Early one morning, as the first rays of sunlight stole through the windows bordering the front door of my home, I rounded the corner into the hallway. I’m used to seeing the sun fill this hallway with so much light that it reflects off the walls and floors, and glares off the glass in the picture frames hung on the wall. Typically, that’s when I notice the dusty floor and go about my business. Never had I seen the morning sun highlight a single photograph.
Immediately, I snapped the picture, then I moved in to get a better look at the photograph that was highlighted. It was my mother. And she’s no longer here with us.
Now if this had happened at night, most likely, I wouldn’t be sharing it with you. With a light source then being unknown, it leads the subject into supernatural territory, and unfortunately, most writers in the nonfiction world hesitate to take that road. What happens to a writing career when you start sharing unexplainable events? Do we dare to write about ghosts? One writer might flat out refuse—I’m not touching that. Another could be dying to share his haunted bed & breakfast experience, but hesitates. What will readers think? This is a decision writers have to make for themselves. But still, it doesn’t mean they can’t write about it. Luckily, my highlighted photograph scenario didn’t happen at night. The light source is explained, simply. It was the sun.
Family history research is a growing industry. Every day, more and more documents are found and uploaded into genealogical websites. Brigham Young University now offers a fascinating degree program which incorporates family and social history research, logic, historic culture, and the study of foreign language documents and the relevant handwriting. When you’re done, you’ll be a genealogist, and you can teach others how to look back centuries into their family history, and find out where they came from. It’s fascinating, but it’s also family history research.
When we explore and write about a family member that is no longer here, we want to know about them specifically. Did Dad behave in peculiar ways? Did Grandma make questionable decisions? Are there segments of their lives that are unexplainable? If you find that you can drill down your questioning to one single thought (Why did they ___?), then you have a family mystery. Family mystery research is not about finding out your father’s DNA markers or where his great-great-great-grandfather lived. His great-great-great-grandfather probably had little to no impact on your father’s personality. Family mystery research is about discovering the people, places, and events that impacted him directly. It’s about researching his mystery, so that you can write about it.
When they’re no longer here, the exploration is delicate. You will need to interview family members to find some answers. Sometimes they talk, and sometimes they don’t. In Heather Sellers’ book, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, Sellers was searching for information to explain some of her mother’s behaviors. In this scenario, her mother was still around, but had already slammed the door on the subject, so Sellers went to her father. He said, “She’s peculiar. I’ll grant you that… The rest? Not telling.” She pushed further, asking, “What’s the big secret about Mom?” Her father closed his eyes and said, “To my grave.”
This is often the situation with family, especially when the keeper of secrets is from a time long before sharing our daily lives over the internet became a social norm. Our parents and grandparents didn’t share personal information about tender subjects such as abuse, adultery, or mental illness because they wanted to protect the family’s reputation. These subjects were discussed behind closed doors or whispered through the telephone lines. The idea was to protect the children. They don’t need to know. But the fact is, when they become adults, if it’s a medical or mental situation, they most certainly do need to know. I imagine that Sellers, because her mother feared photographs and writing of any kind, had little more than her own memories to work with in trying to study and understand her mother; a difficult family mystery to uncover. You work with what you have.
I was lucky. Not only did my mother save several boxes of photographs and letters; she, too, was a writer. She wrote about her life before being put up for adoption (at the age of eight) by her own mother; she wrote about how she was treated (told repeatedly that she was bad blood); and through her poetry, she opened a window to her view of life. While she was still here, her secrets were difficult for her to share in person. She tried at times, but language deceived her. She was too close to the pain to speak of it, but that didn’t stop her from outlining it in her writing. In my exploration of my mother’s life, I was very lucky. She didn’t take her family mystery to the grave.
Chances are that you may not be as lucky as me, or as challenged as Heather Sellers was, in exploring your family mystery, whatever it may be, because most people leave behind at least some photographs, objects, documents, letters, or stories that others can tell you. These pieces, when studied carefully and then explored in writing, can give you clues, if not answers. But what if you don’t get the answers? Does that mean you have nothing to write about?
