Introduction to Family Stories from the Attic
by Lisa Rivero
This anthology has its origins in another time, in secrets and questions, in family stories and a woman who died before I was born.
In the bottom cupboard of an antique sideboard in my grandmother’s house were stacks of journals handwritten by her sister, my great-aunt Hattie. Aunt Hattie’s name, along with that of her husband, Uncle Bill, had peppered family conversations for as long as I could remember. While I’d never met her, I knew that she was eccentric, beloved but also humored in the way we humor the very young and very old. I knew she was born the eldest of ten children in 1881, married late, lived in Hidden Timber, South Dakota (the inspiration for Hidden Timber Books), and had a brother who had eighteen children (one of whom would go on to have eleven offspring), giving her scores of nieces and nephews and all kinds of once-removed relations. However, she had no children of her own.
At least that’s what I thought.
Then, one summer day when I was in high school, my grandmother, who lived on the same farm as my parents and was suffering from shingles at the time, received a letter from a man inquiring about the health history of his grandfather, born in 1911—to Hattie—and later adopted.
My grandmother’s shingles and that letter are paired in my memory, as if her physical pain and the psychological shock became one. It couldn’t have been easy for her, then nearly eighty years old, to reconcile the idea of her devout Catholic family with an out-of-wedlock birth. Grandma was twenty-one years younger than Hattie, and by the time the typewritten letter arrived on that hot summer day, all of my grandmother’s brothers and sisters and all of their husbands and wives had died. She later learned that other members of the family had known about Hattie’s child, but Grandma, the baby of the family, was never told, and the topic was not discussed in that era as part of polite conversation.
Grandma was, above all, stoic, so the fact that I even knew about how much she suffered from shingles indicates their severity. Only many years later, after reading Hattie’s dairies, did I realize how different Grandma and Hattie were as sisters, like Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, except the roles were reversed, the elder Hattie’s spiritedness in contrast to the younger Louise’s seriousness.
Until that summer, my interest in Aunt Hattie’s journals had been intermittent. Sometimes I would leaf through them, but the handwriting was difficult to read, and I was daunted by the seventy-seven composition notebooks and ledgers piled high. After learning about the baby she had given up, however, I was drawn more compellingly to secrets that might be in the cupboard. Did the entries contain more information about Hattie’s child? Did she ever write about him? Who was this woman who loomed so large in family lore?
So many people, myself included, try to keep diaries. We might write in them during especially trying times or happy times or maybe just because we have nothing else to do. We journal in fits and starts. We begin and then give up.
Not Hattie. She wrote every day, sometimes even rewriting her entries, catching up if she needed to. Only a handful of days are missing from volumes that span from 1920 through 1957.
I began transcribing the entries to share with family members, and she became real to me through her words. Who was Hattie? She loved puzzles and games, especially solitaire, and she and her husband, William, played cards often with neighbors. She recorded scores of local baseball games. She looked forward to getting the mail and reading material. She enjoyed listening to the radio, especially news programs and serials. She butchered hogs on her kitchen table. She didn’t like to garden. She tended to be stout and then fat, helped along by her fondness for food and the difficulty she had in physical movement in later years. She was keenly interested in both local and national politics and remembered the anniversary of the death of FDR every year. She seems never to have lost her humor or her sense of wonder and engagement. She was devoted to Will, even when they had rough patches. Both were eccentric and intelligent. He lost his mother and father in the first year of their marriage. She lost her parents within a few years, as well, and they had to make their way on their own from that point forward.
While I never did find overt references to her son in her diaries, other questions grew in my mind. Why did she write? Whom did she expect might read her words?
Soon I began to feel that I owed Hattie more, that she had a story or many stories to tell, and that, for whatever reason, I was the person chosen to tell them. I just didn’t know how.
Fellow Wisconsin writer Christi Craig came to my rescue, suggesting the idea of writing flash narratives or vignettes based on Hattie’s entries. These very short stories of a few hundred words allowed me to share snapshots of Hattie’s life using her own voice, while trimming away the often unnecessary details of weather and daily work and aches and pains. I also culled lines of the diaries for found poetry, and shared both the narratives and poetry on my blog.
When I brought some of the pieces to my bi-weekly Red Oak Roundtable group for critique, I learned that I wasn’t alone in writing about family letters and diaries. I asked Christi if she would be willing to see if there was enough interest for a book of such writing, as a co-editor. She said yes almost before I finished my question.
We asked for submissions of creative nonfiction, poetry, and essays inspired by family documents and objects such as diaries and letters, genealogical records, photographs, gravestones. Is there a single word for such a genre? The closest may be ekphrasis (EK-fruh-sis), a Greek term for literary description or commentary (usually poetry) of a work of art. One of the most famous and earliest examples of ekphrasis is the detailed description of the rings on the Shield of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad: “Two cities radiant on the shield appear, / The image one of peace, and one of war….”
