On preserving family. Here, there, somewhere else.

bea © liz gumbinnerYour parents’ first date. Your grandfather’s tile business. Your dad’s story of the Egyptian man who offered to buy your stepmother for 10,000 camels. The weekends your aunts and uncles spent down the Shore as kids at the Latin Casino. Your great-aunt’s stories of slumming it at prohibition-era speakeasies in New York. Your mother’s clothing label and her first big order from Neiman-Marcus. Your great-grandmother’s journey from Kiev to Ellis Island–which turned out years later to be Philly, but Ellis Island sounds way better in the story.

What number of your family stories are lost relative to the ones that are not? How many of those details are somewhere you can access them at a later date, open them up, and create new memories and understanding about where you and your children have come from?

One of my most treasured keepsakes: A weathered, nearly crumbling, paper scrapbook from my Great Aunt, bursting with photo-corners and snapshots from the 1920’s and 1930’s. If I had to save a single item in a fire, this is the one that always springs to mind first. Even before the baby pictures. My children are well photographed–we live in a digital age in which it would be almost difficult not to find photos of your children on any given day, at any recital or graduation or bathtime. But those photos of my ancestors only exist in that one place: on those delicate pages.

Recently, there have been a series of events, changes, wake-up calls in my life that compel me to contemplate the nature of our family histories and how ephemeral, how fragile and easily lost they are

When we are gone, will our stories die with us?

Will anyone know about your pathetic Christmas trees? How you felt when your daughter first read a book to herself? How you survived 9/11? What you cooked–or didn’t cook? The unbearably hot summer vacation in Maine?

How about the girl who started as a headstrong baby, then, universe willing, will grow to be her own mother and grandmother, with her own stories that someone cares about?

I’ve seen written (lord, have I seen it written) that the idea of parent blogging is indulgent. Narcissistic. That it’s nothing more than documenting every stupid aspect of every insignificant moment with detail that “no one cares about.”

They’re wrong. Someone will care about your stories very much one day: Your children. Their children.


Does anyone else matter nearly as much?

tillie mom

Don’t listen to those who would tell you that the stories you write down are frivolous or self-centered. Don’t listen to those who spit out the word mommy blogging with disdain or use it to belittle the importance of what you are doing.

What we do as mothers–and yes, fathers–is more than just create children. We create families. We create legacies. In some way, we have an obligation to preserve what we can.

The tools are new, but the intent isn’t; not nearly.

Recently, I had a wonderful conversation with a friend about the importance of family. Those who are with us, and those who are not. That’s why I so treasure those photographs from 1931–it’s as if they were the actual people themselves and not just their fading images.

One of my great joys in recent years was spending hours with Momsie before she died, painstakingly filling out a memory book filled with prompts about her childhood, her upbringing. One of my great regrets is that we didn’t finish it. But the more I think about it, perhaps a memory book, like a blog, can never truly be finished. Even if every page, every margin, is packed to overflowing.

There’s always one more page.

And so here we put our pages to use–one more, one day at a time–to tell those stories, to save the memories, to create a tapestry of love, fear, laughter, great moments, and scary near-misses. The good, the bad, the exquisitely honest, the painfully beautiful.

Two years ago, I gave my mother her own family memory book. This past Mother’s Day, she returned it to me, completed.

I haven’t spent much time with it yet. But I don’t need to today. It’s not just for me.

mom book


53 thoughts on “On preserving family. Here, there, somewhere else.”

  1. This post made me feel proud to be a mommy blogger! You are right, we make families! We record those memories, both big and simple, that make us families

    Thank you for such a great post!

  2. I wrote about this recently—about why I am a blogger and why I write about me and why I write about my children.

    And it’s because I know so little about my mother, about who she was as a person, about her thoughts, feelings, emotions, etc. from when my siblings and I were growing up. I *wish* she had been a blogger; I wish she had written all of those things down. All of the stories, the jokes, the memories.

    I’m leaving my children MY story.

    1. Thank you Ali. I think that’s a very strong reason. I really treasure my parents’ comments throughout my blog. That’s a form of documenting thoughts and memories too.

      Your children are lucky to have your beautiful words.

  3. One of the many blessings of social media is that our children are recording their own lives. So while we as parents can create a wonderful record, alongside our efforts they are writing their own.

    1. So true!

      I just stumbled across the Instagram feed of a friend’s former baby…now 21 (gasp) and nearly died. I suppose that will be my kids one day.

  4. One of my most prized possessions is the Grandparent’s Book my grandfather dictated to me before he died. I was probably about 12, his eyesight was failing but his memories were clear as a bell, and he shared them as I wrote down his answers to the questions posed by the book. It gave me a rare and treasure look at who he’d been as a boy and a man (quite the rake apparently – and yes, he did tell tales) before he became my grandfather. I will treasure those moments and memories forever, and do my best to pass them along (though some will have to wait until my kids are of a more appropriate age to hear about them ;)).

