The Shadows They Leave Behind: Research and Narrative
Some of you may recall that my wife Cathy recently discovered the identity of her biological father. This discovery has sent her in search of information about her ancestors. Yesterday, she learned that a son of her great-great grandfather was Lockwood Lewis, a saxophonist who played with the Dixieland Jug Blowers in the 1920s and eventually led the Missourians before they became Cab Calloway’s band in 1930. Lockwood then returned to Louisville, Kentucky, where he led a fourteen-piece dance band which played engagements at many hotels and night clubs in the area. He also toured with the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Baily Circus band in 1943.
Cathy was even able to find an online photograph of Lockwood and his “Oh! Boys” band from 1928. If Lockwood is the conductor (and wouldn’t that make sense seeing that it was his band), he’s only partially visible just inside the right edge of the photo. What fascinates me is his shadow that’s fully visible. That image stands as a metaphor for what it feels like as we try to create or reconstruct people in our writing. We have just the shadow of a character, and we do what we can to fill it in. Notice how all the members of the band have their eyes trained on the conductor. Even in this obviously posed photo, they’re ready to follow his lead.
Those of us who write memoir know what it’s like to find just enough about our ancestors to make us curious. I dare say this is also the way fiction writers operate. One detail about a character arouses our curiosity and we must find out more. Whether we’re writing memoir or fiction, we’re usually chasing after the particulars of our characters that bring them to life.
If we’re lucky, we find photographs of our ancestors, or we find photographs that inspire our thinking about our fictional characters. The visual can lead to the interior lives. If we’re even luckier, we find letters from our ancestors, or, again, letters that make our fictional characters vivid to us. Of course, if we’re writing memoir, we can rely on all sorts of public records about our ancestors: birth and death records, marriage records, real estate transfers, circuit court records, census records, etc. As one very kind lady at our local family history center told us yesterday, “Everyone leaves behind some sort of paper trail.”
Lockwood Lewis left behind sound recordings, a photograph, and a death announcement in the Louisville Courier-Journal that said he died of a heart attack at 4:30 pm at his home at 552 S. 10th Street. His body was at Cooper Funeral Home, 558 S. 10th Street. The proximity of his home to the funeral home is enough to start me imagining how convenient that must have been, and yet how painful for his widow, Frances, to have that funeral home so close to her as the years went on. As I start to free-associate from that fact, I imagine how often Lockwood must have been gone from home on another tour with this band or that one, and I wonder whether Frances ever accompanied him or whether she was ever on his arm as he entered the fine hotels of Louisville—the Seelbach, perhaps, a well-known haunt of F. Scott Fitzgerald. On some ancient night, did Fitzgerald, deep in his cups, slip Lockwood a bill or two and ask him to play “Ain’t We Got Fun,” and did Scott and Zelda dance the foxtrot, and did Frances watch them and think, Oh, my, how grand?”
My imagination is spinning with possible scenarios, all of them made possible by a photograph and a death announcement and a shadow that invites me to fill it. If you’re writing memoir or fiction, the trails people leave behind can provide the inspiration for narrative.
Lee, this is lovely. How we spin the tales of those we find in our past or in the common everyday experience. The key, I think, is to foster a 360 degree image of those characters. It sounds like Cathy has a lot to go on now. What a find!
Tina, Cathy and I have decided that family history will be our retirement activity!
Love this, Cathy’s dive into her family history and your imagination woven into a beautiful tapestry.
Thanks so much, Meredith.
I love everything about this. Nearly all my writing gets its beginnings from genealogy.
Family history is so interesting.
It is! I have been hooked for more than half my life now! Lol The subscription to newspapers.com is my favorite expense!
I wrote and published a family history in 1998 about my aunts and uncles and grandfathers who were born in the 1800s. It was such fun to research their lives and listen to my parents tell me what life was like when they were all young. With a big family like mine, I can never run out of subjects. Great post.
Thanks, Glenda. You were fortunate to have written that family history when there were still people who could tell you their stories.
My great aunt, Mary Ellen Chase, was a well-known writer in her day–on the bestseller lists for decades (30s, 40s, 60s). She taught a Smith for decades, where she lived on Paradise Lane with her longtime dear companion, Eleanor Shipley Duckett), a Classic Language Professor. I have been to Smith, to do research on Aunt Mary—who was beloved by students, including Sylvia Plath (who outed her, causing great commotion at Smith, though they had been a couple for decades.) Buried side by side in the family plot in the Seaside Cemetery in Blue Hill, Maine. I have many of her books but have not read them all. Cathy’s story, which is more glamorous, is an inspiration. What would I write of Aunt Mary? She was a deep believer of the Christian faith. A life so unlike my own, that I want to know more (like why is the ONLY complete collection of all of her work not in Maine—or the US. But is in Dublin? Ah, questions!
Thanks for sharing this story of your great aunt. The part about Sylvia Plath is particularly intriguing, as is the character of your great aunt and her Christianity. You might begin by posing a question and then speculating on an answer or answers, looking all the while for your own contradictory feelings.