Family histories are often spotty. There might be gaps of information and contradictory stories from relatives. If you’re lucky, you might have a few scattered photos. But for Grace Roberts Scott, her family history was plentiful and screaming to be preserved.
The 96-year-old woman has accumulated a wealth of information and artifacts from family members passed, including a book written in Welsh by her great-great-grandfather in 1874. She also has albums of childhood photos, beginning with her first-ever photo at the hospital where she was born in Berea, Kentucky, on Aug. 24, 1919.
Besides her inheritance of family knowledge, Scott has kept all sorts of trinkets throughout her life, from love letters to newspaper clippings now yellowed and torn. On top of that, she has an unusual memory. The result is a rare and impressive collection of life stories just waiting to be archived.
For years, Scott, who lives in Stapleton with her daughter, Patty Miller, has wanted to put together a book of their family history, but didn’t know where to start—a family history book is an ambitious project on which few choose to embark. Meanwhile, a good family friend, Madeleine Jeanne Kresin, who was a senior in the IB program at George Washington High School at the time, had been assigned to interview someone for her English class. She picked Scott.
Scott would pull together photos and type up memories to share with Kresin, who would come over after school. They talked for hours. It quickly became clear they had material way beyond the capacity of the assignment, so the inkling for a book catapulted into a three-year project.
This spring they published Days of Grace, a 520-page memoir complete with photos, letters and timelines recounting Scott’s life and her family history, dating as far back as 1729. They have printed 60 copies for family members and friends.
“This kind of detailed accounting is something that so often slips through the fingers of younger generations and is lost forever in the fog of time, simply for not asking the right questions before it’s too late to ask,” Miller writes in the prologue. She has found many friends about her age, 60s, wish too late they had sat down with older family members and asked about their lives.
Kresin, Scott and Miller sat together at Tattered Cover, where Miller works, and, despite spanning three generations, sounded like best friends as they were interviewed for this story. When Scott mixed up words like “ear plugs” to refer to her hearing aids, they laughed and didn’t correct her, but rather admired her adorable quirkiness of old age.
The project was a collaborative effort by the three. They enjoyed digging into Scott’s family history, never knowing what they might find next, like discovering her great-grandfather’s uncles were caught stealing chickens in Wales. They were convicted and exiled via prison ship to Australia to serve out their sentences. The two sent letters of remorse back home, which were passed down and unburied during research for Days of Grace.
Kresin, Scott and Miller each had their role in completing the project. Kresin—now a junior at University of California, Berkeley majoring in English literature—interviewed Scott and collected information into a massive outline. “Every day I was excited to learn in so much detail what life was like,” Kresin says. She organized the book chronologically by the streets where Scott lived. Each section begins with context as to what was happening in the world at the time. Small moments in Scott’s life that would be considered otherwise ordinary are significant when put into context and show how the world was transforming. Scott writes about the time her husband, Walt, was away in the Army during World War II: “During this time, everything from sugar to nylon hose to gas was rationed and the wealthy and poor alike waited in the long grocery lines. This rationing brought people closer together; gone were joy rides and new clothes, but the Y.W.C.A set up the Army Post Office Wives Club where we gathered for a light supper and then to a movie or bowling alley.”
Scott wrote all of the text except the prologue, including captions and quirky narrative. In the chapter “On Estill Street,” she writes: “Beth [Grace’s sister] told me many times, how she, ten years old at the time, was scolded for biting my toes too enthusiastically when I was brought home from the hospital. She always insisted, as if I didn’t believe her, that she only bit my toes out of love, not spite.”
Miller then edited the text, researched, contacted relatives, collected photos and used Photoshop to design the pages. Throughout the process, she reconnected with family members she hadn’t spoken to in years and discovered new family, like a distant cousin in New Zealand, who just happens to be a genealogist and coincidentally reached out in the midst of the project seeking information for his family genealogy. “The timing was impeccable,” Miller says. He is the connection to Scott’s great-grandfather’s uncles who were sent to Australia. He provided the letters, as well as photos for the book. Miller sent him a copy when the book was complete, and in a voicemail he said in his Kiwi accent, “What a wonderful book. I’ve read it several times and hope to do something similar one day.”
While working on Days of Grace, Miller discovered a greater appreciation for her parents as the good people she’s always known them to be—full of love, inherent wisdom, and trust in the world. “Now I can fully appreciate the stem from which this rare combination of qualities grew,” she says. “Having climbed the family tree and spent a good deal of time sitting among the branches, all in the name of completing this memoir, I feel I’ve gotten to know countless ancestors and relatives, both distant and near, who possess those same qualities.”
Days of Grace is a collection of small moments that, when put together, show just how remarkable one lifetime is. In an age when everything is digital and fast-paced, where love letters and printed photo albums are being forgotten, a written account of a life and its happy, sad and quirky moments is a rare treasure. Some may look at the trinkets Scott has saved throughout her life and call it clutter. She considers them artifacts.
Those interested in printing a family history book can go through Tattered Cover, which features the Espresso Book Machine, capable of printing, binding and trimming a paperback in a few minutes. For information, contact Judy Spoering at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call her at 303.945.2661.