  5. I have to say, this is exactly why I bristled at the Motherlode take on being in the moment and leaving the camera in the bag. It’s personal for me, so I haven’t joined the discussion yet.

    But this pretty much sums up why.

    I am totally in the moment when I have my camera. More in it with than without, actually. But I also know the photographs I make represent my memories. These pictures are how I saw things, not necessarily how they were. When my kids go through them later, after I am gone, I hope they will see my life, too.

    1. I missed that but yes, I’m conflicted as well. As I photographer (a good one!) I see your perspective and agree to a large degree. I do love when I’m enjoying a party or a dinner so much I’m not bothering to document it or tweet it or whatever. But how can I miss those precious pictures of Halloween or dance recitals or weekends with the grandparents? How can I miss a chance to write about it so that I won’t forget about the things that are important to me at the time?

      There are so many posts I can look back on now and think, wow…I forgot about that. I’m so grateful that I took the time to post.

  6. Those stories are really about where we come from. Heritage is really important. In many ways it frames who we are. Telling the story of your great uncle, “The world’s most dressed man” is a small piece of who you are and where you came from. I think self-pride is really an important part of our DNA. It is wonderful that you appreciate and love it, as will your kids.

  7. Yesterday, my brother and I and our kids went to visit our 98 year-old grandfather. His vision is fading, his hearing is too, but he’s still in the moment with us. Watching him hold my 4 year-old, watching him hug my 8 year-old, hearing him tell my 7 yo what a fine boys he is…and listening to my brother ask questions about old stories and tales (even though he knows the answers already, as they’re stories we’ve heard over and over), hearing him illicit the tale of our past as my grandfather dutifully retold it-these are memories and moments I care about, ones I’ll always have, ones I want my children to know, feel, understand.

    I’m giving you a medal of awesomeness today, Liz, because you’re awesome and I love how you get us all thinking about things that matter.

  8. Liz, thanks for posting this. I’m coming up on one year on Thursday, and even after an amazing experience at Dad 2.0, I’m trying to get my mind around why I do this, where I want it to go, what I’m trying to accomplish. This reminded me it’s simple: I’m a writer. I like to tell stories. My stories are the stories of my family. Whatever else, that’s the bottom line.

    1. I’m a writer. I like to tell stories. My stories are the stories of my family.

      Thanks Carter. That’s it right there.

  9. Thank you. I’ve had it on my to-do list for a while to create photo books – make some sense out of the hordes of digital photos and memories stored in my mind – and I need to get started. This was a well-timed push to do so.

  10. I started my blog when we were living in another state to keep our families up to date on our lives. Now that I have a daughter, I blog so our family can remember her milestones, things she said, etc. I can only hope she enjoys reading those posts someday.

    I’ve been thinking for a few years now about having our parents fill out those memory books, and thanks to this post I am definitely going to buy some memory books and get them started on that. Thanks so much for writing this — and the motivation. 🙂

  11. I had my grandma write a memory book similar to the one you describe. It’s one of my most prized possessions. Even seeing her handwriting brings back those memories. The book is incredibly meaningful to me.

    Now that my daughter is old enough to go online and search through the blog, she’s read many posts and we’ve had a good laugh together about some of the stories I’ve told. And, more specifically for her, I’ve documented our journey WITH her and all that she’s been through up to this point in her life. Whenever she has doubts or fears, she has a public documentation about how much she’s loved and what she’s survived at so young an age. I wanted to leave a record for her of her own strength.

  12. I love the thought that we are creating legacies. It is a precious gift to be able to give your children and grandchildren memories and stories. I wish I would have written down stories from my granpa who passed away fifteen years ago – I was too young then to realize how much I would regret not doing that.

  13. I agree. . . to an extent. I also sympathize with the critics, and would agree there are degrees of sharing that do venture into narcissism. By all means tell stories, but when we write without stories to tell. . . just to write? or when we write just to harvest a little more traffic. . . or when we write stories that mock our children in the name of humor. . . before we hit publish, we should all consider whether the story we’re telling is one our children and grandchildren will one day appreciate (or whether it’s just noise, or worse). it’s a useful measure, actually.

    snark, vapid pop culture, lolspeak, metablogging, etc.—I doubt these things will really stand the test of time. I wish more people who claimed blogging is “writing” actually tried to write more stories. instagraming your lunch doesn’t make you an artist; penning an anecdote sponsored by a laundry detergent company doesn’t make you a writer.

    thus ends another curmudgeonly rant by me in the mom101 comments.

