Years ago I hated Mother’s Day.
The search for a card was the worst. A card that didn’t say: “Mom, you’re the greatest,” “I adore you, Mom,” “Mother, you’re the best ever!” And Hallmark had plenty more I ignored and didn’t buy until I felt guilty.
The verses and kudos didn’t fit the mother I had. In fact, sometimes I wished she were dead. Then I’d be free of the abuses, emotional and verbal. But I’m not in charge of life and death choices.
Despite my feelings, I always sent flowers and a vanilla card. How could I not? She was my mother. She breathed life into me. Yet she seemed to hate me. And I didn’t know why.
Years passed. Hurts continued. One day I learned I would move Mama to Oregon near my home to care for her. No longer mobile, she needed professional care. With the support of my husband, the move took place.
And with that move came changes. Changes in Mama. Changes we couldn’t believe. What happened? What caused her to change? I have the answers to the questions, but I’m saving them for my memoir.
What I can share with you is that I never imagined feeling sad on Mother’s Day because she isn’t here. She died 10 months after we moved her to Oregon.
This is the last photo taken of Mama just before we moved her in December 2000. With her are my nephew, Kevin, and a younger me.
I believe she died happily. I was the one unhappy when she died despite those earlier wishes.
I pondered all the years we’d spent defying one another, arguing, hurting and, yes, hating each other. Why? Another question I know the answer to now. But you’ll have to wait.
And you know something? There is a good side to my mother. I hope to do justice to that part of her story in my memoir. She deserves nothing less.
Welcome to the second installment in my A Day in the Life series of short creative nonfiction pieces drawn from days gone by. I hope you enjoy them.
One Easter Sunday stands out in my mind above all others. I was around age four. Dressing up was a highlight for me as it was for most little girls, especially around Easter.
Easter meant a visit from the Easter Bunny with baskets filled with eggs and jelly beans. It almost always meant new clothes and this particular Easter it meant a new pair of black patent leather Mary Janes. I was so proud and excited to wear them. I thought Sunday would never come.
Finally, Sunday came. Up early to check out what was left by the Easter Bunny, eat breakfast, brush our teeth, and then dress for church.
That’s when it all fell apart. I heard Mama and Daddy talking.
“She cannot wear those shoes. Can’t you see it snowed last night?”
Oh, no! Mama was telling Daddy I couldn’t wear my new shoes. If I hurried, I could get dressed and have my new shoes on before they finished arguing.
“Honey, the snow isn’t that deep.” Hurray for Daddy! But Mama was having none of it.
Finally Daddy saved the day. He told Mama if she felt it was too messy to wear the new shoes, he would carry me from the house to the car, from the car to the church, and reverse his plan when it was time to come home.
I’ll never forget wearing those shoes, but most importantly, I’ll never forget how important I felt when Daddy reached down with his long arms, picked me up, and carried me in his arms.
Do you have a special Easter memory from childhood or perhaps another stage of life? Perhaps you can use this as a prompt to write a short piece sometime over the next few days. If you’d like to share it here as a guest post, please contact me.
For some time the idea of writing creative nonfiction shorts as a way of looking back at my life has been niggling at me. A recyclable phrase for a title, one my readers would remember and hopefully flock to, took a while to conjure up. But I finally heard it the other day, and I introduce you to a randomized series of creative nonfiction shorts called A Day in the Life.
An unexpected package arrived in the mail. A rather small, nondescript box addressed to me from my cousin in Tampa, Florida. As usual, I grabbed the mail, pulled further up the drive, and ran into the house to begin dinner.
The package kept calling to me. Once our evening meal was started, I unwrapped the box to see what surprises it held.
Under the exterior wrapping, I found a note. My cousin explained the box held some items she had recently found when going through her mother’s personal effects.
Nothing could prepare me for what I saw when I removed a layer of white tissue paper.
For the first time in my life, photographs of my father lay nestled among other items. I had never seen a photo of my father, other than ones taken after I was born. Continue reading →
Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl delivers a treat as delicious as oatmeal cookies hot out of the oven – a memoir of a happy childhood. In charming and memorable vignettes, Carol Bodensteiner captures rural life in middle America, in the middle of the 20th Century. In these pages you can step back and relish a time simple but not easy, a time innocent yet challenging.
