Frances K. Gilbert well remembers 1907, the year she first encountered a sputtering, red monster known as an automobile.
Her mother, who was hauling the children in a horse-drawn buggy, pulled "Old Black" as far to one side of the road as she could while Frances, then 4, and her brothers and sisters hopped out, leapt a ditch and scrambled into the bushes.Although genealogy has traced many an ancestral tree, it's memories like this that are often lost.
Gilbert, 88, of Selma, Ala., and the last of a generation of her family, decided not to let it happen. Three years ago she put the finishing touches on a 29-page book about her life in the small town of Scooba, Miss.
Last Christmas she presented it to her daughter, Carolyn Gates, a county commissioner in Memphis, Tenn. Gates, 56, was so moved that she decided to work on her own autobiography. So did her daughter, Kimbrough Gates, 31.
Writing a life story to hand down to one's children is not a trend as yet. But the idea seems to have occurred to a variety of people in recent years.
Dr. Robert Ray McGee, 66, of Clarksdale, Miss., devoted a year and a half to writing his story, including interviewing his grandmother, collecting genealogical data gathered by his uncles and drawing on stories he wrote years ago about his life as an intern.
Oral Hunnicutt, 73, a retired teacher, farmer and businessman, who has lived 47 years in Dell, Ark., finished an autobiography last year.
His 161-page book is packed with detailed, historical pictures of life in the Ouachita Mountain area of Arkansas where he grew up during the Depression, and it spurred articles in two local newspapers. Hunnicutt published the book and, with the help of a Blytheville book store, sold about 150 copies.
"I really regret that most people pass on leaving almost no record," said Gary Taylor, dean for academic affairs at Mississippi County Community College in Blytheville.
"Just a name on a stone - that's all that's left of most people," he said. Yet journals and letters of ordinary people are primary sources for historians.
Such feelings may have prompted him to teach a noncredit course two years ago at Blytheville on "Writing the Story of Your Life" to seven students. One was Hunnicutt. A second, Rose Widner, 68, a retired teacher, also completed and published a book.
Hunnicutt, who grew up on farms in the villages of Young Gravelly and nearby Red Hill in Yell County, Ark., reported his yearly wardrobe as a boy: two pairs of overalls, two shirts, one pair of high-top shoes and two pairs of long johns with a flap that buttoned in the back. A jacket and bill cap completed the ensemble.
Fear of contagious disease was commonplace when he began school, he wrote, and teachers forbid the use of a common dipperin the water bucket. However, it was OK for kids from the same family to share a cup.
"When the teacher was not looking, we would loan our cup to anybody," he said. Occasionally kids drank from the side of the pail - an infraction that earned Hunnicutt the only spanking he got in grade school, and a second one from his father when he got home.
Hunnicutt's portrait of his mother and a sister reveals volumes about what a woman's lot might have been in that era.
His mother was almost completely stifled by economic hardship and the authority of a husband whose word was law in the family. Her husband almost never asked her feelings about anything, yet he wouldn't have known the meaning of the word "chauvinist."
Boys in the family came and went freely, but their older sister, Beulah, was carefully watched and rarely allowed to attend social functions. That highly restricted life probably encouraged an early marriage at 18, according to Hunnicutt.
Taylor says it's better to begin a story with a memorable event or turning point than to write in chronological order. This makes it easier to create a picture, and it can stir associated memories that become the basis of more stories. The chronology will fall into place almost on its own, he said.
Tying a story to a historical event, such as a war or the Depression, gives it added significance as well as a sharper sense of time and place, he said. Old photos can be helpful memory joggers and serve later as illustrations for the finished book.
"How to Write the Story of Your Life," a book by Frank P. Thomas, offers writing tips.
Writers may put their work in a softcover, book-like form without going to the expense of having it published. Many print shops can produce a spiral-bound book covered in cardstock (like a lightweight cardboard) with printing on the cover for a reasonable price.
Gates said writing her life story is a catharsis for her, but she believes a child who receives such memories from a parent is equally blessed.
"People now have such a sense of rootlessness and non-belonging," she said. Works like these "give children and grandchildren something to live up to and attach to. They can say this is where I came from and where I'm going."
You don't have to be a literary giant to write for your family, notes James Gray, 53, an award-winning short story writer, who says the autobiography he received from his father, Hubert Gray, gives him insights he would otherwise never have.
When his father hunted rabbits with a slingshot or chopped cotton, he thought about things boys think of at all times, in all eras, said Gray.
"You realize your father was a boy at one time, and you feel closer to him."