Sunday, 19 April 2015

Painting a Portrait with Words

This week at the Family History Center, I was visiting with a man who was saying he had 24 years of letters his mother had written his wife and his father's journals.  He said he had gleaned some interesting things from them but many of the letters or journals were just mundane things of life like ironing, fixing the mower, things not of interest.
Oh wow, what a picture of the life those mundane things can paint.
I will take some examples from my family using those examples he had given and paint a picture of my grandmother, my father-in-law, and mother-in-law.
My grandmother, I have said before, was a remarkable woman.  She raise 13 children of her own and 2 grandchildren.  She had a pension from her husband's military service of 5 dollars to sustain the 6 left at home and the 2 grandchildren.
1930 photo held by Fran Ellsworth
In order to make ends meet, she washed and ironed for the families who either had enough money to not want to do it themselves or they worked and needed someone else to do that job.  [My grandchildren really are pretty clueless about ironing today. They have fabrics that don't need ironing, or the parents take the clothing to the Cleaners so "they will be done right." This is a side of life they can learn about.]  My grandmother had degenerative arthritis.  Her bones in her ankles and feet slowly an painfully degenerated. When she died, the doctor couldn't believe she was still walking. It was on these feet and legs that she would stand for hours washing, no washers like we have today, and iron to earn a small amount of money to make a living.
Vintage Embroider design
That is devotion and character of never giving in or up to circumstances.  I guess she was a person who lived the saying of when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
Mundane jobs, but heroic attitudes.
My father-in-law had grown up in a family who worked.  His mother was an executive secretary and his father was an oil company executive.  They hired everything done.  While my father-in-law was not opposed to work, that is some interesting stories, he never learned to fix a mower, fix plumbing, or fix a car.
Phillip Martin Clip Art
His son as a matter of recourse, felt this left him wanting, and spent many hours learning on his own how to be self sustaining, without having to hire help.  Fixing a lawn mower, is pretty unexciting, but it illustrates that the person is mechanically inclined and spent time learning about machines as well as they are self sufficient.  Great character.
The interesting thing about my mother-in-law was she understood that her husband loved eating and he loved interesting flavors.  She would always have a large meal for him when he got home.
In this one they are camping out. Photo held by Fran Ellsworth
They would sit and visit about what happened during the day, and enjoyed the intimate relationship of a couple who shared daily activities of when they were apart as well as challenges and triumphs of life. These actions are what kept a marriage together for 60 years. This is what teaches grandchildren the ingredients it takes to make a good marriage; communication and sharing.
My point in this post is don't throw out the daily lives searching for the exciting. The exciting things are of great interest catchers, but the daily life is what shows what a person is made of. Using those activities paints mental pictures, such as a man and wife sitting across from each other and talking, working out challenges, or planning the future.  This is what can take the place of lack of pictures or lack of ever having met that person, word pictures.

Build your ancestors from the facts found.  What do you know about the vocation of farmer in the 1800s.  You might find they were store clerk, maybe they were found on a census in a poor house.  What happened to bring them there.  So many possibilities are found for stories of them just in looking in places and times they lived in.  Janet Few had some great ideas in her post this month. Funny that we were on the same page.
Keep writing the stories. Bring each of those ancestors to life with morals to their stories for your posterity.  You can do it, and there are many who are doing it.  Join their ranks.
See you next month.


  1. You are so right, it's the little everyday details that make our ancestors come to life.

  2. You have captured the significance of "mundane, but committed or heroic". No life is ordinary in my opinion..each one brings challenges and your word pictures clearly demonstrate the story.

  3. What a great reminder. Thanks Fran.

  4. A very thought provoking post, and how I agree with you!

  5. I agree wholeheartedly. I'd give anything to find such details about my great-grandmother. While others look for names and dates, I'm hooked on figuring out what my ancestors' daily life was like.

    1. Thank you for the positive comment. Such fun tracking down our ancestors.

  6. I have bags and boxes of letters and photos from my parents. I'm planning to write a blog post for each of them. But it's overwhelming to know where and how to start. Read and sort ...

    1. Diana how much fun! Best place is to start at the beginning and build... Gosh having ancestor stuff envy. :-)


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