I have only to close my eyes and breathe in to remember the smell of a field of new-mown hay, flex my fingers to remember the feel of a calf sucking as it learned to drink, open my ears to the sound of my mother smoothing over a cooking mistake. Then I remember my dad sitting on the feedbox petting a yellow tomcat and I want to go sit by him again and talk about the work that has yet to be done. (Epilogue, Loc. 2921, Kindle version)
For some 33 years now, I have listened to my husband and his siblings reminisce over memories of their growing up on a cattle farm in the Yakima Valley of Washington state. I often wondered if their experiences were unique.
You see, I grew up a city girl in Nashville, TN, a far cry from Iowa or Washington. My memory banks hold no recollection of ever setting foot on a dairy farm during my childhood or even as an adult.
To date, I have taken my acquired family’s stories at face value, believing each farm would have its own unique set of stories with no semblance to another farm family’s set of stories.
Carol Bodensteiner, in sharing her memories in this charming memoir, Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl, has proven me wrong. So wrong in fact I was guilty of running to my husband and suggesting he remember a certain story about calving or planting or haying and then reading aloud to him Carol’s story of similar experiences.
Carol’s gift of storytelling is rich, distinct, and nourished with truth. Each vignette she shares draws the reader in to experience it with Carol, her sisters, and their folks. Whether it is a family or farm story, a story drawn from community at school or church, or a story of certain relatives or friends, a tapestry of a simpler life on the farm when time moved more slowly and memories were more easily cherished is woven thread-by-thread until you feel transported to the Bodensteiner farm.
This isn’t to say that growing up on the farm was always easy for the Bodensteiner girls. Carol shares easily the difficult times as well as the good. She does not shy away from letting her reader know that life was not always smooth, losses were hard, and the weather could change the success of a crop or the success of a cow giving birth to a healthy calf.
Carol ended her epilogue with the quote shared above, but I have another favorite that speaks clearly to the writer’s ability to draw in her reader. It is found in the prologue:
This land of my childhood releases sweet, long forgotten memories and brings me back home. Home to the farm. Home to my family. Home. (Prologue, p. 3, Kindle version)
What reader would not want to turn the page to explore this farm, meet this family, and discover home?
Fans of memoir, farms and farming, simpler times, and stronger community will fall in love with Carol Bodensteiner’s Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl. Each chapter or vignette can stand alone, and I think they would be lovely read aloud to children teaching them of a disappearing lifestyle on which our country once depended upon.
Meet the Author:
I’m a writer inspired by the people, places and culture of the Midwest.
In my memoir, “Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl,” I share stories about growing up in the middle of the United States, in the middle of the 20th Century, a way of farm life that is rapidly disappearing from the American landscape.
“Go Away Home” – my World War One-era novel published in 2014, tells the story of a young woman who wants to make her own decisions and decide her own future at a time when rural women saw limited options. As she pursues her dream, she comes to realize that to get what you want, you often have to give up something else you want just as much. GO AWAY HOME is a SILVER MEDAL winner in the Historical Fiction – Personage category of the Readers’ Favorite International Award competition.
I am privileged to have my writing included in a number of anthologies.
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Today I am pleased to have as my guest, Lorraine Ash, author of Self and Soul: Creating a Meaningful Life. Lorraine is sharing her thoughts on the ancestral patterns we inherit and how they impact our lives. Lorraine, thank you for being here today. And thank you to WOW! Women on Writing for hosting Lorraine’s blog tour.
Our lives start with all kinds of inheritances. From ancestors, we receive genetic qualities, proclivities, aptitudes, beliefs. Maturing means interacting with all our inheritances, whether that involves embracing, rejecting, or modifying them. Odds are, we decide to keep some and not others.
That thought affirms the value of looking back in time to trace how we got to be who we are. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion evokes her ancestry even as she brings her readers deep into her.
As the grandchild of a geologist I learned early to anticipate the absolute mutability of hills and waterfalls and even islands. When a hill slumps into the ocean I see the order in it. …A hill is a transitional accommodation to stress, and ego may be a similar accommodation.
