of things were on my mind. 

The historical accounts make scant mention of women. While writing about Nadolski land ownership and the Wilno colony for this book, I had an epiphany that Maciej was married to Franciszka Nadolski and her name appears on some of the deeds. It would be a mistake to leave women out of the story. After considering what artifacts survived from that time, the historical narrative makes more sense: there was a rich cultural life embedded into the hard work of subsisting on the Minnesota prairie. 

Until writing this book, I did not understand there was a Wilno colony and what it was. When I visited Wilno in 1991, the place did not seem like much. That’s partly because automobile culture had been dominant for a long time since settlement. Early settlers just made do with what they had. The rise of mass marketing and consolidation of business and wealth was yet to come. 

The colony developed indigenous solutions to common problems of commerce and agricultural cooperation. While the railroad said they might run the line through Wilno when the original plots were sold, they ended up platting a new town of Ivanhoe (a.k.a. New Wilno) to the south because there would be more land sales to benefit the railroad. As an inland community it is remarkable the hamlet of Wilno survived at all. 

The Polish immigrants’ connection to the Catholic Church was a main part of the settlement. If the railroad had not given land to the church, there would have been no colony. While there were established settlers in the county in 1882, they were not Polish. As the Poles arrived, their common language and culture created insularity as they farmed, congregated, and socialized among themselves. Over time that changed, yet it was a cultural trait that persisted through my grandmother who was born there, and in some form was passed down to me. 

As I wrote these paragraphs, I began thinking about how few cultural connections we have today. Anyway, we don’t have them the way the original Polish settlers of the Wilno colony did. We have many friends and some family. During the coronavirus pandemic we email, text, telephone, and video conference with them a lot. It’s not the same. Broader community connections especially like the church, although other cooperative ventures as well, have been broken by mass communication, consolidation of business, and concentration of wealth. While my ancestors may have escaped post-serfdom life as wage earners in partitioned Poland, in the United States today, with wages stagnant, unemployment high, and jobs that create a sense of community scarce, we may be returning to our serfdom roots. 

Categories
Writing

In the South – 1981

Snow-covered Lake Macbride on March 8, 2021.

(Editor’s Note: After finishing graduate school at the University of Iowa I made an auto trip to visit friends in Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana. South Georgia has a particular allure. I kept a travel journal and continue to be drawn there).

Journal entry written in Columbus, Georgia on May 28, 1981

Again, I’m in a fast food restaurant — McDonald’s. Something about this town draws me here. Is it the 280 bypass? All the colorful signs? The fact that I am an outsider? Well, whatever it is, I am here, drinking a cup of coffee.

Had a discussion last night with Greg and Kate about moving back to the U.S. Over in Germany we were pretty much satisfied with doing and being what we were. But not so here. As soon as the feet hit the soil here, the main concerns are with money. Instead of perceiving the culture around us for what it is, we start in worrying about maintaining an income. A dream house cannot be realized only because there is not enough money.

While I try to avoid this, I’m afraid I’ll be sucked into that drift like everybody else. But not without knowing what I’m doing, rather not without being aware of what I’m doing. (For some of the things we do we will never know).

For now, my $1.03 buys a cup of coffee and a big buttermilk biscuit with sausage, and space at this table to write these words. I’ll move on and someone else will use the table, that’s the American way. Like Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin said in Go Down, Moses, we act out our lives on tables put here, according to a plan designed by the unseen powers that be.

Later in a rest area near Eufaula, Alabama

If architecture is an indicator of culture, then the culture of this part of Alabama, and the South in general, is distinctive. Along the road there are many dilapidated buildings in which people live and they seem to be built in accordance with several general conventions of style. Perhaps the most common is the house that looks like this:

Journal entry, May 28, 1981

The recurrence of this pattern suggests people think a lot more alike here than they do in the North. It also suggests that people here have a quite different relationship to the mass media of communications. I believe the dilapidated nature of many of these buildings suggests that architecture is not so important to the members of this Southern society.

Categories
Writing

Memory in Memoirs

Blue Spruce tree, March 6, 2021.

A challenge of writing memoirs is conjuring memory. It’s not as simple as booting a computer.

