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Writing about family

From left to right, my cousin Kylie Taylor, great-grandma and grandpa Almeda and Merle Royston, me, and cousins Hunter and Allie Taylor pose at a family birthday party in 2010. I love my family, but writing about them makes me nervous. I hope my words do them justice.
Two years ago, I wrote a story around the holidays on how to cure annoying habits of family members (e.g. Uncle Tom’s snoring, niece Emily’s picking of her nose). It was a light, fun read, but I felt like it should have come with a disclaimer: This was not based on my family.

The majority of my extended family lives in York County. So when I write something, I write it knowing that many of them will notice. It doesn’t bother me too much, unless I’m writing about them.

This happened for the first time this week. On Sunday, a story about my great-grandfather will run in the Viewpoints section (read it here). Merle Royston is a World War II veteran, and I couldn’t overlook the fact that, during my youth, he would often tell me combat stories. With so few WWII vets left living, I wanted to preserve his memories the best I could. So earlier in October, I paid him a visit.

It was a different kind of visit, though — not the “Hi! It’s great to see you! How’s life??” visit. It was a, “Grandpa, as a journalist, I’m about to ask you a lot of questions” visit. As I wrote the story, I struggled. I re-wrote it about three times. When I double-checked facts, I found holes. My great-grandpa said he didn’t see my grandma for the first time until he came home from war; she was 14 months old. My great-aunt had said the same when she recorded her memory of WWII for YDR’s Remember series (if you haven’t checked it out before, it’s a phenomenal archive of oral history.) But when I looked through my grandma’s baby book last weekend, there was record that he saw my grandma during a 30-day break, when she was 4 months old. I debated over what to do but ultimately decided to go with the baby book record.

And right now, I’m on the edge of my seat, hoping I got it all correct. Hoping it will make my great-grandpa proud. Hoping my family will approve. It’s one thing to have thousands of people reading your work; it’s another to have your family reading it.