Following the trajectory of our experiences in regard to even one of our inheritances can provide a focus for a rich memoir in essay or book form. Such close scrutiny also can yield new insights about ourselves, which is no small gift.
A father/daughter story
Here’s an example of how I separated the strands of a thread of paternal family inheritance and wove them into my own life. I am like my late father in fundamental ways: I have a probing mind, an ability to sustain focus, the desire and discipline to explore a subject deeply, and an abiding concern for the well-being of the average person.
For my father, a career in the law was a calling—one he first heard when he was a poor kid on the streets of Jersey City, New Jersey, growing up without the benefit of parents. He had to fight for every piece of dignity, dingy boardinghouse room, and meal he got. When he served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he even chose to be a boxer, like his father before him.
My father’s fiery temperament and fighting spirit served him well as he defended clients and argued cases in court. He pushed me toward the law, too, but it was not natural for me to use “our” traits in the same way. I have a more calm temperament and prefer analyzing and integrating information. As a journalist and author, I’m a natural.
I loved my father and intensely value and appreciate the traits I inherited from him. But I knew that love could morph into resentment and self-alienation if I allowed him to hijack my destiny.
Throwing a typewriter
So one day, as a teenager, as I was working in his law office, and he was pressuring me yet again to go to law school, I picked up the typewriter on which I’d been working, and threw it through the glass door of a bookcase.
“You will NOT tell me what I will do with my life!” I said.
That was the only act of physical violence I’ve ever committed. My anger detonated, uncharacteristically, to protect my very core.
“OK,” he said, quietly. “You don’t have to.”
Today, I think of that scene as a key turning point in my life, but it is much better understood in deep family context. My father wanted for me what worked for him. But his ancestors, largely by dint of not living up to their responsibilities, gave him two options: give up and drop out of high school, or fight like hell to rise above his circumstances. His anger toward his family also helped light his inner fire for social justice: he was all about helping others rise up.
By working in his law office as a young adult, I learned from him how to live archetypally—a gift of power. But his archetype was justice. Mine is truth.
When there is no family
Even when there is no family, or its members have scattered, the family still holds power. Indeed when there is no present dynamic, the actions of the ancestors may be all the self-inquiring writer has to work with. In Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed writes about the specter that her absentee father had become in her life. Deep in the memoir, she breaks his spell over her:
… on that night as I gazed out over the darkening land fifty-some nights out on the PCT, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to be amazed by him anymore.
The family tree, with its intergenerational traumas, gifts, and secrets, holds many fruits for memoirists. Our ancestors, a line of people that inevitably includes heroes and ne’er-do-wells, took the family story as far as they could.
It’s a mistake to focus so intently at their successes and wrongs that we neglect to see how we are continuing the story now. Writing memoir helps us see the past with new eyes and frees us to live into a new day.
Questions: A memoir is driven by some master question that concerns the writer. In Three Weeks with My Brother, Nicholas Sparks asks, essentially, Why am I like this? As the story unfolds, he links his own anxiety and exhaustion to his family story. Ask yourself, Why am I like this?
Today I am sharing with you a recent experience which started my husband and me thinking. Thinking about family, memories, storytelling, and how to share that history with the next generation. On the Meyer side of our family, the work is somewhat up-to-date. But who will carry the torch after our generation is gone? Our generation is slipping away slowly one by one. What about your family history?
“She isn’t the sister I knew,” my husband says when he returns from driving his sister, Mary Ellen, home after lunch.
I don’t know what to say. I understand what his words mean. I still don’t know what to say.
This is the second sibling I have heard him make this comment about, the other a brother who died almost two years ago.
“As long as you can remember the good times, the days in Outlook, Mary Ellen seems to have good recall.” Words I use to encourage him.
In fact, it happened over lunch.
When Bob arrived to pick Mary Ellen up and bring her to our home, she asked her now routine question, “Have you been here before?”
And the answer is always yes as one of us visits weekly, if not more. Since her assisted living community is only eight blocks away, we often make it our daily walk to visit.
But her short-term memory has lost its bearings.