Ekphrasis can also occur in prose, such as in one of my favorite books, Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark, in which the character of Thea visits the Art Institute of Chicago and finds a painting by Jules Adolphe Breton: “But in that same room there was a picture—oh, that was the thing she ran upstairs so fast to see! That was her picture. She imagined that nobody cared for it but herself, and that it waited for her.” A more recent example from fiction is Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and its use of the similarly titled painting (1654) by Carel Fabritius (Metropolitan Museum of Art): “…something about the neat, compact way it tucked down inside itself—its brightness, its alert watchful expression—made me think of pictures I’d seen of my mother when she was small: a dark-capped finch with steady eyes.”
More broadly, ekphrasis can mean any work of art that describes or comments upon another work of art, and it is in this respect that I use the term here. In lieu of paintings and sculptures and more traditional art forms, our writers set their powers of observation on notebooks and diaries, photographs, letters, school certificates, genealogical records, tombstones, household silver, and other artifacts.
One danger of this very personal exploration of the past is sentimentality—an over-reliance on feeling at the expense of synthesis and insight. Related to sentimentality is an indulgence in what the late writer and scholar Svetlana Boym called restorative nostalgia, an overemphasis on tradition and homecoming, longing for a restoration of what was or a return to an idealized home or past that may have never existed.
In contrast, Boym described reflective nostalgia, which focuses on ambivalence and complexity. Reflective nostalgia allows for both feeling and critical thinking as we inhabit simultaneously then and now. Whereas restorative nostalgia is static, reflective nostalgia allows for personal growth and existential questioning. It is this second type of nostalgia that you will find in the pages that follow, as the authors open their minds and hearts to new ways of seeing themselves and the world, knowing that their explorations may bring them more questions than answers.
The works are organized alphabetically by author name. I would like to thank Christi for her keen eye and discriminating ear as she worked with the writers to edit their pieces. She has an uncanny knack for seeing fresh possibilities in a slightly changed phrase or rearranged paragraph, while honoring the original voice and intent. I could not have asked for a better partner in this venture.
About the Works
Kristine D. Adams starts us off with “Wally’s World,” inspired by her father-in-law’s notebooks, and she challenges us to think of whose stories we may be called to tell: “If not you, who? And if not now, when?” In “When We Feel Invisible,” JoAnne Bennett searches for shared DNA, “a father with no name,” and “a connection to this invisible part of me.” Letters from her immigrant ancestors allow Aleta Chossek to recreate her grandmother’s arrival in Chicago in 1925 to begin “A New Life,” while five years later and sixty miles from Chicago in Woodstock, Illinois, Sally Cissna also relies on letters to tell the story of her aunt and uncle and the scourge of tuberculosis in “Come Home, Peter.” Continuing with the theme of illness and loss, Gloria DiFulvio’s “If She Had Lived” imagines an alternative life for her family, had her grandmother not died from the 1918 Spanish flu.
Julia Gimbel transforms pages of “a worn, black leather scrapbook” into “In a Sailor’s Footsteps,” the story of her father’s experience of leaving home for the first time to fight in World War II. Myles Hopper returns to basement memories and a wrinkled grade school certificate in “Exodus Redux” as he reflects on exile, true love, and what has been gained and lost. To write “Tracing My Father’s Admonition,” Margaret Krell carries her father’s stories to Dresden, seeking meaning in memory, words, and names. “Extract of Household Registration” is Amy Wang Manning’s search for solace in an English translation of a Taiwanese household registry, the only record she has of her father’s family.
Nancy Martin, in “The Teetotaler,” finds a new understanding of her father in his letters to his mother during World War II. From a treasure trove of papers and photos, Patricia Ann McNair pieces together her father’s life as a motorcycle missionary in Korea at the start of the 20th century in “Climbing the Crooked Trails.” Carolou Nelsen writes “I Had a Brother” as a collaboration with her big brother’s war-time letters, while Joanne Nelson’s “In My Office” offers a dual perspective “of the little girl held close by her brothers in a corner of the kitchen…and of the woman at her desk in a basement office.”
A great-aunt’s genealogical record allows Annilee Newton to bring to life her grandfather “Leet,” and she realizes “I don’t know what to call the in-between parts that aren’t there anymore.” Pam Parker opens “The Blue Cardboard Box” to find letters and answers to painful questions about a grandmother she never met. Ramona M. Payne gets to know a mother-in-law whom she saw only twice and never talked to in “Without Words.” In “She Wrote a Good Letter,” Valerie Reynolds recalls meeting her husband through letters before they ever spoke a word to each other.
Jessica Schnur strings together personal and family memories of her mother to deliver a “Schnur Family Announcement.” Meagan Schultz’s “They Were Young Once, Too” tells the love story of her grandparents through the gift of their letters to each other. Yvonne Stephens uses letters to create the found poems “Syl” and “Letters on Repeat from 728 W Spruce St.” The microfiction piece “Wind the Fabric Tighter” by Kim Suhr weaves the story of an unknown “girl in a casket with a halo of flowers, her posthumous portrait the only proof she’d lived.”
In the final piece, Julie Anne Thorndyke discovers in “Aunt Becker’s Secret” a kindred spirit in “the memory of those eyes and their piercing gaze, daring me to be myself, daring me to surmount all obstacles and be the writer she recognized in the bookish child she saw before her.” May we all have such a kindred spirit and be one ourselves.