I have a piece of wood, nearly six-feet in length, taken from the debris of a farmhouse fallen in on itself. The farmhouse that belonged to my family, the house in which my mother first read to me, the house where I listened to my father and my uncles swap stories, the house where I would eventually spend long summer days reading books inherited from my grandfather, the house where my family suffered the accident that cost my father both of his hands, the house that he filled with his rage.
This piece of wood is ragged along the bottom edge. A piece of wood nearly a hundred years old, but now, thanks to the imagination and the sure hand of someone who cares, this piece of wood displays my family’s name, along with the description of the location in the exact language of the original deed that showed my great-grandfather’s ownership of this land: South ½ of the Northwest ¼ of Section 18, Township 2 North, Range 13 West of the Second Prime Meridian. At the far edge of the wood is a replica of the plat map of Lukin Township, Lawrence County, Illinois, complete with skeins of blue paint to represent the waterways, one of which is the creek that cut across our eighty acres and where I first learned to identify the tracks of raccoons, coyotes, deer.
It takes a good deal of love to preserve something. The memoirist knows this work, the work of resurrection. To put our lives on the page, even the most bitter parts of them, takes a tremendous amount of faith and love—faith that the work matters, love for the people we were, and are, and will be. It takes attention and fidelity to rescue the distant parts of our lives.
We who write memoirs should remind ourselves that we tell our stories not from bitterness or anger, but from the desire to record, to document, to explore, to make sense of, to portray what’s universal in our individual experiences, to say, Once there was a life. We must go about our work with the respect that our lives deserve. This means looking closely, this means finding the stories that we need to know more about, this means taking our time to dramatize those moments fully, this means loving all the parts of our experiences enough to make them live again.
Here’s a picture of my father as a little boy, probably around 1920, outside that farmhouse. The piece of wood is one of those clapboards. My father is staring, slack-jawed at the camera, in a sort of wonder, perhaps, that someone has come to take his photograph. What magic it must be to this boy, this country boy, to know that the camera will put his image on a paper that anyone will be able to see. Here is this boy, here is this house, here are all the years between then and now. Here is this piece of wood, rescued and preserved, to hang now where I live.