7 years in the making: How old files led to my Africa smallpox memoir

Have you ever read through a box of old letters and said this to yourself? “I’ve got to write this book!”

My Public Health, Paperholic Husband

After my husband Carl passed away in early 2014, I had the daunting task of sorting through his bank of filing cabinets. Off and on during our fifty-three years of marriage, I would tease Carl. “When you die, the ink, paper and plastic sleeve industries will go out of business.” Now, for two months I sorted through all that ink and paper, each file protected in its plastic sleeve.

It did help me process the grief, but also took me on an emotional roller-coaster.

The Africa Cache

Then one day, there in its perfectly organized space within Carl’s archives was a gold mine recounting our years with the Smallpox Eradication Program.

Nigeria. Equatorial Guinea. Cameroon. And Carl’s dispatches from Bangladesh.

I left the review of these files to the last so I could pore over them. Then I shut out the world, armed myself with a pile of sticky notes, and immersed myself in:

  • letters, memoranda, reports and cables: between Carl and the ambassador, Carl and USAID, Carl and Washington, Carl and CDC, unclassified State Department cables,
  • Carbon copies and mimeograph copies of letters to family and friends,
  • Audio tape letters letting our family hear our children’s voices, and the minutiae of our daily lives,
  • Photos, 8 mm film, maps.

There’s even an urgent note the embassy had taped to our front door, hurriedly scrawled on a piece of scratch paper, the masking tape now brittle.

What a trip, running across accounts of incidents I had totally forgotten, and especially incidents Carl reported that I’d never known anything about.

The story had to get out. 

I’d never written a book, but as every page of the archives filled in details of another Africa memory, I developed a passion to tell the story. Writing, working toward publication, and spreading the word have been bittersweet. Vaccines & Bayonets is Carl’s final gift to me.

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If you’ve ever said to yourself, “I have to write that story,” don’t delay. Start it now. I’d love for you drop in on the contact page and message me about old treasures you’ve found that made you–or make you–want to write a book.