Staying in Focus : Focus On: Photographs, Memories and Memoirs

I have completed my course on writing a memoir and have found the process fascinating. Writing  a memoir is so much more than merely relating the facts about one’s life.  It is more like reaching into the past and bringing it back to life. Then, through pictures and anecdotes, letters and stories, one can transport a reader to that time and make the experience real to them, as one does in writing a novel.  In fact, dialogue can play an important part of the memoir, making it feel  more like a story than a census report

I am fortunate to have my mother, who will be 90 years old in May as  a source of family history.  Only she remains of her immediate family, as her parents, 7 brothers and 1 sister have all passed on, as have their respective spouses. I also have my Aunt Ta, my father;s sister as a source of information as well.  But as with Ishmael, only these two remain to tell the tale.

And I just love old photographs.  Besides being pictures of sometimes long forgotten or even unknown ancestors, they are rich in the background information they present – vintage cars, the corner drug store (now a Walmart), an old Esso gas station, a narrow road that is now an interstate highway.So much information to be gleaned from a creased, sepia-toned piece of paper.

Here’s an example of how pictures, memories and dialogue can be used to animate a memoir.  I loved and admired my grandmother.  She was tough when she had to be (riding herd on 7 sons) and as gentle as could be with her grandchildren. She made the best rhubarb pie in the world and we all cherished her with all our hearts.  Here is a glimpse of her wisdom, as remembered by my mother:

Photo 20

I love this picture of my grandmother, Minerva Marion Struble. She stands alone, but resolute, with one foot placed firmly ahead of the other and hands clasped before her.  There is a hint of a smile on her face.  In most pictures I’ve seen of her she is staring stoically into the camera as if picture-taking was serious business. The snowy backdrop reminds me of the cold northeast winters of my childhood. It snowed longer and deeper than it does now. My grandmother was called “Minnie” by all who knew her, but there was nothing “mini”´about her.  She was a tall, well-built woman of German descent, more than capable of riding herd over seven strapping sons and two attractive daughters. They each had their chores  to complete, to keep a clean, well cared for home, and avoid the chaos that could ensue were she not there to  keep an eye on them.  My mother tells one funny story (although my grandmother was not amused by this incident) from when she was about five years old.  She was walking outside, around the house, singing a song she had made up .  I picture my grandmother, hearing her from inside the house, and running out on the front porch, drying her hands on her apron.  I imagine the conversation went something like this:

“Anna May Struble, you stop that singing and get here inside right now!”

“But Mama,  I was only singing a song I made up all by myself!”  Anna was close to tears at her mother’s reaction to the song.

“And just where did you hear those words you put in your song? Those are cuss words, Anna May and not to be known or sung by a child of 5.”

“I’m sorry. Mama.  But Philip and Al, and all the boys say these words all the time. I’m so sorry, Mama.”

“Don’t you never-mind , Anna. You go along and play.  I’ll handle those boys.”

Later that evening at supper, Minerva hushed the conversation and said.  “Anna , please stand up, and for the last time ever, sing your song.  And if I hear a snicker or a laugh out of any of you,” she said with a stern eye on them all, “you’ll be heading out back to get your switch. ( If  a child behaved very badly, he was required to go out and procure a switch for a spanking.)

Anna sang her song.  A few snickers were quickly swallowed whole, and shame crept over the faces of the boys – from the neck up they glowed as bright as a winter cardinal.  Under their mother’s heated stare, they began to squirm.  Anna finished her song and sat down.

“I have told you boys, again and again, there would be no cussing in front of Anna. If she had been at school and wanted to share her song, think of her embarrassment  not to mention  the trouble she would be in.”

The boys hung their heads  down.  They all cherished  their little sister and would not want to see her hurt by their cussing.

“ Have I made my point?” asked their mother.

The boys shook their heads and said, “Yes, Ma’m.”

“To be sure you don’t forget, each of you may take a turn doing Anna’s chores for the next two weeks.”

“Yes, Ma’m”, they replied again, and  rose out of their chairs and made fast for the doors, glad to get away with just chores and not a switching.

When my mother was in her teen years, she had the unenviable duty of washing the floor of the wrap around porch every Saturday morning, with a bucket and cloth, on her hands and knees.  There was no hanging with friends until the job was done.  She told me she had to wear slacks instead of shorts when she went off with her friends, to cover the red knees she had from scrubbing the floor!

As I said, a formidable woman, my grandma, Minnie.

Photo 07

I also am intrigued by this photo of my mother. One doesn’t usually think of one’s mother as having been a young girl herself once. Yet here she sits, on the hood of this classic automobile, with her legs saucily crossed, dressed in what she told me was her green velvet skating outfit. I’m sure she was thinking she was just as cute as could be in that outfit.  They were probably getting ready for a trip to the ice pond to skate and enjoy the winter’s day.  On the left is her mother, Minnie, and on the right, my cousin Phyllis, daughter of sister Blanche. Phyllis looks like a little elf with that pointed hood! And look at Minnie, sitting on that fender with a bit of her legs peeking out beneath her winter coat.  Way to go, Grandma!

My mother looks so young here, indeed, most of her life lies ahead.  Little did they know as they sat there awaiting a driver, that clouds were gathering around the future, massing like the soldiers who would soon be marching through Europe,  obscuring the planes which would be flying toward Pearl Harbor and calling forth her brothers and my father to fight in WWII and she and my aunt to work in a munitions factory during the war years.

On this clear winter’s day, dressed in her green velvet skating outfit,  she only knew that she was young and healthy and pretty, and ready to skate the day away with her friends…

*                 *                 *              *               *                   *                   *                   *

From just 2 photographs and a bit of dialogue, I think I have succeeded in communicating
a sense of who they were at the time, a glimpse into their true personalities. Two dimensional figures become real life people using these techniques.

I am looking forward to the process of writing this memoir. I’m sure I’ll be posting more snippets as I proceed.



  1. I, too, love and use old family photographs. The richness of the background tells so much of the story. I did a whole blog post on old family cars. They’re never in the foreground but they’re there just the same. Fun post, thanks!

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