We visit for a time, and then lunch calls us. It is our first time to sit with only the three of us around the table. Mary Ellen’s husband died a couple of months ago, and her move near us and a nephew is relatively recent.
We join hands for grace. Her skin has the feel of thin paper, and her hands are cold. It’s in the upper 80s outside.
We chat amiably while eating. Mary Ellen jokes about her unreliable memory, and we commiserate that our collective memories aren’t much better some days.
Bob recalls receiving an invitation recently from their grade school in Outlook, WA, a tiny space in the road in the Yakima Valley. He mentions the name of the woman who sent it and with whom he has talked. He asks Mary Ellen if she remembers Dorothy Cullen from their grade school days.
She looks up and furrows her brow. Finally, she says she doesn’t, her now nearly gone eyesight trying to focus on him.
And then she says, “Oh, there was a Dorothy Ross in Outlook.”
Yes, this was the woman Bob was talking about but he had used her married name since he couldn’t think of her maiden name.
That recalled memory is from decades ago, but our visits with Mary Ellen recently have only been in the last two months. She doesn’t remember us visiting or others calling or coming by. She doesn’t remember her husband is dead.
We sit later that day talking about family and memories. Bob and I know with certainty that we too are growing older daily, and our memories aren’t always as sharp as they used to be.
Mary Ellen is the oldest of the six Meyer siblings and the genealogist in the family. She has researched, traveled, and visited with family members all over New England and the Midwest. Her travels include trips to cemeteries, old schools and churches, and the family history we have is amazing.
Not only that, Mary Ellen, a retired school teacher, is among the best storytellers in the family. Up until now, her mind was never faulty on a single detail about farm life, grade school teachers, preachers in the country church, music lessons, and life in tiny Outlook, WA.
But this record keeper and researcher is nearly blind, her mind is failing, and she turns 90 in a few weeks. Who will take up the torch and tread the course in keeping the family history and the stories moving generation to generation?
We haven’t been the best stewards of the Meyer history. At least the record of the Meyer clan is in many hands now, thanks to the Internet. But will it continue to spread as our family continues to grow?
We encourage our children to slow down, make treasured memories, memories that will last, and to write them down for future generations to read and share on and on. And we ask them to make sure they label photos on their Smartphones and computers with names, dates, places so someone will know a bit of the story held in the images decades from now.
Otherwise, a family’s legacy can be lost in time and age.
A few tips readily came to mind in keeping the family history alive as Bob and I talked:
Take advantage of every family gathering by encouraging time for storytelling and sharing experiences and have someone take notes.
Make sure you keep up a family record of births, deaths, and weddings. This information will be helpful to whoever is in charge of maintaining the family genealogy.
Mark photos with names, dates, places, occasions, and any other information benefit recall. Stories can be written from photos as the images are great triggers for recall and memory.
Take advantage of state and county records in researching family records.
When a family member passes on, and if you are able to do so, hang on to every slip of paper you might find among the individual’s effects. Recently, a search of the unemployment records in Nashville, TN for the years 1944-45 helped me confirm some information about my parents. I had found discharge slips issued to my parents from the same employer on the same date among my mother’s effects. But something just didn’t seem right. I checked and found I could get access to certain information about their unemployment. And I was right — my father’s service terminated a month after my mother’s.
And lastly, I know that Mary Ellen was not shy about writing letters to people who had a similar last name and lived in an area where other family members had once lived, or who might have arrived at Ellis Island with ancestors, and these contacts provided the information she might not have uncovered otherwise.
It is never too late to begin tracking your family’s history. Whether you think you are a writer or not, you can write stories in a journal, on your computer, in a notebook, or by any method you choose.
Then pass what you have on to the next generation by sharing it with them from time to time so questions can be asked and answered. Leave it somewhere so when you are no longer around, it will be easily found and handed off to a family member.
This post isn’t intended to be about doom and gloom, but last Thursday’s lunch brought out the importance of what would happen to the Meyer family history now that Mary Ellen is no longer able to be the keeper of the work she so lovingly provided for us.
The tips here are some used in my research and gathered in talking with Mary Ellen over the years. I wanted to share this personal time in our life to provide, I hope, a clear picture of the importance of storytelling in the present.
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