Yesterday I wrote about a trip to Vannes, France. There is more to write. There are photographs, a trip journal, and souvenirs to aid my memory. The exchange officer trip will describe more generally what it was like working with allied troops in Europe during the late 1970s. I spent more time with the French because I studied French language and literature in high school and college. When this type of opportunity arose, there weren’t many American officers who could speak French. If there were armed conflict with the Soviet Union, my destiny would likely have been to become a liaison officer between U.S. forces and the French as part of NATO combined operations.

Clear memories of that period come to mind but they need prompting. It was a process of reading my trip journal then beginning to tell the story. After I wrote the post, I slept on it and added details this morning. I may add other things by the time those passages make it into the book. The mind retains a surprising amount of detail about our past experiences. It is a literal memory, as if one is re-living it. Part of the challenge of writing about memories is to remember the who, what, where, when and why of an experience. Our natural capacity to do this is high.

Once a memory is recalled, as it is being recalled, editing begins. Memories often seem too many, prompting the questions, what should be included? What left out? I don’t ask these actual questions, but proceed to certain details to make a point. Our mind works toward survival, and to an extent, confirming the biases of what we currently think or believe. A memoir-writer must resist that tendency. It is often hard enough just to remember what happened.

Memories don’t exist in a book or narrative for their own sake. One invokes them to serve the broader purpose in the narrative of the piece. In that there is an ideology being supported. While there is an emotional engagement in evoking memories, for a memoir writer there is a reason a specific memory appears in the text. It must serve the point of the book. Unlike the younger me in yesterday’s post, one has to learn to control the amount of pastis consumed as your hosts line up drinks in front of you. Otherwise you’ll get drunk on the memories and become unable to write anything worth reading.

I continue to be at the point of determining what I can remember of my life. The next step is setting priorities and tying memories to the themes of the book. My inclination is to use the strongest memories, most of which I have written about previously, because that is what has become important to me. At the same time, I am finding new meaning in what I remember. That, too is important for consideration. In some ways, it is the point of writing a memoir at all. If we aren’t willing and able to transcend what we already believe about our lives in society, then it hardly seems worth the effort.

Dealing with memory in a practical way is another reason the editing of drafts takes so long. I believe the effort and time spent will be worth it.

Categories
Writing

Moving On

Washed Vegetables

For the longest time I planned to write about the year 1969. That is, until I adjusted to Father’s death. It’s likely best I let go of the research and accumulation of books about the year. They got in the way of so much living. Yet I wrote this post in August 2010. It captures something I’m likely to forget after moving on. Something that seems missing.

The last memory I have of my father while he was living escapes me. His death in February of 1969 was a hard pill to swallow and it occupied my awareness for a number of years after the funeral. I remember discussing my application to the University of Iowa with him and what I should do with my life. He had no input really. I had adolescent doubts about what I should make of myself. At school we were taught to take the decisions we made regarding career and education seriously. My memory is that advanced education was beyond the ken of what he could comment upon, although he seemed supportive of the idea of my leaving home to attend the university.

I remember riding in our car with him, listening to Mason Williams’ song “Classical Gas.” In explaining why I believed the song to represent an important coalition between classical and popular music, he kept on driving. With my savings from working at the discount store, I purchased a record player and we listened to Glenn Campbell’s rendition of “Wichita Lineman” while he adjusted the settings on the phonograph. He aspired to learn how to play the guitar, but it was an idea that he did not execute upon. He would finger the strings of the Kay guitar that I got with King Korn stamps redeemed the winter after the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. That was it.

Toward the end, his life was one of trying to get out of the slaughterhouse. First he tried working for the labor union, but that did not fit. He decided to finish college to become a chiropractor and during those years, we did not see much of him. In the end, he didn’t pass his board exams, but he was considering joining our church so that he could expand his client list.

I once hoped to write about life in 1969, but not any more. The regenerative aspect of vegetable growing and the opportunity to process and cook the produce in our kitchen is my calling. I missed having a father all these years and have adjusted. I should work on regenerating some of the missing memories this year.

Big Grove Garden, Aug. 25, 2010

Categories
Writing

Editor’s Desk #7

Snow melt progress, Feb. 28, 2021.

Snow covers much of the ground as March begins. Last year I planted kale in the greenhouse on March 1. This year the seedlings have four leaves on them today thanks to a heating pad and grow light downstairs.

The farm posted photos of their onion starts and mine look similar. That’s a good thing, bringing hope onion planting and harvest will go well. It’s going to be a great gardening year, I can feel it.

