Writing Family Stories

I’ve been thinking about family stories lately, in part because I’ll be on a panel at the Associated Writing Programs annual conference in March along with Rebecca McClanahan, Mary Blew, Suzanne Bern, and Sharon Carmack (“Turning in Their Graves: Researching, Imagining, and Shaping Our Ancestors’ Stories), but also because the most glorious thing happened last week; a distant cousin found me, a cousin I didn’t even know I had. She descended from the line of my great-great-grandfather’s brother. Ever since I did the research for my book, Turning Bones, I’ve been curious about my great-great-grandfather, John A. Martin, and the other family he must have had. In Turning Bones, after sorting through a passel of Martins named James and John, I speculate that John A.’s father must have been James Martin. Now, all these years later, a cousin I didn’t know I had arrives to tell me I was right. James Martin who married Nancy Fite, only one example of the number of times Martins would marry Fites over the generations.

When my great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Gaunce Martin, died, John A. Martin married a young widow named Eliza French Phillips. He was 64 at the time; she was 28. John and Eliza had four children of their own, the last one being born in 1884 when John A. was 74. In Turning Bones, I imagine that there were family members who didn’t exactly approve of the marriage. My new cousin tells me such was the case. She tells me that some of John A.’s sons moved away from Lawrence County, Illinois, angry with their father because of the marriage. My great-grandfather, Henry Martin, stayed. He married and had two sons. The older one was my grandfather, George William Martin, named after one of Henry’s brothers who was one of John A.’s sons who moved to Hamilton County, Illinois, some eighty miles away from Lawrence County.

In 1917, that George W. Martin, wrote a letter to The Sumner Press, one of a series of letters they were collecting from former residents of Lawrence County. In his letter, George W. points out that he is 75 years-old and that he and his brother Jackson and their wives (both of them Fites) left Lawrence County in 1881. At this point in the letter, George W. gives into melancholy:

            Jackson lost his wife in 1910. We live about 10 miles apart. My wife took down in the  spring of 1913 with heart and kidney troubles. She was under doctors care about 30 months. On September 2, 1916, her spirit took flight to God who gave it. She was a good  woman and the best to me there was in the world. I feel very sad and lonesome. No place  feels like home to me. I have a family living with me. They are very good to me, still they don’t make it feel like home. I had rheumatism all last summer. Feel stiff and sore yet,  still can’t get around very well.

 “No place feels like home to me.” My heart breaks when I hear my ancestor say this. It makes me think about the stories that people carry toward the ends of their lives. How I long to unburden them. If I could write a different story for them I would, but, alas, the facts are the facts. When you unearth your ancestors’ stories, you’ll be awash in numbers: birth dates, death dates, census figures. Then, if you’re lucky, you’ll find someone—or they’ll find you—who remembers the tales passed down through the generations, those stories of incredible joy or heart-numbing sadness, those stories of family secrets and anger and want. You’ll end up with a story that the numbers can’t give you, the story of people and how the lives they have may not be the ones they always wanted. If you’re lucky, you’ll find the voice of an ancestor come to admit, “No place feels like home to me.” If you’re smart, you’ll preserve that voice, respect it, understand the hard-earned wisdom that it is. As much as you may want to hide it—as much as you’ll want to bless that ancestor with grace—you can’t without demeaning everything his life has been. He’ll be the one talking; when we write our families’ stories, we have to learn to listen.











  1. Ruth Ann on December 3, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    Oh Lee these stories are priceless.
    Will we get to read another sequel soon?
    Would you ask her about the Inyart stories too?
    Or if she has any stories to share about the Garrett’s
    from Lukin?

