Friday, June 13, 2008
Making memories and spinning yarns: bringing a father’s memoir to life
About a year ago, my father-in-law, Edward Stevens, produced a manuscript of some 58 pages, containing his recollections of his career in his family business.
The Ames Textile Corporation is a family concern that has been in operation under a number of iterations and names since about 1865. Family legend has it that a Stevens ancestor, General Benjamin F. Butler, who was then serving in Congress, expressed outrage to his colleagues that American flags were being made in Britain, the very country from which we had won our independence. He succeeded in passing legislation that declared that all American flags had to be made in the U.S. He happened to own the only bunting company in the country at the time, or bought one soon after the law passed (details here are very sketchy). This was, along with some of his other investments, the foundation of the family business.
Under family management for about 143 years, Ames Textile is one of the last surviving textile companies in Lowell. It has produced woolen fabric for army blankets and uniforms, parachute silk and other textile supplies in war, and apparel, professional sports team uniform and industrial textiles in peace. That might be a story in itself. However, because his own father wrote a history of his years in the business, Dad Stevens thought he should do the same.
A work in need of an editor
My husband, Jonathan (Jon), the current president of Ames Textile, brought the manuscript home and read it first. He handed it to me with a wry smile and said, “Dad was a very successful businessman, but he’s not a writer. Maybe you can fix it.” That first reading presented a rather impersonal, chronological catalogue of facts and figures. I detected glimpses of stories and anecdotes worth fleshing out, as well as a very distinctive voice. With a little organization and encouragement, I thought this could become quite an absorbing read and offered to edit the opus.
Although I have always enjoyed an affectionate relationship with my father-in-law, I was not at all sure that he would accept my offer. Before I knew it, however, Dad Stevens phoned and enthusiastically accepted my proposal. We scheduled a meeting at Ames Textile, where my father-in-law is chairman of the board of the corporation. So began an unlikely partnership that has woven some surprisingly strong and lovely cords in its own right.
At that first meeting, I decided to bring the work into focus. “Who’s your audience for this book? Whom do you want to read it?” I asked. It was obvious that he had not thought much about this, but after a moment he said, “I think I want my grandchildren to read it.” “Great,” I said. “That will keep us on track.”
Dad Stevens has five grown grandchildren, three of whom are married or engaged, and none of whom currently works for Ames Textile. I knew that he would have to introduce them to the people with whom he had worked and spin out the stories of successes and failures. He would also have to introduce some textile vocabulary, not only because his readers have no experience with textile processes but because some of it sounds like medieval torture: uptwisting, downtwisting, warping, etc. Finally, he would have to reveal himself, explaining how he made decisions and why, and what made it interesting for him to go to work each morning. He initially saw this as a factual history of his time in the business; I saw it as a way for his grandchildren to know him better.
In the next few months, I extrapolated portions of the manuscript and asked him to tell me stories about them in a freely associative way. The original book began with his experiences in the international portion of the industry, but when I asked him how he decided to enter the business in the first place, he said, “Well, originally I wanted to be a doctor.”
“That’s your first line!” I cried. “We need to know how you got from there to working in a textile mill!” Out came an account of mustering out of the army after World War II, marrying, finishing college and becoming an expectant father at 24. Then he really began to spin his tale. He suspected his father of maneuvering not only to get him to take an intelligence/ability test to determine which career best matched his talents (thereby convincing him that medicine was not in the stars), but also to provide him and his growing family with a house at a ridiculously reasonable price, making him an offer he couldn’t refuse. And there he was, working in the mill.
A personality revealed
Speaking in his own voice, Dad Stevens could make the material lively and funny. He could reveal his own personality as well as that of his father, a grand old man when I knew him, who was very shrewd and who knew how to get what he wanted. The book’s introduction is now a real beginning, where the reader meets a young man, eager to settle down after WW II, experiencing the speed with which events can control him, and learning what he can, in turn, control. A twinkling sense of humor emerged in the telling, as well as an earnest desire to do his best. Already I was learning to to know him better. His grandchildren would too.
In just under 20 years, Dad Stevens worked his way up from relatively unskilled jobs on the mill floors to the presidency of a corporation with half a dozen overseas plants and scores of interesting employees. He headed that business for another 25 years before handing it over to his son, Jon. Early on, he resolved a family dispute over his presidency by finding a way for each of his two brothers to have their own businesses. This allowed all three brothers to be their own bosses and maintain a close and supportive fraternal relationship.
A self-effacing man, he did not originally expand on this episode, but when I explained to him how impressive an accomplishment it is to keep a family business intact while maintaining a successful relationship among three brothers, he agreed to reveal the details of that difficult period in his book.
The story unfolds
With only a little urging on my part, wonderful stories of a 45-year career emerged – about eccentric characters who ran profitable operations for the corporation, and some who did not, experiments in new products, and dealing with foreign business and government methods. He told of working in 145-year-old mill buildings and modern plants, planning and executing the succession of the corporation leadership, and most importantly, how one man guided a corporation through good times and lean ones. What a ride it has been, and how glad I am that he has chosen to tell his story to the generations that follow.
Most recently, we have been discussing the concluding chapter to the memoir. Like the original manuscript, it began as a short and relatively abrupt paragraph. I began asking questions to tease out a little more: what is the essential difference between running a family business and running any other type of business? How do you feel about the corporation’s recent diversification into the furniture business? What would your son say is the most important thing you have taught him about business? How would you counsel your grandchildren to deal with success and failure? How would you like your grandchildren to think about you? The budding author has pounced upon these questions, and although it is new to him to do this even at 86, he seems to be relishing the chance to be a bit philosophical. He would like most for the business to continue under family management in the coming years, and that, I think, is his underlying purpose in creating this memoir. Will he ever know how much it will teach his descendants about the man he is?
Another memoir to come
When I told my own father about the project, he expressed interest in creating his own memoir. He has had a variety of careers, often juggling several at once, and has a very different approach to storytelling. His account will be in a distinctively discrete voice and style (I envision using a tape recorder), but I am as determined to get his story on paper as I have been to help my father-in-law tell his. Spinning these yarns is fun, and, I think, important. There is so much to be learned and such immense pleasure to be gained from listening to these paternal voices, seeing their lives unfold and learning what it really means to be a success from their experience, their wisdom and their love. ∆
© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito