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Why I Write: an Essay

My paternal grandparents in their courting days circa 1915. Grandma lived to age 101. Photo copyright Amy Hill Hearth

I was raised in a family that cherishes its elders. Perhaps this is why I love older people and their stories. My paternal grandmother died in 1997 at the age of 101. My great-grandma lived into her 90s. Several great-aunts lived to their late 90s and past the century mark.

I grew up knowing that older people deserve respect and attention. I understood (in a way that many people apparently do not) that older people were not, in fact, always old. Indeed, they were once young. And middle-aged. And they had many stories to tell.

My mother's parents, who were of German descent, came to America through Ellis Island in 1921. They were ill, and were kept at Ellis Island for several months.

Gravesite in Toms River, New Jersey, of my great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, a veteran of the Revolutionary War. Photo copyright Amy Hill Hearth.

From them I came to understand the immigrant experience in America, the difficulties assimilating, the longing at times for a home faraway. From what they'd been through, I saw what it was like to be poor, to hope for more, to work in sweatshops, on farms, or mopping the floors of the rich until your fingers bled. And I realized how lucky I was to be American-born and have a head start.

Through my father's bloodline, I am a thirteenth generation American. His ancestors include a Dutch woman who arrived in America via shipwreck, a female Lenni-Lenape Indian born circa 1700, and a band of brothers who fought against the British during the Revolutionary War. These were some tough people. From what I've been able to learn they, too, were poor although their quality of life was probably quite good. In the early part of the 1900s, they started leaving the farm life. 

Stories surround us everywhere we look. As a child, I recall playing in a converted ice house near my paternal grandparents' cottage at Lake George, N.Y. I spent many a rainy day in that old ice house. It seemed magical to me.

With my parents when "Having Our Say" was at the Booth Theater on Broadway in 1995. Copyright Amy Hill Hearth

Long before my time, the ice house had been turned into a garage, guest room, and storage area, and it seemed to have become a repository of family memorabilia. It was my portal to the past. There were cannon balls and bullet fragments from the Civil War, ancient wedding rings of gold as thin as thread, and photographs of serious and somewhat scary-looking people, but I understood that these were my people - long dead, yes - but mine. Whoever they had been, they had saved these items for me. And so I had respect for history and the past that is probably unusual.

One of the challenges of my childhood - which in retrospect turned out to be a blessing - was that we moved several times. My mother was a homemaker and a very active volunteer for organizations such as the League of Women Voters; my father, an electrical engineer and marketing executive, a profession which involved relocating every five or six years. The experience of living in Columbia, South Carolina from age 6 to 12 during the 1960s was pivotal for me.

 

I loved living in South Carolina, but as a sensitive and observant child with a strong sense of justice, I was appalled by segregation. The incidents I witnessed have stayed with me throughout my life.

 

Living in Florida as a young adult was also an eye-opener. Florida is where I was a cub reporter on a daily newspaper, covering everything from crime to local politics. 

 

Whether I am writing fiction or nonfiction, I am most interested in exploring the human experience - not only through my characters' actions or conversations but how they feel. We are strange creatures, capable of greatness but also astonishing cruelty. And, we have a lot more in common, I believe, than we realize.

 

I write to communicate; to illuminate; and, I suppose, for my own peace of mind. I am drawn to my writing desk with no effort. I belong there; I am happiest there. Expressing myself through writing is my artform. To me, writing is not a choice. It's what I do, and it's who I am.

 

 

 

Copyright 2020 Amy Hill Hearth. Permission for use may be granted by request.