In the “pre-pandemic” world, I took time every week to focus on my writing projects. Sunday mornings were my sacred time, during which my husband would wrangle our three children and I would retreat to my office for several hours of (mostly) uninterrupted writing time.
The narrative I was constructing was my own, an expanded memoir version of what I write in my blog. This has been my heart’s work for about two years. I had finally reached a point in early March where I thought that I could formulate a more cohesive first draft. Once done, I would send it to a freelance editor I had worked with before.
Then, on Friday, March 13th, Shelter in Place orders went into effect in Illinois. My three children became my new “co-workers” during the day, and we have had to juggle working alongside e-learning assignments in the confinement of our home. It is now Day 37 of what I have termed “No Breaks.”
I have managed to keep my Sunday mornings reserved for myself, with one significant change: I have set aside the memoir that I have been working on for two years. The subject matter is far too heavy for me right now. I cannot handle recalling and piecing together such an labor of love. Navigating these days in our home require so much emotional energy by themselves.
It was a bit heartbreaking to acknowledge that this project could not have my efforts right now. Not only that, but I have no idea when I will be able to go back to it. On top of that: how could I redirect myself in some type of other project, so that I didn’t feel like I had given up everything?
The answer came to me on April 4th. It was my grandmother’s 100th birthday. She lives in a memory care unit that has been in lockdown for several weeks with no visitors. My aunts and uncles that live nearby did a parade outside of her window, waving and holding signs. Her life has been rich and interesting, in ways far different than most people. My grandfather was in the foreign service; therefore, they lived in many different countries over several decades, from Egypt to France to Burma. Along this journey, they had four children — my dad and his brother and two sisters.
I have always treasured items from their lives overseas. I have postcards from Belgrade, Jugoslavia. A coin collection from many countries that they lived in or visited. My grandparents’ diplomatic passports. These are all lovingly displayed in a cabinet in our home.
In the summer of 2009, my grandma presented every family member with a memoir she had compiled for us. It was 175 Word pages, printed and bound, organized by country, and contained everything she could remember about their life in the foreign service. Her introduction states that she had been working on this effort for fifteen years.
On the celebration of her birthday, the idea came to me: what if I take her memories, and supplement with research, interviews with my dad and his siblings, and anything else I could find? Interviews would mean FaceTime with my family members — a great way to spend an evening. The project would be massive and keep me occupied for who knows how long.
Sitting down with my grandma’s memoir, I immediately began to make notes of items that would require further research. One of her first sentences was how “one of her father’s aunts” was a member of Daughters of the American Revolution. There was no other identifying information. Feeling the need to verify this, I headed to Ancestry.com.
Turns out, ancestry research is a giant vortex. Over the past few weeks, I have added nearly 600 family members to my “Tree.” But Ancestry.com makes it almost too easy. In the evenings, it has been far more satisfying to scroll through census records and photos of gravestones than, say, reading the news.
I am now surrounded by a mountain of information that I need to catalog. I have my ancestry tree, the first recorded interviews with my dad and one of aunts, and over 100 letters that my grandfather wrote over the years. I have found a few documents from the State Department that were written by my grandfather, along with a ship’s manifest showing the departure of my grandparents and my toddler-aged aunts headed from New York to Cape Town, South Africa.
And so, this feels like the perfect project for me right now. As my grandmother began hospice care this week, it is a way to honor the incredible life she has led.