The word count on my writing stalled around 150,000 words. Mostly, it’s because of the larger than expected need for editing. It’s also attributable to a lack of organized research materials combined with the reworking of written passages as new information returns to mind. If I plan to finish this book by the end of the year — and I do — I need to clear the Spring ice jam.

I’m reasonably consistent at producing a daily blog post, yet the longer project has distinct challenges. I spent the last two months mostly indoors, considering my life, and producing a lot of words. What I didn’t know before, and do now, is I can’t go into the same detail as I may want to get the book done by December. Also, there is more editing time than writing a first draft, a lot more.

The press of March is also a factor. More of my time will be spent outdoors, making the early morning writing shift more valuable. I don’t know what that means presently, except more of that time should be reserved for book writing. I do want to finish something by 2022.

This week’s planting schedule is for collards, spinach, and more celery and herbs. Each week there will be more gardening tasks to include until by April, gardening will dominate my days. I knew that going in. On March 1, I’m there.

Categories
Writing

Editor’s Desk #6

Oglesby Coal Company

How should one deal with gaps in an autobiographical narrative?

Subjects of my narrative lived for years with slight oral, documentary or photographic record. As the author I must deal with the relative void found more frequently than not. What’s missing may be as important to a broader history as what is passed down. There can also be conflict about anything that is said, even about what is known. An autobiography writer has to decide what and how to present these gaps in the narrative. Presenting a broader history is not always the point.

For example, my maternal grandmother was baptized in 1898. The next known date in her life was the birth of her first child in Saint Paul, Minnesota in 1920. A couple of stories from her life on the farm survived. We don’t know when she married. Perhaps that date will be discovered. She had her second child in 1923. There are 20 years mostly void of record. There is no reason for an author to fill in the void, although one should acknowledge it.

Things known or passed down should be used as primary source material. That is more important than the missing record because what is known is what we lived with. As an example, we have a confirmation day photograph of one of grandmother’s sisters. That speaks to the way church-related events were special in their lives: a special outfit and a special portrait. Something like that is fair game for inclusion in my narrative even though it may not be specific to Grandmother. It informs cultural life on the farm.

Grandmother left home to work as a housekeeper in the Twin Cities, according to oral tradition. My cousins, the children of Grandmother’s first child, may have oral tradition passed down from their Minnesota origins. I don’t. I’m not sure how important those stories may be to my autobiography as they have not yet been part of my life. If we get together again, I’ll ask my cousins.

Some parts of the historical record exist and could be included. Things like birth, marriage and death dates. They create a time line upon which other things can be hung. Understanding twenty years of time, and identifying what Grandmother did during this period is difficult absent a historical record or oral tradition.

At least one historian studied the community my great, great grandparents helped found beginning in 1883. Things absent from oral tradition are included in those historical narratives: what subsistence farming was like, church life, social life, cooperative ventures, and others. The debate I have with myself is whether or not I would include historical work done by others, even if reasonably accurate, which lies outside oral tradition. It’s a choice which is useful if it explains background, not if it distracts from the primary narrative. I included a long piece on the Polish colony in Minnesota because it informs the life of my grandmother and by extension, mine.

Another example is my maternal grandfather’s work as a coal miner in LaSalle County, Illinois. We know he worked in the Cherry mine, and he worked long enough to contract black lung disease. Mother often told the story of him being a socialist and we didn’t really question it. Nor did we probe for additional details. The stories in a family’s oral tradition are fixed for the most part. I accepted them for what they were and try my best to retell them. Yet grandfather worked in the mine for a considerable amount of time and there are multiple histories of coal mining in Illinois which could possibly expand the narrative. Where I end on this is to tell what has been passed down in oral tradition and leave it there. The regional economic history is too complex to yield much specific to our family. In this case, I found it better to stay focused on my narrative.

Since I’m writing my autobiography, I have a wide range of options. The mistake historians sometimes make is to focus a narrative on what information is available. The autobiography writer lives in a different world with a canon of stories passed down orally. Because there is plenty about my life to tell, I want to keep the background information surrounding my family tree limited to what illuminates my character. I try to be faithful to the truth and to reality.

Some of the gaps will remain because empty space serves a purpose as important to narrative as the main thread. We needn’t fear a vacuum. We can appreciate what it adds to the story.

As of yesterday, there were 117,295 words written this year.