No. In memoir, answers don’t make the story. Meaning makes the story. How do you find meaning in these items?
Let’s study the phenomenon of this single, highlighted photo on my hallway wall. If you’re a regular viewer of television shows like Ghost Hunters, where Jason, Grant, and their team investigate and sometimes debunk paranormal reports, then you might imagine that the spot on the wall could be an orb. It has a glow to it, right? Even though I’ve stated the fact that the sun produced this image, my mind still imagined an orb. I blame Jason and Grant for that. Let’s consider that I got this photo of Mom, when she passed away a little over three years ago, from one of her boxes. This photo belonged to her. Some people believe that spirits can be attached to objects, especially photographs. I think there’s another television show about that too, but I never watched it. Could this be my mother trying to tell me something? If I had thought about it, in that moment, I would have blocked the sunbeam with my body and squinted to see if I could see an orb. Maybe I would have walked through the space looking for a change in temperature or some other kind of phenomenon. But I’m not a believer in real-time paranormal communication. Not yet, anyway. Instead, I took a couple of shots with my camera. Then I touched her cheek in the photo and said, “I miss you, Mom.” I don’t need to believe in ghosts for this moment, this glowing separation of Mom’s photo from the rest, to mean something to me.
I had forgotten about the highlighted picture until one morning this week. I was waking, but still lying in bed, planning out the weekend’s events with hubby, when I suddenly had the urge to show him this photograph. Highlighted Mom. He thought it was neat. Later that morning, sitting in a coffee shop, working on this column, the photo came to mind again. I wondered, when exactly did I take it? Luckily, with today’s technology, the answer was in my pocket. I pulled out my cell phone, opened the photo and looked at the details. This photo was taken on the 23rd of June. Right there, in the coffee shop, I started to cry. June 23rd was a big day for me; a day I’d worked up to for the previous three months. That very morning, I was preparing to travel into Tampa and give my first seminar to a university audience of more than 70 students. That very morning, Mom glowed on my hallway wall. Some could chalk it up to coincidence. Me? I had to leave the coffee shop. Because for me, this coincidence holds meaning. There is meaning in the fact that I saw her photo glowing on my big day. There is meaning in the fact that, in the photo, she’s wearing her cap and gown: symbols of educational achievement. There are other photos of Mom on this wall, but only this one was highlighted by the morning sun. Coincidence or not, I find meaning in that fact. And I’m the one writing about it, right? So doesn’t it fall on my shoulders to portray the facts in my own meaningful way?
If you’re researching a family member that’s no longer here, you have to accept that they cannot confirm for you if you’re on the right track. All you can do is gather facts from the photographs, documents, letters, or bits of interview information that you have. For a family mystery researcher, these items are emotional gifts. The idea that you will never have their help, and the idea that they will never read your work, is daunting. Their silence, following your great discoveries, is the most delicate part of this work. You might have to leave a coffee shop or two, but once you find the meaning hidden somewhere within all of the facts, you have to keep going, and explore those findings through your writing.
Sometimes you find information that your loved one could never have known or had access to. For instance, I found the house that Mom had lived in when she was five, in Galveston, Texas. It still stands. If she were sitting here with me now, I’d whip my laptop around and show it to her on Google street view. I’d want to know how she felt about seeing her childhood home again; the only place she lived with her true family. What does it mean to her? But I’ll never know, because she’s no longer here. She would have had the answer. Because I don’t have her answer, does it mean that I can’t write about finding this house on Google? No. I can still imagine. In fact, I can create an entire scene detailing how I imagine her reacting and what she would say, based on my knowledge of her. As long as we’re clear in the writing that the scene didn’t really happen but is merely imagined, then it is ours to write. Remember, in creative writing, memoir included, it’s what you portray beyond the facts that makes it creative.
My mother’s photo glowed from my hallway wall on the morning of my seminar. Was she trying to tell me something? Was she proud of me, or cheering for me on my big day? I kind of like the sound of that. If I want to believe it, then it’s mine to tell. However, the question remains. Do I want to take such a bold road and write about a supernatural subject such as my mother’s ghost? Well, I believe I just did.