    • mpigeon on December 4, 2012 at 8:49 am

      Lee, I read your brief comments on your having a long-lost cousin get in touch, and how your heart was so touched by that old journal entry after your ancestor’s wife died, “No place feels like home.” I went to your blog and I am delighted to be a part of your literary fan club. From me it is humble, but indeed sincere congratulations on winning the Pulitzer. A friend once told me that she’d read that the author of Catcher In The Rye stopped writing after she won the Pulitzer, supposedly having stated something along the lines of “I’ve won the top literary prize; what is there to write for anymore?” Whether the story is true or not, as a writer I can’t get inside that kind of thinking. As a writer, I write because reading and writing is my passion. I write because I must. The stories never stop coming. Of course, perhaps if I’d won the prize, I’d understand it better. I suppose there might be that pressure, like the kind of internal pressure a writer feels when they have written a best-seller, and they pick up pen, or put their fingers to the keyboard to begin the next book. Can I do it again? Was it a one-off fluke? Was there only one great story in me? Still….I’d have to find out. Thank-you for posting this inspiring blog. A Tip of the nib of my pen….to YOU! M.A.Pigeon

      • Lee Martin on December 4, 2012 at 2:26 pm

        Many thanks, M.A. Just to be clear, I didn’t win the Pulitzer. I was a finalist with THE BRIGHT FOREVER the year that Geraldine Brooks won for her novel. MARCH. E.L. Doctorow was the other finalist for his novel, THE MARCH. I jokingly say that if I’d only titled my novel, THE BRIGHT MARCH FOREVER, I would have won on word count alone. Anyway, good company to be in, and now I’m grateful for you virtual company on my blog. Take care.

  2. Lee Martin on December 3, 2012 at 8:31 pm

    Thanks, Ruth Ann. I’m not sure about a sequel. I may have written everything there is to write about my father’s family. Might have to turn my attention to my mother’s side of things next. I’ll ask about the Inyarts and Garretts.

  3. Donna Burton on January 23, 2013 at 11:26 am

    Thank you for your reference to “The Pink Letters” a book published by the Lawrence County Il Historical Society compliled of letters written by non-residents of Lawrence County,Il. The editor of the Sumner Press at that time (1915-1919) agreed to publish the letters on pink newsprint, hence the name of the book. The letter writers told about their lives giving first hand accounts of early county history, as well as personal comments about their present situations, where they lived, what they were doing, what their children were like, and experiences thay had had. As you indicated they are a treasure trove of information for genealogists as well as local historians. As my co-editor, Kevin and I read each letter, we felt connected to the writers. They were telling their stories; little did they know that 100 years later, their families would listen.

    • Lee Martin on January 23, 2013 at 11:32 am

      Thanks so much for your comment, Donna, and for all the great work that you do! I still need to get a copy of “The Pink Letters.” I’ve read that one letter from my ancestor, but I’ve also noticed other Martins in the index that’s posted online. Keep up the work that’s so important for preservation, and please know that there are many, like me, who are so grateful.

  4. Donna Burton on January 23, 2013 at 11:35 am

    Thank you for your reference to the Pink Letters, a book published by the Lawrence County Illinois Historical Society, compiled of letters written by previous residents of the county. The editor of the Sumner Press (1915-1919) agreed to publish the letters on pink paper, hence the name. The letter writers wrote giving first hand accounts of the county’s early history as well as their present situations, where they lived, why they had moved, what their children were like, experience they had had, etc. As my co-editor and I edited the book, we felt we knew the writers personally. As you indicated they were telling their stories, and it was up to us to listen.

  5. Malynda Daniels on September 20, 2020 at 2:34 am


    So this may seem strange but hi cousin! I have been doing my family tree and I traced it back to the Gaunce line. I’ve been looking for any kind of stories or anything really on my father’s side of the tree. If you have any recommendations or anything to help me untangle the huge web that is my family its greatly appreciated.

    • Lee Martin on September 20, 2020 at 12:42 pm

      Hi, Malynda. The Gaunce line crossed with my Martin line with Elizabeth Gaunce married my great-great Grandfather, John A. Martin. I include my imagined sense of their life together in my books, “Turning Bones.” Here’s my personal email if you’d like to chat. martin.1199@osu.edu

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