Who are we saving our COVID-19 stories for?

A writer friend, Grace Elting Castle wrote a column in the local paper last week about how we ought to document our experiences during this COVID-19 crisis for our children, grandchildren and the generations that follow. Journal, write letters, and save newspaper articles, she says. Your children’s children’s children will want to know what it was like. She says she wishes she had asked her grandparents more about their lives.

Stories Grandma Never Told_justified text.pmdWell, I have been thinking the same thing about my own grandparents. In fact I wrote a whole book called Stories Grandma Never Told sparked by what I didn’t know about my grandmother’s experiences growing up Portuguese-American in California. I interviewed a whole bunch of Portuguese women to get their stories, and I’m glad I did. Many of them have since passed away. But own grandmother’s stories died with her.

Not only did I not ask about her Portugueseness. It never occurred to me to ask about the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic that was so like the COVID-19 crisis we’re living through now. All four of my grandparents were teens or young adults at that time, and they could have told me. They could have told all of us. Maybe we would have learned something. But they never talked about it, and we didn’t ask. We all assumed it would never happen again.

What does this have to do with childlessness? Those of us who don’t have children have no one to save all this information for. Do we? Certainly no children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren. Maybe descendants of our siblings’ kids will be interested later on. Maybe not. So what do we do with our stories, just let them die with us?

I’m a writer. I can’t do that. I feel compelled to keep a record. I’m writing, I’m saving information, I’m documenting the whole thing. I’m not planning to write a book about it. God knows we’ll be drowning in coronavirus books in a year or two. But I’m taking notes.

I grieve the loss of descendants. I want there to be someone down the genealogical line with my name and my genes who wants to know what it was like, who will treasure every scrap of information she can get about what it was like for me and others during this time. I want that so bad, but I can’t have it. And yes, I know that if I had children and grandchildren, they might not be interested at all.

Going through a box of my parents’ things the other night, I came upon a tiny prayer book published in 1922. I think it was my grandmother’s. It’s a beautiful thing with lovely illustrations. Who will want it when I go? I placed it with my other keepsakes from dead loved ones, including a Portuguese prayer book that my childless great-aunt left behind. It’s so old I wonder if one of her parents brought it from Portugal in the 1800s. Maybe that little Portuguese book offers an answer. Aunt Edna’s book made its way to me, and I love it. Where it goes from here is not up to me.

I’m not sure who I’m saving my coronavirus stories for. My niece and nephew? Friends? Strangers? My fans (hah)? Maybe they will go to a museum or be archived online. Maybe a researcher or another writer will be overjoyed someday to find my accounts of this time. All I can do it write it. What happens after I die is not up to me.

God help us, whatever we leave behind will go where it goes and we have no control over that.

Grace Castle is the author of A Time to Wail, a Native American novel set here in Oregon. It captures some of her family history. I wish her column had included a paragraph or two that might begin, “And if you don’t have children . . .” but I guess we have to fill that part in for ourselves.

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How are you doing during this time of fear and isolation? My neighbor and her daughter are coming outside every night at 8 p.m. and howling like wolves. They are joining a growing group of howlers across the country expressing their frustration as well as their support for healthcare workers and first responders. I have joined them a couple times and plan to do it tonight. What the heck. Go out and howl. See if anyone howls back. Awwwoooooooo!

I welcome your comments.

9 thoughts on “Who are we saving our COVID-19 stories for?

  1. It’s hard when you are a chronicler, for and of yourself and the wider family, and don’t know if anyone will ever want or be interested in our thoughts or memories. I figure that you have this space, and this will be kept somewhere. And so in the future, if a niece or nephew or great-niece or nephew gets curious, they may be able to find evidence of your experiences and thoughts. (I’m always encouraged by the genealogy TV programmes, when they search down great-great-great-aunts and uncles who have had interesting lives.)

    I’m laughing at the idea of you howling like a wolf! Though I do imagine it could be quite therapeutic. Have fun!

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  2. No, we are not howling. We leave that to the coyotes who gather in the wash at sundown.
    We have started sitting with our glass of wines after dinner on the front porch. We talk to Bob next door as he comes home after walking his beagles. We chat with Heather and her girls who live across the street.
    I have lived here almost twenty years. The virus has brought our neighborhood to be a place to feel known.

