Moving forward into the past without regrets

Eleven years ago, not long after I graduated from college with my degree in English, I found a vintage red notebook at my mother’s house. It was filled with a myriad of quotes and words of wisdom in my great-grandmother’s handwriting. Mutti, as my American mother and her eight sisters called their beloved German/Austrian/Jewish grandmother, had died a year and a half before I was born. I’d never seen her handwriting before.

Vintage Detroit school notebook

Something about that notebook struck a chord with me. I was holding a journal that was personal and meaningful to my grandfather’s mother, a woman I’d never met, to whom I suddenly felt so connected. The feeling I had that day—turning pages slowly, carefully absorbing and pondering all of the details, asking my mother questions and listening to old family stories I’d never heard before—is one that I will never forget. It sparked a fire inside me to discover more about my ancestry and the people who were directly responsible for my existence.

Looking back, it’s clear to me that I was struggling to figure out my own identity and purpose in life. My mother encouraged me to create a book to share with the large extended family, so I contacted my grandfather to obtain more photos and stories. He had retired with my step-grandmother to southwestern France, so in the beginning our communication was mostly via email. Then he began to send me original photos and documents. I scanned them all as they came in, intending to assemble a book using desktop publishing software that I started to learn, though it wasn’t long before the volume of information and artifacts overwhelmed me. I was learning so much about my grandfather and his childhood in the process of learning about Mutti that simply assembling a little book with “Mutti’s Words of Wisdom” seemed trite. There was so much more of a story to tell, that I felt I needed to tell. And yet I had no grasp of where to even begin that story.

My grandfather died somewhat unexpectedly in 2005 while “The Mutti Project” had been on hiatus for a while. I was distraught by my failure to create a meaningful memoir about his mother while he was still alive. Though I will always be disappointed in myself for that failure, having that regret actually pushed me to be more proactive in family history matters. Not perfect by any means, but at least I understand my own limitations now and have a better appreciation of the scope of the project that was inspired by that little red notebook.

My project scope now encompasses genealogical research as well as curating and digitizing a vast and growing collection of family photos, documents, and heirlooms from both sides of my family. It doesn’t sound so enormous when summed up in a neat little sentence like that, but oh, it is. And underneath all of it is still my desire to tell a story. Multiple stories. Old family stories, ancient family stories, and soon-to-be-old family stories. Some to cherish, some to learn from, some that are funny, some that are sad, and some that speak of a different time.

So, here I go, on a journey to discover and share the stories of my ancestors and perhaps yours. Writing my own story along the way.

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3 Responses to Moving forward into the past without regrets

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  1. Maddie says:

    You have written a beautiful story! All the communication with Grandpa was a pleasure to him and we are all so grateful that you have precious invaluable stories and photos that might have otherwise been lost! Thank you for your dedication. We look forward to reading more!

  2. Yvette says:

    Thank you, Maddie. I’m really looking forward to writing more!

  3. Regina says:

    Thank you, dear Yvette, for your frank, meaningful story. It moves my heart to read the “why” behind your wanting to write about Mutti, and then becoming our Family Historian. I am so grateful for your efforts. Will you be able to retrieve all the pictures and stories that were collected on the Sherwood family site that Jeanette had started years ago? I hope so, because my memory…

    I just wrote a lot of memories in a book that Ruth gave me and then I gave it back to her. I answered many questions and hope that you’ll eventually get to read it, or even get a copy of it…
    With love, Aunt Regina

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