Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Preserving Family History

This is my grandma and me on the occasion of her ninetieth birthday in 1997. Before the age of the internet, we were a letter-writing family. In the picture, I'm reading Grandma a letter I'd written her in honor of her birthday.

Grandma loved to tell stories. Most of her stories revolved around her daily life and history. Grandma's stories were very much part of the magic of my childhood. During the summer, Mom, Dad, my four siblings and I would often pile into our Ford sedan to travel over the river, through the woods, and up and down the steep, rutted dirt country roads to Grandma's house.

Grandma lived with Grandpa on their 40-acre farm in the Missouri Ozarks. As a little girl, I was in awe of her. She was a mythical, magical, mysterious character in my life, and I could never get enough of her company. She told me magical, fantastical, memorable stories of our ancestors and of her childhood. As an adult, I've come to realize Grandma's stories were really of everyday, ordinary farm life. It wasn't the facts of the stories that made them magical. It was the way she told them.

Grandma had passion and enthusiasm for life that's hard to explain. If she'd ever lost it, by the time she was my Grandma she'd rediscovered the magic of looking at the world through the eyes of a young child. I have some theories about why that may be. One theory has to do with Grandma's diminutive size.

Probably due to a growth-hormone deficiency, Grandma stood 4' 9" at her tallest. I suspect by the time I came along, aging had rendered her an inch or two shorter still. By the time I was a teenager, I was a foot taller than my tiny Grandma. Being so tiny, she got away with being a little girl longer than most, and she never seemed to lose those too-fleeting child-like senses of presence and wonder. I'm grateful to have been a beneficiary of those qualities she had.

One story Grandma told was about a contraption built by my great-grandfather. Grandma told a lot of her stories many times over, but this was one I'd never heard before. The first time she told it to me was only a few years before she passed away. Her stories had always fascinated me. When she told me the story about the contraption, I wondered if it was true. I even found myself wondering about other stories she told. Wrapped up in the daily grind of life, I'd lost touch with my own sense of wonder and found myself impatient with another one of grandma's stories.

Years later we had the sad task of cleaning out Grandma's house after her passing. Preserved along with hundreds of family heirlooms including letters, newspaper clippings, trinkets and jewelry, were hundreds of vintage family photos, some of which document and verify many of Grandma's stories. Some of the photos go back as far as the mid-1800's. Among them was a picture of my great-grandpa and his contraption, which he built to make tending the family's huge vegetable garden a less daunting task.

When we came across the picture, I knew the story of my great-grandfather's contraption was true. I've always wanted to preserve some of Grandma's stories. I was never able to talk her into writing them down while she was still here, although I certainly tried. Before it's forgotten, I've wanted to save some of this rich oral history of family farms, family gardens, and family dreams. These stories and the ones later generations have lived have shaped my values and how I view the world.

From time to time I'll include some of the family stories that sprinkled my childhood with a a sense of the wonder, creativity, resourcefulness, strength, compassion, passion, and love that is my heritage and birthright. I hope you'll enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy hearing and sharing them.

Friday my mom, who's also one of my best friends, will be my first guest-blogger! She'll be here to tell the story of Great-Grandpa's contraption.


  1. Anonymous3:45 PM

    This sounds so much like a poetry manuscript I'm working on--I found lots of old photos in my grandma's home when she moved to the nursing home, and I took as many as I could negotiate with my mom and aunt. I'm writing poems on the photos, guessing at what's happening, as well as doing research into my family's immigration from Russia and Germany in the 1800s. I missed out talking to my grandmother, but I still have her sisters and other older relatives that I hope to talk to soon. Your post is very interesting to me, and it's important culturally, too--so many no longer live the rural life, and certainly not the independent family type. The last of the farms, and the people, are ending--but I'm preachign to the choir here. My family is in Oklahoma, and as much as I hated living there and going back, I keep writing about it. I wrote an entry on my blog about my grandmother and hummingbirds a month or so ago that's from my memoir in progress, which feels a lot like what you're working on (not to pimp myself, just saying):

  2. Anonymous5:16 PM

    I agree with you Benjamin, it's so important not to lose the old stories. I always urge my Mum to write them down, as she's the only one left who knows who everyone is in the old photos.

  3. This was such a wonderful story, I can't wait to read your Mom's guest entry and find out what the contraption was! You are lucky you have the photos, I have 2 or 3 photos from of my parents as children and that's it.

  4. Anonymous9:04 PM

    Oh I miss my grammy so much!
    When my kids were little they got out of school early on Wednesdays, and that was the day we'd all pile in the car and go get Grandma - or Mo as the family called her - and take her on her errands and then go to a late lunch.

    In her later years she had blindness, but it didn't slow her down a bit and she was a devil behind a shopping cart.

    Those were the best times sitting at the Roy Rogers after the grocery store and bank. As an adult with a family of my own at that point, I lost my shyness about asking her personal questions about what her life was really like and she shared with me openly her disappointments as well as triumphs.

    She said that her daydreams had ceased to be about her life as it was then, and almost always took her back to childhood and her memories as a young bride and mother.

    The last time I spoke with her she was in hospital and I was in Europe so I couldn't come and see her before she passed. We said goodbye on the phone and I asked her not to be scared - that she'd lived a good life and that I was so grateful for everything she'd done for me.

    I told her I'd remember her stories and share them with her great grandchildren and great great grandchildren when and if that day came. She laughed and said, "We sure had some times, didn't we?"

    "Yes Mo. We sure did."

    Thanks for sharing your grandma's story. It was a pleasant reminder to remember my own.


  5. Benjamin, I think it's wonderful that you're researching and preserving that history. We have some common ancestry I see - I have Russian immigrants in my family history as well.

    Funny, I'd just found your blog at Botanical earlier today, didn't go back as far as the hummingbird story, so I'm glad you posted this link. That's a beautiful, well-written tribute to your grandmother. You're very talented.

    Blue Fox, I know what you mean! For years I tried to convince my grandma to write some of it down. I hope to record as many of her stories as possible for my kids and grandchildren.

    Melanie, I'm glad you enjoyed it. My grandma was a saver. Some of the things she saved, like those pictures, are absolute treasures. My mom's the keeper of the pictures, and now they can be shared thanks to scanners and email. I just love going through the old albums and stacks of loose pictures. I love seeing a glimpse of a brother in a great uncle, or myself in my grandparents. You're right, I'm lucky we have these pictures. I'm glad my grandmother preserved them.

    Kimberley, I understand how you feel. I still miss my grandma, and my grandpa too. There's something very special about relationships between grandparents and grandchildren. It's really neat that you lived close enough to your grandma to see her so often. It sounds like she was not only grandmother to you, but also friend.

  6. This was such a beautiful post and I'm glad that you shared your memories. I am looking forward to hearing your grandmother's stories. I'll be back to read your mum's guest post. I'm curious!

  7. Thank you Kate! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  8. What a wonderful post! Great that you are writing some of the stories down before they get all lost.

  9. Thank you Bek. And thanks for visiting! I visited your blog this morning, and it's lovely.


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