In honor of the 30th anniversary of the movie Back to the Future, I asked the writers in my memoir classes last week to think about their own family histories. “Write about where you’d like to travel back — or forward — to,” I told them. “And then, explain why.”
Many, many writers wanted to go back and observe their parents before marriage, and many shared old photographs of the relatives in their essays. Two brought props — a writer who wanted to be on a train with her Uncle Harry (he worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency) brought his cane along to class — complete with a stiletto hidden in the handle.
Another writer arrived in class with a mimeographed copy of a handwritten letter she’s inherited from the 1800s. “I’d like to go back in time and see how my great-great- grandfather Patrick here in America reacted to this letter from his mother in Ireland.” FromHer essay:
His mother’s handwriting is beautiful, and it looks like she wrote with a pen dipped in ink. Ink smudges on the pages make it difficult to read, but I think one line in the letter asks him for a lock of the children’s hair. Did he send her a lock of their hair?
Another line of the letter read, “I would have written before Christmas but waiting thinking that you would be up to your promise and as I did not hear from ye I promise you I had a lonesome Christmas.” Patrick’s great-great granddaughter wondered out loud in class Whether this letter made Patrick sad. “Did he feel guilty?” she asked in her essay. “Did Patrick ever see his dear mother again?”
Writer Marion Jackson wrote about the past, too, but it wasn’t easy for her.
Marion attends a writing class at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in addition to our “Me, Myself and I” class at the Chicago Cultural Center, and she loves her creative life here in the city. “I’m glad you asked about my ancestors,” she wrote in an email to me after I gave the assignment. ”But it would be so painful going back for my history information, my families past of pain.”
Marion is African-American. Her ancestors were slaves here in America. The essay she brought to class acknowledges how heartwrenching it is for her to look back at what her ancestors went through to have her end up in America, how they were treated when they arrived here, how they “endured unmentionable, evil unbelievable forms of punishment and torture and were systematically separated from their families.”
Our ancestors helped in the building and the feeding of America. Working, building, slaving in the field cooking and cleaning, making the slave owner wealthy, they had all the profit, pleasure and comfort, all the slaves had was the pain of labor.
Marion points out that after the Civil War, most former slaves had no financial resources, property, residence, or education. “Not having an education for 300 years, they could not read and understand the reconstruction policies,” she writes. “To this day… there has been no compensation, no retribution, not even an apology. The unfairness and injustice angers me.”
Conversation after Marion’s reading focused more on history and reparations than on writing memoirs. Ninety-four-year-old Wanda was eight years old when her great-grandmother died. “She told us stories of what slavery was like,” Wanda said, almost in a whisper. “I just can’t go there, I can’t write about it.” Before we went on to hear from the next writer in class, I asked Marion how it felt to write her essay. “It didn’t help with anything,” she said with a sigh. “I want people to know this, but it makes me angry to write it down.”
After class was over, I asked Marion if I could share excerpts from her essay with my blog readers this week. “I’d be honored,” she said. Marion doesn’t realize that we are the honored ones, having the opportunity to hear stories from her life every week in class — and now here, on this blog. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day, and I am so grateful that my complicated life journey landed me where I am now, leading these memoir-writing classes. Every week is a history lesson.
The class Marion and Wanda attends meets in downtown Chicago this morning, where ddemonstrators have taken to the streets to protest the police shooting of Laquan McDonald, an African-American teenager who was shot by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke 16 times in October of 2014. I’d been expecting a low turnout in class due to the holiday, but now I wonder if writers might make a special effort to be there to talk together about the release of a video of the shooting — and the Cook County State Attorney’s decision to pursue a first degree murder charge against Van Dyke.
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Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day, and I am so grateful that my compllicated life journey landed me where I am now, leading these memoir-writing classes. Happy Thanksgiving to all you memoir writers who share your life stories in my classes. Every week is a history lesson.