Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - January 11, 2019

The gift of stories

“Some of these make me feel a bit sad,” said husband Art.

That made sense when I learned he had spent the last few hours working on obituaries. But it wasn’t really the deaths that had bothered him.

“I have a couple that have nothing more than a name, date and place,” he said. “It’s as if their entire life has been reduced to being born and dying.”

Several years ago, Art created a website for his 50th high school class reunion and still does occasional updates, primarily adding obituaries.

Not being satisfied with posting a one-sentence announcement, he and classmate Jane search Ancestry, newspaper sites and other sources to find more details about such people. Jane discovered where Marlyn, one of the one-liners, had once written about herself: “And guess what? The girl who hated math ended up with a career in accounting,” and followed with a list of all the places she had worked as an accountant. Those are the sort of things that make a person “come alive” - something I emphasize to students in my journalism classes. The goal is to convert a statistic into a story.

This was brought home to me in a different was at Christmas. Years ago, I had asked Mom, Dad, my first husband’s parents Ken and Rita, and Art’s mother Donna to complete “Grandma’s Story” and “Grandpa’s Story” booklets, thinking our daughters Mariya and Katie would some day appreciate them. The books had questions about what they remembered about their families, holidays, homes, school and work, and had a section where they could write down their favorite things: color, movie, song, flower, season, and so on. Once completed, I put the booklets on a shelf downstairs and only thought about them occasionally.

Then one day last summer while I was helping Katie pack for her move to New Mexico, I found slipped in a stack of her books the booklet of Donna’s memories. Aha! I was right! I told Katie I wanted to keep it for now, but promised to get her a copy of it ... someday.

One day last fall, that day came. Over the course of several hours, I scanned the pages of all five booklets and also re-read parts of them.

Dad's good memory came through in his. I often joked that he could tell me what year and model of car he had at any particular time in his life. And, sure enough, his list of vehicles the family owned over the years was a lengthy one: “The first car I remember is an early 1920s Buick touring car, then a 1927 Chevrolet panel truck, a 1928 Buick four-door sedan, a 1931 Buick “box car,” a 1937 Chevrolet sedan. My first car was a 1937 Plymouth...”

Then Dad listed all the other vehicles he and his family had owned.

Mom recalled walking a mile to her country school where all eight grades were taught in one room. But continuing her education required her to leave home. “Going to high school was quite traumatic since it meant staying in Dwight all week and working for my board and room.”

She would later work in one-room schools during parts of her 32-year teaching career.

Ken wrote about how his family always had large gatherings for Christmas and other holidays. “I helped Grandma butcher four or five turkeys she raised and we always had ham. The dinners lasted all day. I have no idea how many people were there. We played cards - pitch and pinochle ... We always had a lot of food, including vegetables, homemade bread and canned fruit.”

Ken’s description would fit well for the many of their family gatherings I attended years later - a lot of food, a lot of people and a lot of laughing.

Rita said her mother taught her much of what she knew about cooking. “But a lot of it was the ‘guess-and-by-golly’ method. When I was first married I really didn’t like to cook.”

Her comment surprised me because she was one of the best cooks I ever knew and she seemed to put meals together effortlessly. Her homemade noodles and lemon meringue pie were among my favorites.

Donna was a young bride at the start of the Depression and the frugality she learned came out in one of her answers. When asked whether she had a tooth fairy when she was growing up, Donna said, “No - nobody ever heard of such a thing. That was invented later for kids to wheedle money out of their parents.”

Many of the booklet passages made me laugh out loud, while others made me a bit sad.

Reflecting on what I read, it occurred that others besides our girls might be interested in the booklets. Brother Dave and sister Gaila might like copies, as would Art’s older daughter Karen and his brother Tommy. Nieces and nephews might also like them and so would Ken and Rita’s sons. By the time I was finished, I had printed about 20 booklets and also put digital copies onto flash drives as Christmas presents.

I guess they were a hit. Gaila said she burst into tears when she opened hers. Dave said “your thoughtful gifts are always amazing!”

Tommy read a lot of Donna’s booklet out loud at our New Year’s gathering with Art’s family in Wisconsin. Each of Donna’s answers seemed to lead to another story - and then another.

All five grandparents are now gone as are a quarter of Art's classmates. But remembering and repeating their stories helps keep the flesh on the bare bones of their lives. Reading their stories made them feel closer - it keeps them alive. What a gift that is!

Left: Mariya holds her grandparents' books; right: Tommy reads from Donna's booklet while his cousin's daughter Sarah and her boyfriend Giorgos listen.

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