Like Hansel and Gretel’s mother, we’re always dropping bread crumbs along the path, leaving a trail for our children to follow back to home and family—even if we’re not aware we’re doing so in the process. The poor mother of those fairytale chidren secretly left crumbs, intentionally and strategically, hoping they'd be able to retrace their steps toward home after their father decided the only way for the family to survive was to sell them as indentured servants to an evil witch who actually intended to devour them.
Okay, maybe that’s kind of a morbid metaphor. But most of our regular readers here at What Women Write know several of us were inspired to write novels based on breadcrumbs of family lore—whether extensively researched stories, following the family story as closely as possible in a fictionalized account of real life (The Oak Lovers/Kim!), or simply clutching a single gem of a family secret and using it as a springboard for a—more or less—made-up story (Calling Me Home/me!). We also love interviewing authors who’ve done something similar, such as Kristina McMorris with her novel Letters from Home, Jamie Ford with Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and Cathy Marie Buchanan with The Day the Falls Stood Still, to name a few.
What exactly is it about our ancestors that draws us in, that makes us want to delve deep and attempt to discover what made them tick, what led them to make the decisions they made, who they loved and left (or were forcibly separated from, in the case of my grandmother) and who they stayed with? Not every one of us has these yearnings to uncover history—some of us would rather bury it, I suspect—but with some of us, the drive is deep and irresistible.
I know, too, that it’s not a drive we can force upon our children. Will my grandchildren or great-grandchildren be curious about what I did in my life? Will I have done anything interesting enough to make them determined to nose out the details or dream up their own versions? Will they study my photos, as I study my ancestors’ photos, wondering why I decided to be a writer, why I lived in so many different homes and states before I finally settled here in Texas, why I … never mind. I’ll let them discover that on their own, maybe with the help of rumors they’ve heard through the family grapevine. Maybe they will. Perhaps they won’t.
It’s the same with family traditions. We can guide our children as they grow up, hoping they’ll take an interest in the things we do every year at the same time, the recipes we cook, the photos we lovingly protect. But they may not take the bait.
My kids are interested in family history—by spells. At some times more than at others. I was thrilled this week when one of my daughters decided to take on the not-simple task of preparing Whoopie Pies from the recipe one of my grandmothers recorded carefully in her notebook of food wonders. We don’t know where Grandma got the recipe, but we know it’s absolutely the best. (None of that marshmallow fluff, none of that regular old buttercream frosting. Our soft, cocoa-flavored cookies embrace genuine, rich, creamy icing, pure white from the ungodly amount of Crisco shortening it takes to prepare it.) But I know that as a child, one of my favorite moments of every family journey to see her was the one where I rushed through the front door and headed straight for the fridge, where a batch of individually wrapped Whoopie Pies always awaited our arrival. One taste, even now, is enough to conjure up memories of those childhood visits, good or bad, joyful or sad.
I suspect you have those recipes in your family, too. Kim blogged once about the her family’s holiday sugar cookie recipe and the special cookie cutters she uses to prepare them. Are the cutters themselves magic? Is the recipe really is the best in the world? Or is it the combination of factors—the equipment, the recipe, and not least of all, the family history—that makes the outcome so special?
I am thankful for the breadcrumb my grandmother left me—a handwritten recipe, delicious in part because of the memories it stirs (but trust me, it really is the best!). I am thankful for the breadcrumb my other grandmother left me—the gem of family legend that says she fell in love with a young man who was judged inappropriate by her family and society, the true love of her life, though she spent only a small amount of time with him.
What are the breadcrumbs you’re following, leading you back in time into the vault of your own family history?
And yes, of course, this is my daughter, busy making Whoopie Pies with Sadie, one of our fur babies, who stuck close by to be sure she cleaned up anything Emilie offered—accidentally or on purpose.