My grandmother, Stella Inyart Martin, was said to have “healing hands.” She knew the old folk remedies—the value of sassafras tea, horehound, ginseng, blackstrap molasses. When my grandfather’s first wife was dying of tuberculosis, my grandmother was the teenage girl who came to care for her. A few years after my grandfather’s first wife died, he married my grandmother.

I’m thinking about her today because lately I’ve had reason to find the heating pad she used. She died in 1965, and I’ve kept that heating pad all these years. My wife is recovering from knee replacement surgery, and extreme pain brought her to her surgeon’s office at the end of last week, where the physician’s assistant advised that she alternate ice and heat to alleviate the swelling and the pain. So I took my grandmother’s heating pad from the shelf and put it to use, taking comfort from the notion that her “healing hands” were touching Cathy and helping to ease her pain.

Often, an artifact can bring an ancestor to life and can even lead to scenes in a memoir. My grandmother’s heating pad has a flannel cover that’s so soft it reminds me of the quilts on her bed. She lived with us when I was a small boy. She was old and frail and half-blind with cataracts. I thought she was humorless and severe. I knew nothing about the life she’d had before I came along. At that young age, I couldn’t for the life of me imagine her being anything other than what she was.

People, though, can surprise us. Characters in a memoir must surprise us. We can’t decide who they are, or were, before the writing begins. We have to call them forth from memory and let the artifacts of their lives become expressive, all the while keeping ourselves open to what we might discover.

When I press my grandmother’s heating pad to my face, I can conjure up the scents of Tums antacids, Vicks Vap-oRub, Smith Brothers Cough Drops. I can see the box of horehound candy on her bedside table, the Black Draught laxative, the hymnal with its yellowed pages. I can remember the sun bonnets she wore, the support hose, the cotton dresses. So much returns to me because of that heating pad. I’m lucky to have this artifact, but objects, though physically absent, can be just as vivid and as evocative as the real things. All you have to do is daydream yourself back into time and remember the things that remind you of your ancestors. You can use these objects to immerse yourself in the past, not for the sake of nostalgia, but more for the purpose of investigation. How, for example, could my grandmother be so short-tempered and then surprise me with tenderness? Sometimes, she’d ask me to lie beside her in her bed, and she’d be so kind. She’d tell me stories about my father when he was a boy. I remember her ragged breath—I imagine now she had congestive heart failure—but no matter how difficult it was for her, she liked to tell those stories. She liked to have my company. Maybe she liked to imagine what it was like when she was that teenage girl and she fell in love with my grandfather and eventually became stepmother to his son and daughter. Maybe I brought her the memory of when she was young and vital and falling in love. Such speculation is the art of investigation that the memoir requires.

What are your family artifacts? Choose one or two and let them help you create scenes and explore characters. See if you can attach a question to each artifact, and then see if the attempt to answer those questions can take you further into your exploration the story of your family and your place in it.