    1. Rant my ass. You know I agree with you completely, Jim.

      There is a tremendous difference between creating a legacy and documenting your life; and trading on your kids’ privacy or dignity for page views. I’ve written about it before–I don’t think my need to vent (or worse, vent for page views) trumps my children’s right to not go through my archives one day and think, “wait…she hated me?” I know others do it in the name of “honesty” but I don’t want to ever write something I’ll one day regret. I may fail, but I try.

      I’m less concerned with people who photograph their lunch. Everyone needs a hobby.

      Thanks as always for your comments. And your remarkable stories. You set the bar pretty damn high.

  14. Thanks for this nice post. I’ve been following your blog for a while now, and just recently started blogging myself. I’ve been struggling with that thought of “why blog” for some time now, so the encouraging words are much appreciated!

  15. Love this Liz! I too have been inspired to jump on the memory book bandwagon. I’ve turned by personal blog into annual books (yay blurb!) and cherish them; however, there is much to be captured from my own parents and grandparents while they are around and able to tell the stories. Do you happen to recall where you purchased the memory book for your mom? It looks lovely.

  16. I completely agree about getting stories from your family, so we you know them as people and not just as your relationship to them. I do also recommend recording their voice, if possible, and preserving some of their penmanship. Some of my most treasured items are recipes written out by my maternal grandmother and journals kept by my paternal grandmother (whom I did not like) after she got married and had my father. Treasures.

  17. Preserving memories for next generation *is* the reason why mommy-blogger should be coveted title. And need to do it has existed long time, only tools had changed. Only dilemma I have with reading some of the blogs (of any nature) is the tools themselves: if goal is preserving for our family inheritance, then why Internet, World Wide Web? Memory books are fine, private blogs and digital captures exist, why make it all public and open to criticism from other side of the globe by (initially, at least) inconsequential readers?

    But then again, where would I read, and comment and get response and get the snapshot of REAL LIFE (not one ascribed by “expert”). And compare notes on schools. And politics that are not just “my backyard”. And different perspective for religion/city living/values of any kind? Write on, stories like these should be shared with wider audience than just immediate family. This is living, breathing book with colourful and well developed characters who are distilling meaning from everyday events. We just need to accept it is new form of reading. Allow it to generate same information revolution as books, printing and computers did. Because that is what it is – new, revolutionary form. And as every revolution, people are not sure how to react, haters and believers will clash over it. And after all is said and done, the new form will stay. Just like books did.

    1. New kind of reading = yes! I think the answer why I don’t just journal, at least for me, is because the community aspect, the shared experiences as evidence here in comments, is a large part of the legacy and the storytelling. Without comments from you all, we would not have a real snapshot of the parenting world circa 2013 and how our personal stories and relationships fit into that.

  18. This is a great idea to preserve memories and stories you have heard. I have been trying to think of a way to remember all the stories my grandfather has told me time and time again. I would like to share all these stories with my son when he is older. I think a memory book would be a great way to do this. Thanks for the idea.

  19. I never realized what a gaping hole in family history was like until my Dad passed. For one, he’d been a small boy when the Japanese invaded the Philippines and his family fled Manila. A lot of old photos and mementos were lost. My Mom has maybe two pictures of my Dad as a small child which I think were passed along from other relatives who managed to preserve them. On top of that, my Dad was a quiet man who didn’t share a lot. I was somewhat devastated that many of the things I’ve learned about him, I never heard until his funeral or after. His little brother told us about how much my Dad liked to play basketball in high school and that he considered him the “best player he knew”. I only just learned from my Mom, who was talking about my kids’ love of dance that “your Daddy used to love to dance.” I’d only wished I heard these stories from him.

    Even though I complained about how much work it was, I was so glad Amelia’s 1st grade teacher assigned a Family Heritage project this year. Not only were were asked to gather old pictures, as far back as great grandparents, but the kids were asked to share, in their own words, traditions and stories that had been passed down to them. I was thrilled that she decided to share the story about how, when I was three, my Dad (who was in the Navy) got sent out to sea for 6 months and how I asked many of my neighbors’ fathers to play High Ho Cherry-O with me because “my Dad was lost”. It was all gathered in a digital storybook that we shared with her class and with our whole family.

  20. last week, I wrote about sifting thru the boys’ memory box from their first year of life and finding written words I write to them. something so startling about it – it brought back the moment like it was yesterday.

    for me – blogging is a way of connecting with a larger group – collectively sharing and commiserating and enjoying.

    but, the written word can be so much more – a private recollection saved for when one most needs that intimacy – like your mom’s memory book.

  21. When I was a senior in high school, my mother kept a journal about her thoughts on me. What I was doing, her hopes and dreams as well as her fears. She gave it to me when I graduated. I remember reading it and be shocked at how much she really did pay attention to me and what I was doing.

    I wish she had done it for my whole life. But that feeling I had when I read it is one of the reasons I blog. I hope my children look back at the anecdotes of their life and my mistakes as a parent and are able to know that I loved them so incredibly deeply. I want them to know that I am not perfect and that I am able to admit my mistakes and that I always did what I thought was best–even if it was wrong.

