Create the banner to which posterity will turn for guidance

In 1936, women pleaded with rebels for the lives of prisoners in Constantina, Seville during the Spanish Civil War.

For years, I taught a course at the Voorheesville Public Library called “Writing Personal History for Family, Friends, and Posterity.”

The group met once a month, sometimes twice, and around Christmas one year we sponsored a dinner-reading in the library’s community room. On neatly-arranged tables, we dressed the white linen cloth with pots of red poinsettia; everything looked grand, dinner buzzed with happiness.

After dessert and coffee, each writer got up and read a favorite story, mindful of the gift of those who came.

In 2015, the group came out with a book called “Tangled Roots: A Collection of Life Stories” that I edited and wrote a preface for. The stories are great.

Each contributor — there are nine — offered touching vignettes about how they came to be the person they were; who helped along the way; and who, in the words of the Geneva Bible, was a “Pricke in the fleshe.”

But the stories are not about thorns; they’re celebrations of life despite the thorns.

When people in our community referred to us as a “memoir” group, I told them right away that we were not a memoir-writing group but a writing-personal-history group and that the “history” part means a chronicler has to adhere to certain facts: names, places, who did what to whom, and how the “whom” fared afterward. It requires a discipline that calls memory to account.

I have looked into the memoir genre for some time — there are endless books, courses, and seminars on how to do it. I just searched “memoir-writing” on Amazon and more than 20 offerings came up on the first page — “how-to” after “how-to” after “how-to.”

There’s no need for names but some memoirists “hawk” their memoir-writing-tactics like aluminum siding. That might be too harsh a judgment but I get the sense a lot of them want to be fiction writers. Some have pushed the envelope so far in that direction that they’ve been called on the carpet for fiddling with the truth.

For them, it seems that everyday life lacks the juice or heft — Lorca’s duende — to interest family, friends, and posterity. And many forget that personal history is about the people around us, that we’re just part of the picture. We do not “own” our self.

When my late friend and great writer William Herrick (a determinedly-interesting person) started to write his autobiography, he ran into trouble right away. “Facts” clashed with his memory.

On more than one occasion, the former kid from Brooklyn told me that, during the summer when he was young, he went to live at the socialist/anarchist Sunrise Cooperative Farm in Saginaw Valley, Michigan. He said he met Emma Goldman there; no, he said he sat on her lap and fondled her, for our purposes here, unmentionables.

But when Bill started collecting data, he found that Goldman was out of the country then, having been deported to Russia (on the good ship “Buford” with 248 other souls) by the United States government.

He told me he was switching from autobiography to memoir because the rules were less demanding. Parenthetically, he said he began to wonder: If not Emma’s lap, then whose? Maybe there was no lap? Maybe no unmentionables!

What he finally did say about his life can be found in his head-turning “Jumping the Line: The Adventures and Misadventures of an American Radical” published by the University of Wisconsin in 1998. It has ’tude.

The “American Radical” part is when Bill went to Spain in 1936 to help Spain’s indigenous communities fight Franco’s fascist invasion. He wasn’t typing memos in an office, he had a gun, he was out in the field with the Abraham Lincoln Battalion listening to bullets whizz by — one of which caught him in the neck.

The doctors said, if they tried to get it out, he would die, so the bullet was with Bill on his deathbed. His wonderfully-enlightened supportive wife, Jeannette, used to say the only thing she wanted when her man died was the bullet in his neck.

Former Voorheesville librarian Suzanne Fisher — one of 27 librarians in the country singled out by The New York Times for its (distinguished) Librarian Award in 2005 — and I arranged to bring Bill to Voorheesville to talk about Spain.

He read a passage from his celebrated book on the war, “Hermanos!” It’s catalogued as fiction but Bill said it’s all true.

While he was in the hospital, he said, he confided in a nurse who then “ratted” on him to the commanding Stalinist wing of the revolution. He was escorted from the hospital to a church basement where members of the wing, the GPU, brought a half-starved Spanish boy before him and said, if he didn’t retract what he told the nurse, they would blow the kid’s brains out.

Bill said no way, and they blew the kid’s brains out.

They did this a second time with another emaciated soul and, when Bill refused again, the boy fell to the floor like a heap of wet canvas.

It happened a third time with a young girl and she was murdered too.

As Bill read about this sad traumatic period in his life, his eyes welled with tears. He told the crowd that, even after 50 years, he could not forgive himself for being righteous — he could have saved lives — and that his guilt would stay with the bullet.

In his writings and interviews later on, he spoke of the internecine warfare that took place among the leftist divisions in Spain, in some cases bullet for bullet worse than Franco.

What Herrick saw was what Orwell wrote about in “Homage to Catalonia,” that the Communist- and Stalinist-based factions fought against the grassroots collective efforts of the Republicans. They especially despised anarchists.

As we all live like Carthusians these days, I’ve heard that some older folk pace the kitchen floor wondering when dinner will be served, hoping maybe things’ll go better tomorrow.

I have a suggestion for them, and every other soul their age, and that’s to sit down at the kitchen table with pen and pad — asap — and write a paragraph of their personal history they would like the world to know about.

And from there go to paragraph two.

When a soul takes time to reach paragraphs three, four, and five, and beyond, it sees that it’s engaged in a discipline of solitude that diminishes the pain of seclusion.

Everyone must then take their finished story — it might be only a page — and put it in the metal box where deeds and similar papers are kept.

And then begin on story two.

Imagine a granddaughter 50 years from now coming upon her grandfather writing about his childhood 50 years before — the span of 100 years — explaining how he came to be who he was. What a sense of roots!

All I can think of is the prophet Isaiah (11:10) speaking about the “root of Jesse,” saying his grounding would serve as a “banner” for all the world to turn to for guidance, a rootedness the Scripture adds, that rewards such souls with a glorious resting place.

I think that’s what my Voorheesville group was striving for, to be a banner to which family, friends, and posterity could turn for guidance and maybe help a soul along the way untangle itself from roots that deny it happiness.