This year, for NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month in November) I'm writing a semi-fictional novel of my family history, told through the perspective of a pocket watch that is passed from generation to generation. It's something that hasn't been done much in literature, though I'm not the first to do it. The book will be written in 30-days or less and will have a minimum of 50,000 words - this is how you 'win' NANOWRIMO.
These are the notes from each day as i write. It's a challenging thing to bridge family history with fiction but necessary if I want to tell a cohesive story because so much of the actual history was not recorded or shared. I'm including all that I have been able to find and fictionalizing other parts with what seems likely based on oral history, actual records, or my own experiences.
Day 10: Today was challenging and I wasn’t able to reach my desired word count so I called in an assist with ChatGPT. The truth is that I know very little about my ancestor’s journey from Detroit to Alma on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. All I know are the bare facts that my grandfather gave to me when I briefly tried living with him as a caretaker. I wrote down his words. “When my grandfather came to Washington it was still a territory and a very wild place. He came with his wife and his brother but I think some other people also were on the journey. They took wagons from Detroit before catching a train from somewhere out west to San Francisco. From there they took a steam ship to the Olympic Peninsula where they built the mill and started the farm at Alma.” This was all he knew. At this point, the dementia was pretty bad already and it was incredibly hard to keep him on point. Mostly, he wanted to complain about my dad and tell me about how beautiful the Indonesian women were. I have no doubt that I have some cousins somewhere in Java. ChatGPT was a big assist in just getting the bare bones of the journey west out. It was ChatGPT that decided they would create special wagons for the trip, I made the choice that they should be sold to pay for transport on the train and steamship and used to carry mill equipment from Detroit. The mill that Anthony and John founded was actually the second mill on the Olympic Peninsula - The Wainwright Mill which eventually became the Thomas Brothers mill.
Day 11: It’s always so much easier to write about the people I personally know. It’s such a strange experience however to be constructing the relationships and personalities of my father, grandfather, and grandmother. For the record, I don’t know how my dad came to have the watch but given the relationship between the two men, I find it very unlikely that my grandfather would have given it to him and I also find it very believable that my dad would have taken it without considering it theft. Perhaps I’m projecting, I did, after all, steal the watch. There’s no equivocation there, it wasn’t given to me, I simply took it. The fact that it was promised to me and that I repaired it are immaterial. I’m piecing together these relationships based on the things I have heard from multiple sources and my best guesses in terms of the dynamics I observed. I’m certain that I am getting things wrong. I’d love it if I was shown to be completely wrong about my father - but that feels like the same kind of fantasizing that through the years has led me to turn to him for help and then be punished for it. At this point I think it unlikely for the whole truth to ever be aired. John and Beulah are gone and John Jr. is in an Alzheimer's state of his own and has never really shown a desire to share his story. Once I finish writing this, I may send it to my Uncle Murray and see what he has to say - even though I’m pretty sure he will say “You can never publish this” and with good reason.
Day 13: Writing about the companions yesterday was fun. I don’t know that I’ll do much with them, but they feel important. It was nice to introduce my great grandfather in this morning’s session - while I never met him, I feel like I am getting closer to people that I am going to be able to write about. It’s astounding how little I know about these people - and in relative terms - how recent their lives all were.
Day 14: I’ve been waiting to write the story of how my grandparents met.As far as I remember, that’s pretty close to the way he told it to me. As I write about his dementia, I can’t help but feel sadness and a bit of regret that I didn’t have a better understanding of what he was going through. My intention of helping him, more likely brought a fair amount of distress to his life. This summer, seeing my Dad and how hard it has become for his wife to manage his conditions really drove home how terrible this disease is. For all of our differences and conflicts through the years, it was heartbreaking to spend time with him this year. At one point, during dinner, he asked “Who are you?” and while I was sitting with my daughter later, he asked her “So where are your parents?” More heartbreaking, perhaps, was his inability to remember the rules of cribbage, a game we used to play every day after school. It’s a game that I play now with my daughter. I recognize that I’m being really hard on my dad in this narrative. On the one hand, I’m probably going a little easier on him than the reality of the life we lived calls for - but on the other there are likely a lot of good things (like cribbage or family hikes) that I’m not giving equal time to. Given that my father and grandfather both ended up with dementia, it’s likely I’ll suffer the same fate - but holy shit, I really hope not.
Day 15: In looking to see if any of my ancestors fought in World War I, I discovered that John W , Anthony, and Christopher - my second great grandfather and his brothers born in Michigan - were all civil war veterans. This opens the door for a chapter that I didn’t write about - the issue is that I know absolutely nothing about their service. I know they were born in Michigan and so probably fought for the Union, but that’s about it. I am happy to finally be in the realm where I am relating stories that were actually told to me. I’m finding it challenging to tell the stories of those who I know nothing about except for an entry or two on a census or a family tree.
In writing today, I remember my dad telling me that we were related to Benedict Arnold and Jefferson Davis. From what I can tell, there is no direct link so while I’ve done my best to stay true to the oral history that was passed down to me, I’ve also not included lineages that don’t match up with the facts. One thing I’ve learned in doing family history is that famous ancestors or ‘royalty’ usually don’t show up despite the oral histories. An exception is on my mother’s side - it turns out that her family are actually related to Daniel Boone - our direct ancestor is Sarah Boone, Daniel Boone’s sister. I’m far more proud of that connection than Benedict Arnold or Jefferson Davis.
Day 16: Albert Anthony died in 1931 but I’m completely fabricating the death story and also John Sr.’s connection to the Mob. There are some family stories that have led me to this fabrication, but I want to be clear that there is no evidence or oral history that connects my family to the Italian Mafia. I know about the jobs, the births, the deaths, and some family anecdotes but that’s about it. I’m also not sure at all how my father ended up with the watch. I don’t think my grandfather would have given it to him - because the animosity between the two men was as real as the animosity I’m writing in the story. I do remember hearing stories about Beulah dressing my dad up in girls clothes and in truth, I have no idea how he came to be such a dandy and careful dresser. His workers used to call him ‘Gabardines’ because of his neat style on the job sites. I remember my dad’s levis having creases ironed into them - which is completely bizarre.
At some point, someone in my family told me that Grandpa D (John Sr.) sat on the bank and watched his brother Gene drown. I’d imagine it was my dad who told me that and I find it very hard to believe. Still, most of those stories have some grain of truth to them, so when writing about Gene’s drowning, I put John on the bank and have him actually see his brother disappear. The way it was told to me was like he was some kind of evil monster, but that wasn’t the man I knew. I find it much more likely that when Dad (presumably) told me that story, he put his own spin and emotions on it. The relationship between the two of them was something I will probably never understand - but ultimately it comes down to one guy who promised me the world and then disappointed me again and again - and another guy who showed up and took care of his grandkids even when no one was watching and just about anyone would have said that it wasn’t his responsibility any longer. That’s what is coloring my writing in this tale, I’m sure that if Dad were writing it - it would have a very different flavor.