Keeping the Family Stories Alive

The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living. ~ Cicero


About fifteen years ago, I became interested in what the cause of my great-grandmother's death was. (This was my maternal grandmother's mother). I knew only a very few details — that she had died when my grandmother was not yet twenty, and that my grandmother was expected to hold the family together because she was the oldest daughter. Her father was an alcoholic, which complicated the situation even more. 

I began my quest for this story from my mother, by asking her through letters what her grandmother died of. The first time my mother wrote back, she didn't answer the question. The second time I asked, I wondered if she died in childbirth. My mother wrote back, "As to what my grandmother died of, I can't say for sure. No, she did not die in childbirth. I always thought she did, but she didn't." 
And there my mother left it… what a cliffhanger! So I tried again, saying, "If you don't tell me what she died of, my imagination is going to get the best of me… I know her husband was an alcoholic." That only made Mem defensive, saying that I shouldn't imagine bad things about my great-grandfather, because they aren't true. 
Finally I realized that I was not going to get any help from Mem. So I visited the community where my grandmother came from. I found a copy of my great-grandmother's obituary in the library (on microfilm) in that community, I visited her gravesite, and I talked to the Amish people in the community, including some of my mother's first cousins.
I started thinking about writing this story, but there were still many details I didn't know. So I decided to write the story as fiction, even though I kept the parts of the story that I knew and filled in the details with my imagination. It was subsequently published in Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women in 1997, and a version of this same story in Vermont Voices III: An Anthology in 1999. 
Over the next several posts, I will share this story. It is named "Sarah's Courtship."


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