Storms of Life: Weather in Memoir & Family History

February 3, 2018 DWilbrink

Storms of Life: Weather
in Memoir & Family History

Shocked by the weather? You are not the first in your family to experience weather extremes. Heat, cold, drought, flood, hurricane, tornado and even clouds of locusts can play a part in writing family histories and many memoirs. Describing storms and strife caused by

reaction

to weather bring a scene to life. Weather may even be a motivator of direction in your family history. Use weather in two ways: as a tool for research, and to add tangible details to your written story.

Paper viewing glasses for the solar eclipse have been packed into my keepsake trunk. It’s now part of our family’s social history, and one day I will write my memoir to include my granddaughter and I watching Aztec dancers at Plaza Mariachi as the sun and moon danced their age-old trajectories in the sky.

What Was the Weather Like?

Randy Whited

Genealogy has a weather expert in Randy Whited, President, Texas State Genealogical Society and a Board Director of the FGS, Federation of Genealogical Societies. “My great grandfather died in 1905 in Indian Territory,” Whited told me. “The only record of his death was a brief obituary when he died of pneumonia. Wishing to set more of the scene, I became interested in the weather of the days surrounding that date.” Whited has become an expert, giving seminars like the one I attended at the annual conference of the Federation of Genealogical Societies. He knows of other useful instances. “A colleague of mine has used a diary that related the date of birth of a child to a major snowstorm and weather records of that time to pinpoint the precise date of birth,” said Whited.

If you have a recollection or journal entry about weather in your project, there are several ways it can be of use:

  1. If you are in a narrow date or place range, but looking for confirmation, weather can resolve date ambiguity. Which day was it? Check the weather records. Where did the event happen? Check the weather records.
  2. Weather can suggest explanations for events. A family move may be inexplicable—until you check the weather records, as well as newspaper for events like sustained drought or plagues of locusts.
  3. Significant natural disasters will not only leave records, but photos that may be used to enhance your account.

On the other hand, if you are “fleshing out the bones” and looking for details to add to a rather dull, factual paragraph, weather may be of help. Was the wedding outdoors? If so, how was the weather that day? Was it sunny after a long period of rain? Provide your readers with a hint of mood by describing the weather on the day of a significant event. Consider phases of the moon to paint your picture of life on a particular day.

Story and Research

Larry McCormack/The Tennessean

The sixth day of May, 2010, the people in middle Tennessee and particularly the Nashville area experienced twelve inches of rain. My husband, I and two friends were traveling just south of the city in our car, headed for a guitar show. We ended up racing across a flooding bridge near Leiper’s Fork at the insistence of our European driver, who had not heard the lore of flash floods. To him, American weather is exciting and extreme. But rain also played a part in developing a simple philosophy of acceptance when I was a teenager. Riding my horse home through a sudden downpour was the only option. As I watched the rain pouring OUT of my boot tops, I found that relaxing on the ride

Perhaps you, like me, have heard others share their stories of hurricanes and earthquakes. These times of danger and giving and receiving assistance are unforgettable.

Randy Whited recommends these data sites for research:

            1. A historical record of local weather observations is from the National Climate Data Center of NOAA, while the Climate Data Online page (https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/) provides mapping and search capabilities.
            2. I prefer going the Cooperative Observer Network of the National Weather Service (https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/data-access/land-based-station-data/land-based-datasets/cooperative-observer-network-coop). Here you can download the handwritten daily observation forms from as early as the 1800’s.
            3. For more recent dates (mid-20th century to present), the historical weather search at Weather Underground is very easy to use (https://www.wunderground.com/history/

Monthly Notes of the weather from reporting stations have comments, compiled by state or otherwise grouped by location. Temperature and rainfall records and maps may enhance your family’s history. Don’t miss the local, handwritten observation reports, which will be emailed as an image. Imagine hearing from someone in the are what a storm looked like on the day your grandmother was born!

While the Weather Bureau is the logical place to search for weather data, if you are not finding what you need, there are other sources. Look in historic local newspapers for weather. These newspapers’ burial reports may contain outbreaks of cholera and dysentery, or “summer disease” that are affected by weather. Homestead records from the Bureau of Land Management may show waivers granted for absence from land, due to weather. Department of Agriculture Monthly reports are easily found on Google Books. Department of the Interior, US Geological Survey and weather reports may have reports on specific events, along with Photos and maps.

I will never forget seeing winds bending the trees outside of my office in Columbus, Georgia, in 1986. I felt awestruck at the power of the wind. I wondered whether the tower of government, across the street, would crumble before its fury. Would the trees snap? Would the windows break? Yet I could not tear myself from the view. This could be used as a metaphor for a crisis in personal or political life. Be sure to include questions about the weather – not only what it was, but what it felt like – in your interviews of elders and when writing your memoir or family history.

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“The Best Book is Your Own Story.”
Deborah Wilbrink

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