A little family history

I’ve been thinking about writing family histories lately. The one written years ago by my husband is long out of date. Plus, other people have asked me to help them with theirs, so practicing up wouldn’t be a bad thing.

I was encouraged by a writing prompt I got in one of my writing groups last week. I think we all could relate to it. Here’s the prompt:

Imagine asking your mother and father about their past and what would they say?

My husband Bob took on the task of writing a family history about both our families about thirty years ago. He looked at all the gray heads at a family gathering one day and decided he better ask them about their past before they were gone.

He was quite logical about it. With some, he’d ask questions about where they came from and when they arrived in America and where they settled and what they did for work and how many children they had, and he recorded their answers on a little tape recorder. Others were willing to write their stories and provide their documents to him.

He also did research and literally found what ships they took from Liverpool to New York and what docks they arrived at.

My mother (top left) and her family

My mother was always willing to talk about her past. She was born in Lithuania and came to America and settled in Chicago when she was fourteen years old with her mother and five brothers and sisters. Her father died of typhoid fever while they were still in Lithuania. She bragged that even though she didn’t know a word of English when she arrived in Chicago, she was able to complete eight grades of elementary school in one year. Unfortunately she didn’t put that brain power to work. She only finished a two-year secretarial course in high school. My father was more quiet about his past. His father, a shoemaker from Poland, arrived first, and started a shoe making and repair business in middle America, Danville Illinois, with his brother. When he had enough money, he brought his wife and two children over – his eleven-year-old son, my father, and three year old daughter, my Aunt Anne.

My dad’s (center) family

My aunt was the one who told me way into my adulthood that three of their brothers had died in their early childhoods before they could make it here. She also wrote about her high school days in Danville. Her history inspired me to write my historical novel, Papa’s Shoes. The historical facts but not the people’s stories in the book were true. Thankfully my husband was still alive when I was writing that book. He checked all the facts and the dates to make sure what I wrote was correct.

While I was writing that book I wished many times I had asked my father more questions, but he was a shy and quiet guy. He was smart, very intent on not growing up to be a shoemaker like his dad, and he turned out to be the first person in his family to go to college. He attended De Paul University’s law school for seven years at night, but even though he passed the Illinois bar he never practiced law. It was 1934 – not a good time to make a living in law. Instead one of his law school study partners and he started a wholesale textile business. This partner became his brother-in-law. His sister married my dad. As soon as she saw him studying at their house, she grabbed him as fast as she could. I heard a lot about that story growing up.

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