Thursday, June 15, 2017

You Should Tell Your Story

You really should write down your story.

We’ve told the story of two of Sutton’s expats in the past two articles. Both of those men did things that were written about in newspapers, magazines and Wikipedia. They were somewhat famous people, but even the not so famous live lives worth remembering.

The population of Sutton has fluctuated around 1,500 for most of its existence. So, how many people would that be – it must be at least six to ten thousand. And each lived a life filled with stories. And that includes you.

The Germans from Russia organization several years ago urged members to write down the immigration stories of their parents, grandparents and other family members. We have a few of those in our museum. Completing these projects are time-critical, even urgent as only a few people know the stories and the stories will disappear as people do.

Sutton pioneer John Maltby kept a diary including during his voyage from Boston to the Australian gold fields, traveling rivers in India and pioneering in Nebraska. The diary is among 13 boxes of his materials at the state historical society. Browsing Maltby’s diary gave me a pleasant afternoon a few years ago.

Or someone’s story can be much more benign.

My father, Clarence Johnson, began his journal at the start of 1935. I resolved
many disagreements, misunderstandings and conflicting memories.
My father began keeping a journal on January 1, 1935 and wrote in it typically on Sundays. It settled
 many discussions around the supper table. If my parents disagreed about when or if something happened Dad would announce, “It’s in the book”, go to the appropriate volume and return either triumphant or quietly to confirm Mom remembered better. About 50-50.

It’s kind of cool to read what your dad wrote the day you were born.

Are you afraid you don’t have anything interesting to say? So what? Your grandparents had their toddler days, likely school days, they met and courted, fell in love and were married, made a life for themselves, made a living, raised kids and grew old. You knew them late in life. Do you have any curiosity about how they lived their earlier lives? Doesn’t it stand to reason that your grandkids and other younger people will have that same curiosity about all those things you did?

If you haven’t written down your own story, consider doing it. Really consider doing it.

So, what do you say and how do you say it?

Well, you can start at the beginning. I’ll illustrate.

I was born on June 23, 1943 to Mildred (Cassell) and Clarence Johnson.

OK, a start. Do I know anything else about that day?

“I was born in the midst of World War II when many common items were rationed. Every person had a ration book that allowed purchase of sugar, flour, coffee, meat, gasoline, tires, etc. I was born at 4:45 am at the Hastings hospital. My Dad drove back to Sutton later that day, stopping in Clay Center to pick up the new ration book that I was now entitled to, a book of stamps authorizing my parents to buy more items than they could the day before.”

You likely have lots of family pictures, perhaps labled
but maybe not. A little effort on your part to label and
preserve photos will earn the appreciation of your
offspring, and can add a chuckle to your day.
Isn’t that a story worth preserving? It’s personal, but it does provide a bit of background. You certainly have similar stories.

You’ll want to mention your grandparents and other relatives. You don’t have to go an entire genealogy thing; that’s another project. But you should record what you know about those people.

For instance:

My grandfather David Cassell died two years before I was born. My mother told me that on Sunday morning he would shave, take a bath and smoke a cigar, and that was the only occasion he did any of those three things.

We only have a few pictures of the man and that little piece of information is what I think of when I see those pictures.

My other grandfather died when I was six. My most vivid memory of him was the day he ran over my toy truck I’d left in the driveway. I didn’t learn the meaning of “distraught” until years later, but when I did, I knew that’s how Fred Johnson felt that day. (He got me a new truck.)

Your story will be better focused and easier to write if you identify your audience first. You will be one member of that audience yourself. Memories are fragile. Once you start recalling little details, more will come back, but not always.

I kept a good journal and took a lot of pictures on a lengthy trip to Europe 14 years ago. Using that journal and the pictures as a reminder, I can reconstruct many of those days, a thing I know would not happen without those clues.

Your relatives are a part of your story, don't leave
them out. This is my uncle Mike Cassell who
worked in the Sutton Lumber Yard for... ever.
But you should share your story. I write for my grandkids. They don’t know it, and I don’t require them to care. But aiming at them provides my focus.