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    • I’m getting to know my neighbors better, too. Now when Annie and I go on our walks, we meet other people doing the same thing, and we talk from a safe distance. No wine on the porch though. No porch.

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  3. Hello Sue. Your post struck a chord with me. I’m not writing about my experiences of Coronavirus but I am working on my family history. I’ve been doing it on and off for almost 15 years. I take long breaks for various reasons but sometimes those reasons are because I can see the gaping space in the tree below my name. My brother and I are the only non-parents of our generation, on both sides of our family. It’s the same with my partner and his sister. Just this big nothingness below us, accentuated by the fullness of the branches either side of us – two of my cousins are now grandparents.  As I’m working away on the tree, I wonder why I’m doing it. I find it fascinating so when I have a wobble, I tell myself I am doing it for me. My parents like to hear the stories I uncover so it’s still worth it.

    I’ve found some aunts across the generations who were not mothers or whose children died. I try to find out as much as I can about them, in a sort of belated act of solidarity and kindness. They have no-one to remember them. Maybe another family researcher would just dismiss them as maiden aunts or even have unkind thoughts about them. I try to treat their memory as I would want mine to be treated, one hundred years from now.

    My mum had a great-aunt with the same surname as the rest of the family. She had no children or husband so my mum assumed she was her Grandpa’s spinster sister. Through my research I found out that she was actually his sister-in-law and had lost her husband at the Somme. My mum inherited her writing desk. It has an engraving so we know whose it was and that it was given to her in 1920. It will probably come to me but then who? 

    Like you, I wonder what will happen to the lovely items that were given to me by my grandparents. I use sewing threads and tools that were my Grannie’s and store them in the sewing cabinet that my great-grandfather made for her. I also have some items from my great-aunt who only had sons and knew I would appreciate them, as the only sewer in the family. I hope my cousin’s daughters will sew so I have someone to pass them onto.  It would be nice to share the physical items even if I can’t share the skills. 

    And what will happen to all my things? I am in the vulnerable category and the death rate in the UK as of yesterday was 13,729. We are on the same trajectory as Italy. They say we could be the worst affected country in the whole of Europe. It certainly makes you consider your own mortality.

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    • Thank you for sharing this, Jo. Sometimes we have to decide we’re saving things because they make us happy and just hope someone down the line feels the same way. I didn’t know the UK situation was that bad. The numbers keep rising in the U.S., too, and it does make you think “what if I die?” Be well.

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  4. I’m writing too. I have written it from my perspective and all the things my husband and I are experiencing. Maybe some day the historical society will put it in their archives and in 100 years someone will find it interesting. Or I’ll just keep it in my bin of stuff. I’ve started to feel like the things I treasure and keep – I do it for the previous owner of the item or for someone in the future who will appreciate and enjoy it. They do not have to be blood related.

    I have a box of love letters from a war. I’ve made the efforts to research the husband and wife who have long since died. I’ve even made a trip to their hometown to see their old home. It’s sort of weird and silly but it’s almost like a relationship. Getting to read those old words and learn their family secrets. It helps me in my current life. Sometimes I refer back to the snippets of wisdom on those old, yellowed papers. They had a daughter who died. Their son-in-law settled their estate and he didn’t care to keep these letters. But they found a place where they are carefully kept, referred to and loved. There is importance in that – even if there is no shared blood.

    Probably some of my belongings will go to a niece or nephew. But I expect most items to be donated to a resale shop or sold at an estate sale. I’m okay with that now. I used to not be.

    Add me to the list of people who think it’s funny that you are howling (lol – I really thought that was a joke at first). We’re busy with the growth of our businesses. Life is exciting and stressful for reasons other than the virus. But I can’t wait to get out again!

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  5. I love this, Sue. I have kept journals, on & off, have my blog (of course) and I’ve been researching and documenting my family history for almost 40 years, on & off. I’ve noticed that many of us who are preserving the family history & stories have no children of our own. I am hoping one of my cousins’ kids will take some interest in it & I can pass along my files to them someday; if not, I plan to donate them to the local museum where my family settled, which has a strong family history collection. I figure that some (most?) people extend the family tree by having children; I like to think that I’m still contributing by extending the tree back into the past and by finding & telling the stories that had been lost. 🙂

    Love the image of you & your neighbours howling into the night! Why not??

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