Note: Debra Holm of Nampa is a local historian and accomplished writer in several venues. To help local people who want to write their own family history stories, Holm is writing a series of four articles. This article is the first installment.
Writing family history is like making a good stew. We labor over good things and let them simmer, and the end result proves that the sum is much more meaningful than the parts.
Use these ideas to cook up your unique recipe for the Idaho Press-Tribune Cavalcade contest.
First, assemble ingredients. For a family history, use the "box and note card" approach. Set out a box, and every time you come across a family Bible, photographs or documents, put them in it. Carry a note card everywhere you go. Then when you remember something, jot down key terms: "Delbert - jeep stuck - Halverson pond – M80." Or, "Ask Aunt Hattie when farm on Lone Star was purchased."
Like a cook selecting vegetables and herbs, when it's time to organize, you can sort through your box and notes to find pieces of information that will give you structure and help you come up with a central idea for your essay.
My Dad started his delicious stew with meat: carefully chosen, chopped and browned. The meat for a history stew is names, dates and places. If you should decide that writing an essay is not your cup of tea, just putting these facts in order becomes a valuable memorial to your family's heritage. If you do decide to add more, you've created a marvelous legacy for future generations.
As you mentally stir your facts, chose those flavorful items that make a good stew. For instance, unique family stories and photographs offer as much savor as sautéed garlic—like the time when a maiden aunt was worried that the "vicious dog" would attack my brother, an innocent six-month-old baby. But when the dog yelped and my brother cried, it was because the teething infant had chomped into the dog's wet nose! And telling you that my Dad was bow-legged doesn't mean near as much as seeing a photo of those parentheses in blue jeans that he called legs.
We might liken Canyon County history to the flavor of celery. When, and why did your family come here? You may not know, and you may have to dig for information. For instance, it may not be enough to know that they moved here to work for the sugar factory. Some local families moved here to grow sugar beets or work at Nampa's first sugar factory, built in 1905-1906. It folded in 1908 — so what kept them here? Or did your family move here around 1942, when the current sugar factory was built?
A good stew has to have onions — the times that made you cry: deaths, accidents, diseases and war experiences. If handled with tact, even writing about disagreements may help family members to gain perspective and heal.
Every stew needs carbohydrates — so whether yours are Idaho potatoes, African cassava, Japanese rice, Mexican frijoles, Scotch pearl barley or Native American corn, consider sharing something about your family's origins. These give body and strength to your essay stew, because they are what make you — you!
Just like we add carrots or tomatoes to a stew for color appeal, local color will make readers want to dig into your essay. Think about the Treasure Valley of years ago — swimming in the Boise River near the railroad bridge in Caldwell, or watching a football game at Nampa's Bulldog Stadium. Bring interesting locales into your essay to carry your readers to a time and place long past.
We don't taste a stew after dumping in the last ingredient, so expect that your first draft will seem disjointed and incomplete. Let your stew simmer by re-writing your essay, mentally mixing flavors, adding thoughts and removing sentences. (Easier for writers than for stew chefs!)
Have a trusted person read your essay and help you toss out irrelevant and unnecessary words and ideas. Be sure to decide what parts of your story are most important.
Your "essay stew" may seem to be done when you submit it the newspaper, but it could simmer on longer, becoming a fulfilling hobby.
Whether you win the contest or not, savor the flavor of the memories you've preserved — because just like stew, family history is not only fun to consume, but is also good for you. Writing our stories strengthens our souls and connects us to people and places that are important to us. We sink our roots into the past and spread our wings toward the future, beckoning others to join in the journey.