Your story will likely include your school days. I attended country school from K-5th grade. That is a memory that a diminishing population has. Our Wolfe School museum is the ultimate show-and-tell for that purpose, but our personal memories fill out that story. Again, for instance:

Our country school had a storm cellar dug into a hillside on the school grounds. It was intended as a safe place for pupils in case of a tornado. The cellar was crawling with snakes. The young teacher had asked the school board (including my father) to clear it but it wasn’t happening. One spring afternoon she cancelled classes and led a bunch of boys, and girls, in a snake-slaughtering episode, ending with 42 (as I recall) snakes stretched out on the driveway. K-8 kids don’t do much of that anymore.

That story seems worth saving.

My contemporaries on the farm grew up while farming was in transition (isn’t it always?). We saw the last of stacking hay, shelling corn, threshing and other tasks soon to be altered, automated or obsolete.

My most painful memory of growing up on the farm was fixing fence. No matter how many tasks you worked to completion, there was always fence to fix. It was infuriating to move back to Nebraska 12 years ago and see large herds of cattle confined by a strand of horsehair-sized electrified wire. I spent my youth repairing and rebuilding “miles” of four-strand barbed wire stapled to closely-spaced buried creosote posts, railroad tie corner posts and carefully designed gates. Where is the justice?

Your story, the story of your life is worth remembering and saving for others. Think of the tales we tell at family reunions, to friends over dinner or at the bar, in letters…  Scratch that, we don’t write letters anymore. Emails, tweets and texts are not conducive for what I’m talking about. All the more reason…
My grandparents took this family photo in the fall of 1911 - yes, the horses were important family members for early farmers.
My grandparents raised at least seven of their nine children in this house on the west side of Section 3 in Logan Township,
until recently occupied by Jim and Virginia Moore until it was badly damaged in a fire. I claim that my mother is in this
photo as that is my grandmother just to the right of the four-horse team and she would give birth to her ninth child, my mother
in May 1912.

You may have left Sutton for a time, for college, a job, even a vacation when you had experiences worth remembering and telling about. Or you left home for another reason.

There is sensation I experience when I’m outside in that hour before dawn on a cool morning with no wind and birds singing. A memory sweeps in and I’m standing at attention in the breakfast line outside a chow hall at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. It’s 5:00 am, the birds are singing, no one speaks (absolutely no one speaks!) as we take repeated single steps into the chow hall. I was only in basic training for five weeks but that scene in imbedded and recalled when I find myself outside, before dawn on a still day with birds singing.

Do you have anything like that, a thing that triggers a memory? A song or a smell or an object may do that for you. Tell that story and allow people to see that part of you.

When you tell your story, a lot of it will be centered on your family. Tell your kids and grandkids about meeting your spouse, what was it that led to your marriage, how you lived as a new family, how the kids changed that, and the grandkids. Let your family take center stage for their portion of your life. You will trigger their own deep memories.

You should be willing to bare a bit of yourself. Brag about your successes; own up to your failures. What are you most proud of; what do you wish you’d done differently; what advice to you have for your reader (again, grandkids make a good target audience).

I’ve focused on the “writing” of a memoir here. There are alternatives. Make a video or at least an audio recording. Your computer likely has a camera (or you can plug one in). Sit back and tell your story. Choose a comfortable pattern. Fifteen or 20 minute segments on one or two subject at each setting isn’t a strain.

Technology allows you to put preserve your files several ways. You could share your memories via email or on at a common location (Google Docs). Lots of ways.

Many years ago, I sent each of my cousins a two-hour VHS tape (that’s how long ago) where I’d described my version of our genealogy story as I had it at the time. Should update that – the information and the format.

We very often hear people say that they wish they’d asked their grandparents more questions before it was too late. The onus may not have been on you to ask questions, but on grandma to offer the answers unprompted.

If so, then the onus is on you to offer the answers about your life before your grandkids know they have questions. And furthermore, how are they going to know what a cool character you were if you don't tell them.

Did my great-grandfather understand that? James Demetris Rowlison kept a journal while with the 82nd Indiana Infantry throughout the Civil War. We have six months of that journal.

My great, grandfather's civil war journal is now reaching his sixth generation of grateful descendants. 

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