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The geographic narrative

by Sara Jane Ruggles
| August 30, 2020 1:10 AM

I am dedicating this week’s column to my dear friend, Norman.

I recently had the honor of working with Norman to help him write his family’s biography. When we first started working together, he presented me with a pile of papers he had previously written and collected about his life story and his ancestors. In eight swift months, we wrote five additional chapters together and edited that pile of papers into a comprehensive family history spanning four generations.

In the hours we spent working on this project, he taught me more about Colorado history than I ever could have imagined. Thanks to the fine folks at Allegra printing in Coeur d’Alene, we were able to print a 145-page family history book for Norman’s descendants. What a labor of love and a handsome product this project became.

One of my favorite pieces of the project, and the inspiration for this article, was the final chapter. As Norman’s project was nearing its final stages, I was thinking back on all of the locations he had mentioned in his stories of growing up in Colorado and serving overseas during the Korean War. He described the majestic Colorado landscapes in such a way that I found myself wishing I could travel to these towns and natural landmarks.

That’s when the lightbulb turned on. I went online and printed some regional aerial maps. I marked notable locations from Norman’s story on the maps using numbers, such as: the family homestead, his father’s grocery store, the building where the town dances were held, and the locations of his service overseas. On the following page, I listed these numbers and next to each number, Norman dictated to me the explanation for why that location stood out in his memory. The result was a geographic narrative that will hopefully enable his future generations to literally follow in their grandfather’s footsteps.

My own grandmother used a similar tactic when her local historical society requested her help with a project. Grandma was known for her amazing memory and anyone who rode in the car with her down the streets of old Elk Grove in California would get an informative and entertaining history lesson. Grandma pointed out places like the house where the town doctor delivered her in 1921, the Odd Fellows Hall where Uncle Frank played the piano for the local dances, and the candy kitchen where her mother worked. She remembered which childhood friends lived in each historic home, which families owned businesses in town, and even who the city officials were.

The historical society presented her with an aerial layout of old Elk Grove and asked her to write in the names of each family residence and business she could remember on the map and she created unique and educational piece of town history.

You can use this exercise to write your own geographic narrative. Whether you are tech savvy enough to use online maps and digital annotations or if you want to get out some old atlases and mark locations by hand. You can use this exercise to highlight a variety of locations from your life journey, from your family’s ancestral homes, to your globe trekking experiences, or even your favorite camping and fishing spots. If a certain location is prominent in your memory, write down a short explanation and attach it to the map. The journey you map is as unique as you are.

Remember to enjoy the journey! As always, please reach out to me through my website if you have any questions: www.sarajaneruggles.com.