Recording a Family Autobiography

This June, just as we came out of lockdown, my mother was taken ill.  It turns out that she must have been ill for many months, but after seeing hardly anyone since late March, the change in her health and colouring appeared drastic when her sister-in-law dropped off some food for her.

Mary Brown

Tests and examinations were started but we knew from the start that things were looking bad.  Even before we received confirmation of the test results my brother and I were making arrangements to join her at her home in Cornwall for her last few weeks, me from Scotland and my brother from his new posting in the Gulf. 

Everyone from work had been working remotely since March in any case, so I spoke with my very supportive bosses and we agreed that I would be working mornings at my mum’s house and using up annual leave in the afternoons.  So I bought a monitor, arranged for internet access to be installed, and my husband made a 1,200 mile round trip from Scotland to drop me off.

My brother and I managed two treasured weeks with Mum at her home before she went into a local hospice.

On my first day down she surprised me by saying that she wanted me to type up her story.  Fine, I’m a secretary and a family historian, so I’m glad both came together for something so important.

Mum was a great organiser of parties and get-togethers, so had several occasional tables.  One of these was just the right size for me to get my legs under and to hold a laptop and mouse (I hate those curser squares laptops have!) and I was ready. I felt like a court stenographer, sitting at my little table.

We started at the very beginning, for, as the song goes, it’s a very good place to start.  I think that Mum had assumed she would focus more on her career and family, although just having her voice heard was of huge importance to her as she hasn’t always had the opportunity to speak her views and thoughts. 

Mary c.1947

However, I had so many questions about her childhood that I wrote pages about that.  What did she and her friends do after school?  Where did she play? What were her favourite things? What did her school uniform feel like? What was her favourite food?  How did her family celebrate Christmas? She eventually said in exasperation “Why are you so interested in this? It’s not interesting! I want to move on now.  No-one is interested in this!”  My brother and I said in unison “Yes we are!”  I told her I was going to Laurie-Lee her.

So Mum went on to tell me about her University days at London then Oxford, and her early jobs and holidays, her holidays pre-marriage and of married life with children in Norwich, her second career as a civil servant and computer programmer, the next stage of her life after separation from my dad, her love of badminton and walking.  She spoke of her return to Cornwall and the initial struggle to re-establish a social life which maintaining her love of culture and quenching her thirst for art, history and poetry, and for exploring new places.

Please do check out the story of Mum’s childhood in the Cornish fishing town of Newlyn: Memories of a Newlyn Childhood by Mary Brown.

After two weeks Mum was getting frail and in need of constant care and pain management, so when the place at St Julia’s Hospice came up she accepted it straight away.  She was keen to keep on with her story so I took along an A4 pad and a shorthand pencil and made notes leaning on the edge of her bed which I would type up in the evening before we moved on to the next stories.  It was also useful to have to make notes of what we were still to talk about in the time we had together, which was clearly running out fast as she was almost too weak to talk. 

We finished her story up to 9 months previously, when she had turned 80.  I could do that last part myself as I’d been at the week-long(!) get-together for family and closest friends which she arranged in a Norfolk cottage we hired for a week.  So instead I asked her about her favourite things, TV and radio programmes and their theme tunes, favourite music and artistes, the many places she’s been on holiday, about being a grandparent, her favourite perfumes and clothes shops and actors she’d seen on stage, which included Laurence Olivier.  Later when she was too weak to talk I read poetry to her, which might not have occurred to me if she hadn’t told me how important it was to her, and my brother read extracts from walking holiday guidebooks she’d used over the course of many happy holidays.

Mum passed away on 5th August and was buried on 18th August, and I went home a couple of days later.  Over the next two months I scanned more than 550 photographs and edited her story.  It came to about 50 pages, of which 10 were her school days.

If you’re thinking of doing this for relatives, hopefully without the pressing deadline, these are some points I would suggest both from writing mum’s story and from wider experience chatting to family:

  • Ask open questions, eg “What was it like?” rather than “Did you like it?”
  • Random questions like “What did it smell like?” can give unexpected results and give context not recorded by history books.
  • Be aware that some issues are too painful or shameful for older relatives to think about; they are not obliged to share everything private.
  • Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t remember quite what was said.  There came a point where I thought “I can’t read this sentence of notes, but I don’t think it’s essential to the paragraph”.
  • Record it if you can but after bereavement it may be very hard to hear your loved one’s voice for a long time.
  • You can keep it chronological; alternatively think about structuring what was said into themes, eg school days, festivals and celebrations, the war.
  • Have the first page as a simple title and ideally a photo of your family member or their home, don’t just launch into pages of text.
  • Share your work so it’s not lost to posterity, even if it’s just a family shared Cloud space like OneDrive.  Consider saving in in several formats.   A paper copy does not require superseded technology unlike eg a video does.  Even the large blog sites might not exist forever and their content may be lost. Some professions might have dedicated archives, eg teaching, nursing and military archives.  Other biographies may sit well in a local place archive (Mum’s is stored in Newlyn Archive) or family history society, or as part of a one-place study.

But above all, don’t leave it too late. I learnt so much about my mum but didn’t get much chance to actually discuss it with her.

Words and images copyright Lynne Black, First published on starryblackness blog, 22 November 2020.

3 thoughts on “Recording a Family Autobiography

  1. Pingback: This week's crème de la crème - November 28, 2020 - Genealogy à la carteGenealogy à la carte

  2. n8n8dog

    Thanks Lynne,

    That’s really special to read, and it’s so thoguhtful of you to include all of those tips. I hope you’re well and that you have a very Merry Christmas!

    Best,

    Nathan

    ________________________________

    Reply

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