The Art of Memoir: Write Your Memories

The monthly meetings of the Hughson Historical Society are regularly marked on my calendar. The first time I attended, local author Sandy Stark-McGinnis presented her middle-grade novel, Extraordinary Birds, set in a place inspired by Hughson’s small-town atmosphere. Now, with the recent release of my memoir, Historical Society President Janet Camagna asked me to speak at their August meeting.

But how to tie a memoir about medical motherhood, hospital life, and coping with grief to a historical society charged with preserving Hughson’s past for future generations?

I thought of the nature of the story I wrote, a memoir. I said, “An autobiography, shares that person’s entire life, but a memoir shares just a snapshot. I’m obviously very young to have written a book about my life. They’re so much of it left.” Thus What God Had Emptied shares about those two years from my son’s diagnosis, until a few months after my daughter birth.

Cover of What God Had Emptied, a mother's memoir

Our earlier examples of autobiography come from St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Patrick, Bishop of Ireland. They both titled theirs “Confessions.”

“And in that in looking at the different pieces, both of those men sought for a way to find to understand where was the meaning? Where was that string going all throughout the narrative, that connects it all together and that is again the power of memoir the power of autobiography,” I explained.

Looking back, as our season of life changed from those two years in the memoir, “I was then in a position to be able to look back and be able to see what all happened. And I began to put together those pieces of our stories that I had written that I published on my blog, that I written personally, through emails, with friends and piece it together. And found that there are so many things I learned through that experience of being able to embrace the moment that’s in front of us, at being able to look for meaning,” I shared.

I told the audience about Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist survived a concentration camp and emerged with the theory that we are not driven by power, as Nietzsche said, or sex, as Freud said, but by meaning. “When we can feel that there’s some meaning to what we’re doing that, there’s some purpose to what we’re doing. We can get through incredibly difficult times and memoir in taking this snapshot of a person’s life,” I said.

I started to write again

That was why I wrote. “I had to find a way forward, and as I was in and out of the hospital with Peter in the silence of that hospital room, I started to write again. I was writing out my reflections and I was writing about what I did that day, and I was sharing it with the world because that’s what you do when you’re my age. You blog. I was sharing all that information but I was also wrestling with how do I face this situation?”

We ended with a discussion of the importance and value of committing our memories to paper and leaving them for another person to treasure, “Even if you only have a the briefest part of that moment or that person’s life. That one snapshot with words is so powerful because it helps connect us to the history and to those people, even long after they’re gone.”

“Once we get some distance, we think, ‘Oh wow. They did that, they were involved in that?’ We can begin to think that what we have been through is somewhat less momentous. But, you know, when I heard here about the shoe store [in Hughson] letting people who worked in the fields buy shoes on credit, with the hope that they could pay it back but if they couldn’t, it was fine, as long as they had good shoes to wear. That was profound.”

The stories that make us

Those are the stories that make us, that form the culture of our families for generations to come. I extend my encouragement to you. Write your memories. It does not need to be perfect. It does not need to polished. It can be written as straight as a police report or as flowery as a Medieval abbesses’ reflection. When you write it in your own way, you leave a piece of yourself with it. In this way those who may never have met you in person, know you. The encounter the stories you valued, the thoughts and loves that lived inside you. The written word never dies. It can only be hidden for a little while.

So with that, I say, write!

Photo by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash

Preserving History

In the bygone days of my youth, I listened to my father’s stories of his childhood and how his parents worked to provide for him and his siblings. I took in the expressions he passed on to me from his mother, whose family came from Minnesota. There was pride in this history, how long some of our ancestors lived here and pride in those more recently come and the stories they brought with them. 

Storytelling around the campfire
Photo by Kevin Erdvig on Unsplash

There were not many stories though.

Our family was not given to talking much generally. The next stories came from books. In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a newly-made mother seeks advice from her mother.

“You must tell the child the legends I told you-as my mother told them to me and her mother to her. You must tell the fairy tales of the old country. You must tell of those, not of the earth who live forever in the hearts of people-fairies, elves, dwarfs and such. You must tell of the great ghosts that haunted your father’s people and of the evil eye which a hex put on your aunt. You must teach the child of the signs that come to the women of our family when there is trouble and death to be. And the child must believe in the Lord God and Jesus, His Only Son.”

“Why? When I, myself, do not believe?”

“Because, explained Mary Rommely simply, the child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing in things not of this world. Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination. I, myself, even in this day and at my age, have great need of recalling the miraculous lives of the Saints and the great miracles that have come to pass on earth. Only by having these things in my mind can I live beyond what I have to live for.”

And like this practice in imagination, when we know the stories of on our ancestors and pass them on to our children and future generations, this oral history stays with us as something we remember from time to time, something we fall back on, something that can powerfully shape how we respond to the trials and tribulations that come our way. 

The oral history could be the stories of the who lived the faith we now practice, the religious or secular heroes. It must be approached delicately in some cases. Most heroes were not saints, and the wrong they may have done must be approached appropriately at the right age. Some mistakes ought to reshape the standing of historical figures, but not all mistakes have or should have that power.

We can tell the stories. We tell them again and again, adding their color as the years go by, like moving from board books to picture books to chapter books, all telling the tales of the same person. 

Do we have that option for our family stories?

As a child, I attended St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Hughson. In looking for information regarding its founding 100 years ago in Hughson, I learned Portuguese and Italian immigrants built the parish, naming it under the patronage of St. Anthony, a Portuguese saint beloved in Italy. 

But the parish does not have a record of the personal stories, and neither does the Hughson Historical Society. We do not have that oral history.  

In college, we partnered with a non-profit organization that coordinated the meeting of the students with volunteers who founded the organization. We interviewed them, recorded the interviews, transcribed the interviews, and turned them in, to be preserved by the organization. 

The Hughson Historical Society meet monthly to share their remanences.

I have the honor of sharing some of these stories with the community. The more I attend, the more this practice makes sense. It is not for the gratification of the storyteller, but to allow the heroes to live onward in their legacy. When it is personal, the everyday events do not seem nearly so small to those who love them.

While the historical record might begin with the plain dates of when things happened and where, but it’s the stories, the personal testimonies, that give it life and light. 

Do you have a story passed down to you of the founding of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Hughson 100 years ago or of the new church building 55 years ago?

Email it to me at and I’ll make sure it finds its way home. 

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.