Got Politics on Your Mind? Why Not Write about It?

by Memoir Mentor on October 11, 2012

I‘m as involved in the presidential election as most of you, maybe more. I can’t wait to read the newspaper each morning to see what the polls say. I also get my news from the Internet, particularly Google News. It’s updated every few minutes, so I don’t have to wait for the morning paper.

Things were different a few decades ago–before the Internet, before televised debates, before 24-hour TV news stations kept us “informed” and jittery. Some of my students remember sitting with their parents in front of the radio listening to FDR’s fireside chats, or staying up all night to hear who won. They recall with nostalgia the days when people weren’t so blasé about voting or cynical about politicians and the whole political process.

I’ve asked my students to write about their political beliefs and behavior. Who did they vote for, and why? What issues and candidates were they passionate about? How have their ideas changed over time? All these details reveal a great deal about who we are and the events that shaped our lives. And they make good stories, too. See, for example the wonderful story below written by long-time student Kathleen Anderson. I bet you’ve got a similar story you can write.

VOTING in 1956
by Kathleen Anderson

The look on my father’s face crushed my vibrant spirit. I had been so excited all day. It was November 7, 1956.

It was a pivotal year for me. I graduated from nursing school and had a regular paycheck from my position as afternoon Charge Nurse of a medical floor at St. Joseph Hospital in Detroit. I shared an apartment with two friends while keeping my home town, Garden City, as my official residence. I even opened my first credit card with Winklemen’s, a women’s clothier. I made plans for my future and attended Wayne State University. And for the first time, I could vote in an election, a presidential one at that. Life was good.

In the fall, Father John Ross, pastor of St. Raphael Catholic Church in my home town, had given a sermon about voting as a moral obligation. The line I remember most was that Hungary lost its freedom by one vote.

Politics had long intrigued me, probably from watching my parents listening to FDR Fireside Chats and seeing them glued to the radio in the living room during the 1943 elections, following every bit by bit report of how the votes were tallying. Groans when Roosevelt’s opponent was ahead were quickly drowned out by cries of glee when FDR moved into first place. My parents had lived through political upheavals in Ireland in the early 1900s as that country sought independence from England. Having a say in their government here was a priceless gift to them.

That enthusiasm invaded my soul early on. When FDR was declared the winner, I joined in their excitement, mostly because it was contagious, even though I did not fully understand the significance. By the time of FDR’s death, I had studied enough history to begin to grasp how important elections were. I began to read more than the comic pages.

I started carefully reading the two newspapers in Detroit, The Detroit News and The Free Press. Eisenhower was running for his second term as president on the Republican ticket. I was impressed by this general’s war feats and his ending of the Korean War in 1953. I had become aware of the growth of Communism and regarded it as a threat to our nation.

In 1955, a film was released about Cardinal Mindszenty of Hungary–a Catholic priest who had been accused of treason by the Communist regime and brutally tortured–leaving a big impact on me. Eisenhower declared himself anti-communist. I did not see Adalai Stevenson, the Democrat candidate, as strong enough.

November 7, 1956, found me at the city hall, ready to do my duty. I dressed for the occasion–two-inch black heels, a small black purse, my dark blue coat and hat, and black gloves. This was a serious event.

I had registered as a Democrat, just like my parents. I surmised that they voted a straight Democratic ticket. I never asked anyone else how they registered, nor how they voted. That inhibition probably came from my parents. The secret ballot was a inviolable trust.

Standing in line to wait my turn, I felt a sense of pride. With pleasure, I signed my name in the register. This, more than anything else, declared me a citizen of the United States. The awesomeness of the secret ballot made the moment almost sacred. I took my papers into the curtained booth and proceeded to mark my choices. I had studied all the candidates and the issues and felt well qualified to cast my vote.

It was soul-satisfying to watch my sealed ballot drop into the secured collection box. I stood up straighter, tried to control the smile that threatened to engulf my face, and walked out the building, a fully realized citizen.

My sister Noreen, who was also voting for the first time, greeted me at our parents’ house. We shared our pride, more by the smile we gave each other than anything else. Our dad was home and asked us if we had voted. With pleasure we both said yes! Looking at our smiling faces, he said “You both voted for Eisenhower.”

The sorrow on his face was almost palpable. My joy seeped away. I still remember.


What Personal History Means to Me

by Memoir Mentor on September 5, 2012

My fall term began this week, and I couldn’t be more delighted. It’s such a pleasure to greet old friends again, some who have attended my classes for nearly 10 years now! Amazing isn’t it?But, they love the work of personal history as much as I do, and they so enjoy being around like-minded friends who have shared their lives with them through their compelling, humorous, or sometimes heart-rending stories.I explain more about all this in a guest blog post I wrote for the Association of Personal Historians, the premier international organization for people who help people record their life stories. Check out their blog here and take a moment to look over their inspiring website. APH is gearing up for its annual conference, which will be held in St. Louis in early October. I will have the pleasure–and honor–to present a six-hour pre-conference seminar titled, Boot Camp for Personal History Writers: Kick Your Writing to the Next Level.

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I’ve been on a roll this summer–a writing roll. I’ve spent many days in the library (my most productive writing place), working like a demon to finish the first draft of the five-generation family history I’ve been writing for years. Yes, years.

It has been grueling–this summer, and the years that preceded it. I’ve ignored the advice I continually preach to my students: Don’t pick a project so large you become overwhelmed by its magnitude. In other words, don’t bite off more than you can chew.  I did just that and I’ve been chewing and chewing and chewing. Recreating the lives of five generations of ancestors who lived over a 200-year period is a foolhardy endeavor if you’re also trying to recreate the times and places in which they lived. The research alone nearly crippled me, generating three large storage boxes of material and nearly the equivalent volume in computer files.

The grueling part has been trying to pull it all together–combining the relevant history (national, local, religious, military, social, etc., etc.) with the genealogy data I collected. Because my ancestors tend to fly under the radar and never took a pencil to paper, I’ve had very basic genealogy records to reconstruct their lives.

As I said, it hasn’t been pretty. I feel comfortable enough now to confess that there were many times I’ve smelled the gut-wrenching whiff of failure. I saw myself walking away from all of it because there was no way I was going to finish.

But, in the end, I couldn’t. What would happen to all my research? I had stood in front of large audiences telling others how to write their family histories, inserting examples along the way about my own project. People left my lectures telling me that I’d convinced them they would write a family history. How could I ever face these people if I threw in the towel? Well, I couldn’t.

But, I feel confident enough now to come clean about my struggles and self-doubt because for the first time…I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. My hunkering down in the library this summer has paid dividends. I have nearly a 200-page draft of the whole enchilada.

Sure, I’ve got some tweaking to do–major stuff in some areas–but this seems like a cakewalk after all the excruciating thinking and re-writing and self-flagellation that went into the first draft. [click to continue…]