Monday, November 21, 2011

Tell me a story: April 18, 2004

The best stories are true stories. Every one of us has a story to tell.

Your grandchildren would love to know your stories
    My grandmother recently sent me 70 pages of notebook paper covered top-to-bottom in her neat, leaning script.

    On those pages she had written out memories of her growing-up years, spent in places as varied as Hankow, China, where she was born, and Dayton, Tenn., where she passed a memorable summer with her cousins.

    She told me about the dust bowl years in Oklahoma, where she lived as a small child, and about the union organizers in the coal mines of Kentucky, where she visited yet another batch of cousins.

    I read about her summers on the beaches of Virginia, where she visited her maternal grandparents, and about the year she spent roller-skating across most of the greater Washington, D.C., area, where she lived with her mother.

    She described meeting my grandfather at Fort Story, Va., where she was a work order clerk and he was a shop foreman during World War II. She told tales of their early years together and shared stories of the time she spent raising my mother and uncle in a house she and my grandfather were forever building in Florida. I remember that house. It was still unfinished when my grandfather died in 1992.

    On a cover page, my grandmother explained that the 70 handwritten pages represent an addendum to a larger work she’s compiling — stories about her parents, their parents, the people she remembers and whom I’ll never have a chance to know. Stories about the childhoods of people I’ve only known as old men and women at family reunions.

    She doesn’t have a typewriter, she explained, and she wrote quickly, in something of a fugue state, just channeling memories onto paper.

    "I apologize for sending it to you in such a messy condition," she wrote. "I just hope it is legible enough to read."

    It’s just like my grandmother to apologize for her handwriting as she gives me this amazing gift.     

    She isn’t alone in this project, though. My mother is at work on her own stories, though I haven’t seen any of them yet. The theory is that they’re for my son, not for me. They’re part of what is becoming my family’s vast, detailed "Grandmother Book."

    This all started many months back, when my mother was drifting through a local Goodwill. She buys used books by the armload, reads them and gives them back.

    On this day she came across a thin volume full of blank pages — a Grandmother Book. Each page had a heading with a subject line ("My hometown," for example) and left space for a grandmother to write down her memories for her grandchild to read.

    Mom was captivated and bought the little book with an eye toward filling it out for my son, Jack, who’s almost 4. Then she told her mother about the project and ordered a Grandmother Book for her to write to me.

    These books quickly proved too small to contain all the stories my mother and grandmother had to tell. They’re big on doing things big. Ask for a grocery list, and they’ll write you the history of modern agriculture.

    So my 70 handwritten pages represent the first installment of a multigenerational effort that has already given me more to laugh about and marvel over than I could have imagined.

    I have known my grandmother and her cousin, Kathleen, all my life, but I had no idea they once "borrowed" their uncle’s mules and went on an impromptu cross-country trip that had even the Rhea County sheriff out looking for them.

    "I’m not at all sure the adults were glad to get us back in one piece," my grandmother wrote, "but they were glad the mules hadn’t been stolen."

    That stuff just doesn’t make it onto family trees or into history books.

    My grandmother turned 80 in September. Three months before that, my mother was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer she has spent the last 10 months fighting with chemotherapy and surgery and radiation and all the strength one body can muster.

    None of us will be here forever, and we’ve all got tales to tell.

    An editor once told me that some of the best stories come from people who aren’t necessarily writers. The best stories just come from people, from living.

    Someone — maybe a grandchild who can’t even read yet — would love to know your stories. Put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and let them in on what they’ve missed.

    They’ll thank you.

    And they’ll remember you, too.

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