    I also blog to share my experiences and to build relationships with other who I probably would not have met without blogging. I am so thankful for my little community.

  22. This is a beautiful post, and I agree wholeheartedly.

    Back when I was in college I recorded my grandma talking on cassette tapes about her life. She didn’t want to, but I pulled all the “But you love me because I’m your oldest grandchild” strings I had and she consented. My favorite tape is her talking to all seven of us grandchildren while she’s serving us breakfast in her home in Ohio. I haven’t been able to listen to them since she died because it’s still too painful, but I’m glad I have them for my kids.

  23. You make a great point about not just creating children, but creating families. It’s wonderful to have these memories written for perpetuity. So many letters and photos from previous generations get lost, but I’m glad that my sons will be able to read their stories that I’ve documented someday, when they are ready.

  24. My Granny was recently in the hospital and she is the keeper of many of my family’s stories. Thinking about losing her is hard enough, coupled with losing a whole family history is devastating. I love the memory book idea. I know that she doesn’t write anymore though and I live far away. I think that I will go ahead and get one though and call her up as much as I can to have her tell me what to write for her. This is a wonderful and timely idea for me. Thank you!

  25. Another box of Kleenex, dearest Liz. I was told that you die three times: once when your billions of cells die, once when the last piece of junk mail is delivered, and once when the last person who remembers you is gone. Maybe, maybe, bloggers will keep Aunt Bea and Tillie and the rest of us alive in the collective memory of bloggers. Or whatever comes next to remind us that we come from somewhere.

  26. Hi Liz! Is there a particular type of memory book that you would recommend? I would love to get one that has prompts for the writing, but I’m confused by what is available. Thanks!

  27. Exquisitely beautiful and heartwarming post.
    There will always be the people who have contempt prior to investigation.
    And, it is all about our kids. It is all about the children…
    I need to get started on my memory book!

  28. I regret that I never completed my daughter’s baby book or took the time to truly document her every move those first years. I was so desperately trying to survive the endless sleepless nights and having no help other than my husband.
    Now I don’t want to regret not asking my mom (who lives in another country) about the details of her life.
    I love everything you say in this post, but I can’t get past the idea of your mom filling out this memory book for you. My mom and I need this.
    Thank you!!

    1. I am definitely baby book drop out.

      I think the point is that it doesn’t have to start and end with our child’s first year. There’s so much more important than the day they got their first tooth. Also, there’s always time.

      let me know how it goes, Ana!

  29. My dad started a blog to share his childhood stories and musings…. but we kids got so busy with our lives, that after the first few posts we hardly ever checked his blog or commented… I feel so sad about it after reading this post… The things we squander away 🙁 I think I’ll print out some of the best stories and get them bound into a “memory book” form so my daughter can get a taste of her ancestry (my dad is in India, my daughter was born here in the US and I am the bridge).

      1. Thanks! This would have stayed on my to-do list forever… but with a date attached, I think I might actually get it done 🙂 As a matter of fact my dad will be here for my daughters 5th birthday later this year, and this may be a great project for me to do *with* him so this can be his special gift for her… I love the idea! Thanks again for your role in this!

  30. One of my favorite things about blogging is the search bar on my site. Since I blog any and everything I have made my life, my son’s life, everything – searchable.
    That book looks beautiful and it makes me miss something tactile for my memories.

  31. Gah. Okay so last week I shut down my blog for good. But this makes me realize even more how much of it I want to save. Any ideas on where to make a book from your blog?

  32. It was no secret that my grandma had a fabulous dancing career in Vaudeville during her twenties. But it wasn’t until after she died that we found out from her younger brother that she had been a trapeze artist in the circus, too. I always knew that Grandma was a neat lady, but I had no idea she was SO AWESOME. I guess she didn’t think it was important.

    Grandma wasn’t really good about keeping a regular diary, but we found one among her belongings from the year that my mom was born. It only had a few entries, mainly about events and details surrounding my mother’s birth. I finally sat down to read it while I was sitting at home almost 41 weeks pregnant myself, days away from induction, and feeling like a beached whale of a failure for not having gone into labor yet (neurotic perfectionist). I’m sure she never really imagined that anyone would read what she had written (especially the stack of little Twitter-sized notes she must have jotted down as she was going through labor). And I’m sure she couldn’t have imagined that it would one day bring comfort to me, years after the she herself had gone, to learn that she went through pretty much the exact same thing.

    It’s a good reminder to me to record all the stories I can, without beating myself over the head about style, grammar, and punctuation (not very successful yet, but I’m only 10 months in). You never know which stories — maybe even the one you’d be most embarrassed about letting others read — might someday turn out to be the most glorious.

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