... despondent, a writer finds help from a close friend.
There is a great deal of interest in genealogy these days. My interest at the moment is focused on one life: that of my first husband, Frank O'Connor. He was twenty-one years older than I, a widower with three daughters. It took us thirteen years to produce a child, who was, and continues to be, a joy. However, our son Dan was but nineteen, a freshman in college, when his Dad died.
Losing a parent is difficult at any age. It is particularly painful during adolescence. Although Frank and Dan had spent a lot of time together during Frank's last years, I have come to realize that there are facets of Frank's personality, enjoyment of life, and passions which Dan doesn't remember or never knew about in the first place. Accordingly, I set out to recreate the story of Frank O'Connor's life for our son, the daughters of his first marriage, his grandchildren, and friends and other interested people.
I have a friend named Elaine Comeau who is deeply involved in the genealogy of her Acadian forebears. A remark by Elaine made me realize the awesome responsibility of my self-imposed endeavor. "Dottie," she said, "you are the only person who can give this to Dan."
With Elaine, I made two trips to Fitchburg, Frank's home town. We spent one worthwhile day in the public library's Genealogy Room. On another visit we searched the holdings of the Fitchburg Historical Society for meaningful information. In addition, on my own, I had taped and transcribed an interview with a man who had met Frank in the labor movement in the '30's, became his protege, and remained a close friend. I also taped and transcribed the memories of a woman who had met Frank when she was three and he was sixteen. Their families kept in close touch until Frank's death sixty years later. As part of my initial fact-gathering, I obtained birth certificates, death certificates, and marriage records.
When I thought I had enough information, I started to write the story of Frank's life. I got through his childhood and his troubled teens, when his parents separated. Then I bogged down. I was "stuck," and the more days that passed without any productive writing, the more despondent I became.
Along about that time, I had a wonderful "coffee-and" meeting with my friend Carlynn Trout. Both of us, at one time, wrote monthly columns for the local paper. After reading her columns, I had sought her out to tell her that I fully enjoyed her articles; her keen awareness of the natural world around us made me think of my mother. A friendship developed and flourished. Even though there is a generation between us, we have many common interests. We enjoy stimulating each others' minds; we have also shared some deep feelings about religion, death, and other aspects of life that people often hide from each other.
Invariably, it takes some maneuvering for each of us, with our busy schedules, to arrange those precious "coffee-and" sessions at a local restaurant, away from the pressures of our homes. When we finally did manage to get together early in the New Millennium, I told her about my despair. She knew exactly what I meant. A few years ago, she had undertaken to write the story of her grandfather's life, her grandfather who died at age forty after being gassed in World War 1.
Since she had had the experience of researching a life, and also because she is a seasoned writer, Carlynn was able to give me three suggestions that were extremely helpful. One is to create a chronology, describing the important events of each year of the person's life. Not every year will have an important event, or there may have been happenings which are lost in history. Whatever can be written in that fashion, however, helps to "flesh out" a portrait of the person.
The second important idea is to generate a questionnaire to be answered by the person's family and friends. Where did he live? What kind of a relationship did he have with his family? Who were his friends? What were his interests? What kind of work did he do and how did he feel about it? What were some of his favorite sayings, likes, songs, stories?
It is a fact that if six people are at the scene of an accident or crime, six slightly different "eyewitness accounts" will emerge. Each person is telling the truth as he or she saw it and remembers it. So it is with the biographical questionnaire. By piecing together the disparate answers to a question from several people, it should be possible to arrive at a composite view of what the person was like and his impact on the people around him.
The third facet which Carlynn stressed was: collect visuals. Borrow photographs, she advised; scan them onto your computer and return the originals. Take pictures of where he was born, other houses where he lived, his final resting place. Photographs lend interest and break up the text.
Since that pivotal coffee klatch, I have created a questionnaire that suits my purpose; I've mailed it out with a cover letter to more than a dozen people. I am looking forward to receiving information either by written responses or by interviews.
I am deeply grateful to Carlynn for showing me how to overcome the terrible impasse that was making me so despondent. I hope that my experience will be useful to others who are attempting to write biographies.
July 7, 2000