In my novel-in-progress, Sycamore Dawn, Gloria Rodgers confronts family secrets. Those family secrets undo everything she thought she knew about her family and challenge the premise that has governed her writing life.
In addition to writing, I study genetic genealogy. Through DNA tests, many people uncover family secrets that also upend their lives. Happily, family history sometimes reinforces our dreams for ourselves rather than tears them apart.
In 1992, Aunt Laverne died in Louisiana. She was my mother's older sister. The funeral was the first family funeral I'd attended since my mother's, after she died on her 45th birthday. I dreaded the emotional toll. Uncle Alton, a former band member turned pastor, was to preach her funeral. I imagined much weeping and gnashing of teeth. I should have known better. I'd listened to my uncles tell stories for my entire childhood, and they always ended in one of two manners. Either the crowd erupted into uproarious laughter or my uncles leaped up to chase shrieking children around my grandparents' house.
That funeral turned out to be vastly different from my mother's service. My uncle told hilarious stories about his older sister, stories that humanized my rather forbidding aunt of the elegant clothing, upright posture, and immaculate house. I understood more about my family history. I saw Aunt Laverne as the harried oldest daughter in a household of seven living children, a second mother to the youngest siblings. As I listened to aunts, uncles, and many cousins laughing along with me, I realized something that I had always known but never formally acknowledged: my family history included a long list of storytellers. I was surrounded by men, women and children who innately understood how to pace stories. They knew when to pause for dramatic effect and when to lower their voices so that everyone leaned in, only to be surprised by something so funny or scary that they burst into simultaneous laughter or frightened shrieks. I don't think I'd ever felt so at home with my mother's family or grateful to them for all I'd gained from listening to their stories.
I'd just sold my first two young-adult thrillers at that time, but I was still struggling with the feeling that selling those books to publishers in the U.S. and Germany might somehow have been a fluke. Sitting among those people at my aunt's funeral in Louisiana where generations of my family had settled, I decided that my having sold books wasn't a fluke and that I was on the right track. The ability to tell scary stories was part of my anatomy and my family history. Being the introvert I am, I transformed that oral storytelling family history into writing thrillers. I hope the ability to pace stories helps in my current book, too. It's a scary book, but there's nothing supernatural about it. The story it tells is based on a real event, although the characters in the book are invented.
Has the discovery of a family secret or family history changed your life or your understanding of yourself?