Blank Pages and Striped Towels, by D.G. Fulford

striped towels.bmpThe most valuable advice I’ve ever received wasn’t from my mother. It was from a drawing teacher.
 
I was in a life-drawing class, paralyzed, pencil in hand, facing my opponent–the only thing that stood between me and my intention. Almost taunting me, it was the fearsome blank page. Here’s the advice, uttered by this teacher, a man I remember nothing about except these words he aimed out into the room that struck a bull’s eye with me.
 
“What’s the worst thing that could happen?” he said as he walked around the studio. The floor was hard and you could hear his footsteps. “What’s the worst thing that could happen? Here’s the worst thing that can happen: You’ll waste a piece of paper.”
 
That was the most freeing remark I ever heard. It said, “Begin, and if you don’t like it, then begin again.”
 
Sitting in front of our computers, we don’t have to worry about wasting that paper, but that silent blank screen still can stop us. We want to add stories to our names, dates, and places and don’t know where to start.

The marvelous news is that we are our own resource. Family stories are our points of reference in every situation. They are involuntary responses, like sneezing. We see a hat worn by a man in an old movie and our minds jump to our grandfathers in their favorite chairs with the afternoon newspaper in their laps. We roll our carts by the butcher case at the grocery store and a passing glance at cubes of stew beef transports us to our mother’s kitchen, reaching for her blue-speckled roasting pan, the one with the lid.
 
Our bones are library shelves, orderly and complete. The books we want–our family history–can be found on them. Our stories are in our necks and kneecaps. Do you remember the first time you tied a tie and who taught you to do so? The first time you rode a two-wheel bike and fell down in the gravel? Even muscles have memories. Your hands would recognize, in an instant, the feel of a banister that was familiar to you long ago. Our stories are on our cheeks, in our trips to the beach before sunburn was a sin.
 
I saw a man and woman out shopping. I heard her say she was “letting him” pick out the towels this time. Be that as it may, she discussed her preferences, as he was picking out navy blues from the table and putting them back down for beiges.
 
“I like these,” she said, standing at another table. “I like these, but I’d never buy a striped towel. I’ll never have stripes. They remind me of when I was growing up and we had striped washcloths in the downstairs lavatory. They were so thin and flimsy. I guess we couldn’t afford new ones. But I hated those washcloths and I told myself I’d never have striped ones again.”
 
Her trip to the towel table ended up taking her to a much more interesting place. If she were to go home and write that thought down–her remembrance of striped washcloths past–she would have begun her family history. Effortlessly. Naturally. Painlessly. Without even realizing she had.
 
One thought begets another. The striped washcloths might lead her to the realization that maybe her family didn’t have enough money to make replacement washcloths a priority. She could carry the thought further. Who lived in the house with her, what did their rooms look like, what did they all eat for supper?
 
Family history isn’t hard. We do it everyday without thinking about it. Our minds travel in that direction. Our minds are always going home.

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D.G. Fulford is the best-selling author of the classic To Our Children’s Children: Preserving Family Histories for Generations to Come, which she wrote with her brother, Bob Greene; Designated Daughter: The Bonus Years with Mom, written with her mother, Phyllis Greene; and the journal Things I’d Love You To Know: A Journal for Mothers and Daughters which will be published in April by Voice, an imprint of Hyperion. She is also cofounder of TheRememberingSite.org which helps people tell their life story.

12 thoughts on “Blank Pages and Striped Towels, by D.G. Fulford

  1. This was wonderful. I’m a scrapbooker (and an English major a hundred years ago), and this is EXACTLY the kind of thing I tell people is important. But oh, the fear!! Thanks so much.

  2. The power of memories! I am looking at,and handling,some household items which I chose from my parents’ home in England earlier this year. They died eleven weeks apart. The items I chose were in the home when I was a girl and they are a part of me.

  3. We enjoyed the article very much. But we are curious about something not directly related to the article. My wife is a descendant of a Fulford from the Dayton, Ohio, area who came to Northern Indiana in the 1840s. Any connection? Roger Franke

  4. Ah, those striped towels and wash cloths. Her mom propably got them free in the box of detergent, Breeze. That is where we got ours and I still like the thin towels and wash clothes. Later the towels came out with flowers on them. I actually still have a few packed away.

  5. Having loved Ancestry.com since it’s beginning I have tried to do what this article is suggesting and I have written down things that have happened to me so that future generations can read them. Unfortunately they are not written in one place! They are in notebooks and lone peices of paper scattered every where in my house!
    I went to Elimentiary school in Shrewsbury, Mass. to a school called Patton Elementary School. I remember it being called Patton Penitentary by the kidsin the school. I didn’t agree with them because I liked school
    I remember names of teachers more than anything. Mrs. Johnson, Mr. Pagano, who was the Principal at Beal School, There was also a woman who was from India who taught Science at Beal that I loved. And there was also a man named Mr. Dumphy who was a Special Ed. teacher I think
    I moved to a different town after the end of sixth grade and I still have a peice of paper that all of my classmates signed for me.

  6. I found this so interesting . I have always been hesitant to try to paint and draw as I always just knew I had no tatent for it.
    I may just give it a try. I do genealogy and love it and bit by bit have found tons of family for myself and my husband!
    This is so right on the money!
    Joyce

  7. The waste of a mere page, or only time filling a computer screen is a freeing thought. At the age of 69 I am beginning to express years of memories and telling some of my mother’s delightful stories. She is 97, and losing touch with her own memories. I have almost waited too late, especially with the details which she could have filled in before but which aren’t possible for her to do now. We moved from Atlanta to a small NC town when I was 12, and those memories from growing up in the area now called “mid-town” are encapsulated in memory. Atlanta is overwhelmingly changed now from my 1940′s view! Thanks for the good advice on getting started!!

  8. This is a wonderful story and gives me the push that I needed to start writing down memories. So many and so little time. My brother and I are the two oldest on both sides of our family, so I need to ask him to write down his memories also. My sister is younger but I’m sure she will remember things differently then either of us will. Thanks for the push.

  9. I’m so thankful for your teacher! Without him, we wouldn’t have had this delightful article and the encouragement you gave.

  10. Just reading your article took me back in time. What a gift you have. Thanks. Striped towels and washcloths just reminded me of how blessed I was in my home and for my parents who provided not only nice “things” for me, but wonderful memories as well.

  11. Beautifully stated — very evident why DG Fulford is a best-selling author — and one who additionally inspires others. People who can do that, are to be cherished.

  12. I have found that writing down my memories has not only left a record of my life, but has also let me look back and see my faults as well as how I looked at others in my family. It has helped me forgive and forget some bad times. I am thankful for my memory and how well it serves me. I am 83 years old.

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