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Checking Facts: In Life and Writing
After spending an afternoon with my mother, I came home with a baggie filled with sepia and black-and-white photographs. These were only a fraction of the photos we sorted through with my intended purpose. I needed to find a few photographs for my art journal, and I had decided to focus on my maternal grandmother. My mother and my aunt had sorted through family albums and loose photographs on a previous occasion, so we knew who was who. Well, mostly. A few times we had to study a nose or a tilt of the head to make sure this was this person and not that one. Thankfully, many had been inscribed with a date and the names of those pictured.
As I considered these photographs, I began to realize the importance of checking facts in order to frame life stories--our own, those of our families and friends--and, if we are writers, those of our fictional characters or those we represent in our nonfiction. Here are some of my conclusions.
Memory is an unreliable resource. In some cases, my mother and I had to go by what we had been told and by our own memories. Yet, memories are tenuous sources to be certain. Because once a loved one has passed, can we be sure we have all the facts we need to determine who is who and what is what and when was when and where is that again? I can remember exactly what I was wearing during specific events, and I remember all my home phone numbers from childhood. But, when declining memory is hereditary as far back as one's great-great-grandmother, it seems prudent to question one's own recollections at some point.
We all have a personal narrative. Setting aside my grandmother's Alzheimer's, I discovered in my early twenties that some of the stories I had heard when I was growing up did not match up with what I learned while researching family history. I don't know what prompted this misinformation. I suspect it may have been because other life changing events overshadowed extraneous details. I do know, when I mentioned this misinformation based on written proof from an newspaper article or a birthday card, that my grandmother was not pleased about being corrected. My older self chides my younger self, Who would be? In the context of life as I know it, the misinformation is rather inconsequential or easily corrected. But, I bring up personal narrative because it is important to check what others tell us and what we learn from other sources.
We need more than one personal account. Whenever possible, it is also important to get more than one account of the story. In 1994, I had the opportunity to check some family facts with my great-great uncle (my grandmother's brother) when I was working on a creative nonfiction essay. His interpretation of events helped clarify some information. He also shared his own family research, which I cherish and refer to whenever I am discussing family history with my children.
Some narratives are open to interpretation. As I was doing my research for the creative nonfiction essay, I discovered a connection to my own personal history. I discussed it with my great-great uncle based on his recollections and the family papers I had studied. He conceded that my interpretation could be valid. Again, in the larger scheme of human existence, my viewpoint of the narrative mattered little to anyone except me. Still, it made for another narrative to add to the family folklore with my own concessions that I was adding conjecture to my discoveries.
Sometimes we don't know what we think we know. Back to the photographs. I came across one of my grandmother sitting on an antique piece of farming equipment. I thought I knew what it was. But, having never lived on a farm and certainly not during that era, I thought I had better check. I guessed that the equipment had something to do with hay. So, I did a quick Internet search of illustrations. I was correct that it was used for hay, but not in the way I guessed. She is sitting on a horse-drawn hay rake. I now know a new fact I can add to a story should the use of a hay rake be required.
Other resources are not infallible. If you have studied census records, you may notice there are inconsistencies. A date, a name, a location, or all of the above may be off. Try deciphering handwriting, and it can be understandable. Add to that the inconsistencies in educational practice or grammatical construct, and that can add to confusion. The Internet, which is great for quick fact-checking, is fraught with misinformation. Sometimes checking and rechecking is necessary to ensure the most accurate account.
The smallest phrase can reveal deeper truth. On the back of the photograph of my grandmother sitting on the hay rake, she inscribed "Believe it or not--me." We can't be sure who she was addressing. It could be guessed that it was to my grandfather who was stationed at Padre Island during World War II. But, since the date on the back is April 1946, it could have been to my great-grandparents who lived in Connecticut and would have been surprised to see their New England-raised daughter dressed for farm work. Maybe she had trouble believing it herself. Something else occurred to me based on her stories. Just because she smiled for the picture doesn't mean she wasn't feeling homesickness, adjusting to marriage after wartime, and trying to raise a child in an unfamiliar way of life. But, I would like to think she tried to make the best of it by poking fun at herself. Maybe she was assuring her parents--and herself--that she could and would persevere.
So, how can we be certain we are getting all of our facts straight in life and in writing? We can't. Not exactly.
Yet, we can live and write what we know. My grandmother was never one to complain, so I think my interpretation of her inscription can be a nod to the accurate. As she often said to me, "This too shall pass." If there was anything but a smile behind her countenance, it was because she believed that bit of her own wisdom as well.
Although I would like to ask her, "Grandma, did you know you were sitting on a hay rake?"
But, I can guess what she would say. Because I can hear her laughing.