In my last two columns I marveled at the ability of major league journalists who are practitioners of the fine art of creative nonfiction, writers stretching the “who, what, when, why, and how” of workaday journalism to capture “the hidden lives” that their subjects experience but can’t necessarily explain.
That approach can create bestselling books when a writer like Richard Preston tackles a world renowned astronomer or Siobhan Roberts trails a mathematical genius. But should we offer any similar encouragement to, say, a housewife in upstate New York with a 30-year-old story to tell or another housewife in Massachusetts who has stumbled on a diary that is more than 130 years old?
My answer is yes, and my examples cited above are my two older sisters, who in the past year or so have each produced works that will almost certainly never become bestsellers but nevertheless capture “hidden lives” that otherwise would be lost to history. This little story begins in Endicott, NY, in the early 1980s, and then shifts to rural Illinois in the late 1800s.
On the 25th anniversary of U.S. 1, I wrote a column sharing 25 ideas, good and bad, that formed the “not-so-secret sauce” that led to where U.S. 1 was at age 25. The 25th point on that list was to “have someone or something to inspire you.” As I noted, “In the summer of 1984, as I was dithering over whether to start the paper, and what the consequences would be if I failed (me, a failure!), and all the other considerations that make it easier not to do something than to do it, my 16-year-old nephew was in the final throes of a two-year battle with brain cancer. In all that time I never heard him complain. And in the 25 years since then I have reminded myself of that on many occasions.”
Little did I know, while I was gathering that inspiration, my sister, the mother of my dying nephew, was not only doing all that parents do in those tumultuous days but she was also taking notes. Notes jotted down at the many consultations with doctors from Binghamton to Mass General in Boston to Roswell in Buffalo, and notes recording reactions to the many medications and operations.
A few years later my sister sent me an article she had written about the amazing rollercoaster ride she had endured. It had nothing to with Princeton and was totally outside U.S. 1’s “business and entertainment” mission. But it was gripping, with an ending that revealed the outcome without ever using the word “death.” I ran it in advance of Mother’s Day, 1987. One reader was sitting in the waiting room of a car repair shop and burst into tears as the ending hit home.
My sister said she hoped to write a full-length book. The years passed, talk of the book faded. Until this past year. Spurred on by a longtime friend who is an editor and published author, my sister — Pat Schwadron Sbarra — has published “An Angel Touched Him and He Slept.” It’s a real book, 267 pages, with an epilogue that offers an ironic ray of sunshine when you least expect it. (Yes, it’s available on Amazon.)
In the book several doctors stand out for having empathy to match their expertise. But there were all too many instances of high-handed doctors talking down to my sister and her family. My sister uses a phrase “deep telling” to refer to the long recitation of scientific hypotheses that turn into mumbo jumbo in a layman’s mind. There was the doctor in Binghamton who questioned why my sister and her husband took their son to high powered out-of-town hospitals. “You people traipsed up to Boston and then to Roswell, and now I am supposed to pick up the pieces . . . And why did you cancel our appointment!”
Then there was neurologist in Buffalo who told my sister that her son did not need another spinal tap, even though his headaches had just resumed. “I just want to be sure,” my sister said to argue her case. “Of course you do,” said the doctor, patting her on the shoulder as he announced that they would do another but in two months. As my sister writes: “And he left. The case is closed. The doctor has spoken. . . but I am pissed.”
Meanwhile, my sister in Massachusetts, Cathy Ketchum, went through my father’s belongings after he died at the age of 92. She discovered a trove of documents from my father’s mother and her family, the Keys to whom I owe my middle name. There were photographs, letters, marriage announcements, several obituaries, and a genealogy that begins in England in 1549 and ends with a marriage in 1873 that produced 13 children, including my grandmother.
In the midst of those papers was a 67-page manuscript written by Louesa J. Keys, the third-born child and the first to survive infancy. Its title: “Growing Up in a Big Family.” It was written in 1944, when she was 68 years old and confined to a hospital for several weeks with “nothing to do but stare at a mustard colored wall.” Her acknowledgments on the first page begin with a sentiment that most of us today would share: “No one has ever supposed that ours was an outstanding family with anything in its history to write about.”
My great aunts and uncles included no world famous astronomers or ecologists or mathematicians. And much of Aunt Louesa’s manuscript deals with the mundane details of daily life in the late 19th century rural midwest. Childhood games with names I have never encountered are described in detail. Her mother has to “set sponge” for the next day’s bread baking.
There may be no significance to these observations. But historians of religion may be more interested in the dynamics of the religious groups flourishing at the time. Louesa writes about her family worshiping at the only church in the little town of Grain Center, Illinois, when they moved there, “the Presbyterian.” But there were also people in town with other faiths, including “Campbellites and Faith Cures.”
At one point her younger sister, Hazel, ran off to attend “protracted meetings” of one of the other sects. Her father, James Keys, established a family rule: “I may be wrong in my beliefs, but all I ask of my children is that they refrain from any commitments until at least 16 years of age, when I shall ask each to make his own decisions as to church affiliations.”
As Louesa wrote of her father: “Father’s aversion to some church practices, to denominational differences, and to hell-fire preaching won for him the unjust title of infidel and gave us, his children, a sort of stigma in the locality.”
Someone today, contemplating the chore of memorializing details of their daily life may say “why bother” and “who cares.” A Google search will reveal the salient facts of anyone’s life. Untold numbers of selfies will augment endless hours of video captured by your least favorite uncle. What could any of us possibly add? Back in 1944 my Great Aunt Louesa had the same reservation: No over supposed, she wrote from that hospital room with mustard colored walls, “that my life story could become the thread to hold family history together.”
Visiting relatives for the holidays? Travel safely, have fun, and take notes.