Being taken to the basement of a hotel at gunpoint by the Nazis, prepared to die, a young woman reassured her crying sister that they probably wouldn’t be killed in that place because no one would want to shoot holes in the hotel’s pipes that were all around them…
That was just part of one of the stories I was privileged to hear in my short story class at the senior center. It reminded me that we all have stories, everyone alive has stories, and they need to be told while we are still around.
I have recently found the calendar and grandparent book, in which my Nana wrote down some of her activities, her memories, and her thoughts. When I was a young adult, I asked her to write things, whatever she wanted, in these books I gave her. My grandfather had already made a tape talking about his life for my mom, and my dad had written about both his parents, so it made sense for me to ask Nana. For quite a time, I had worked on Nana to become more of a feminist, because she was the traditional homemaker, and that was appalling to me as a young career-minded person, and I wanted her to develop her hobbies, have more independence, show some feminist attitude! She actually out-persisted me, in her denial of the idea that she could ever change, and I finally gave up. She did write in those journals, however, and I am lucky enough to have them. I have been reading them, as I plan to do with all the writings I have about my grandparents, and now that I am finally somewhat mature, I have really enjoyed them, and maybe gotten to understand my ancestors a little better.
My Nana was a good girl who fell in love with a mischievous boy a little older than herself. He had run away from home a few times, hadn’t finished high school, and was not welcomed joyously into her family at first. However, she married him when she was 18, and they bought a little brick bungalow in Blue Island, Illinois, and the family came around and helped fix it up and decorate it for their wedding present. Nana also included some pictures in the journals, so I could see her when she was a baby and a little girl, and she also had some of the houses she’d lived in. As I read, I was impressed by the sewing abilities of my family, who made all the beautiful wedding dresses, and by the close friends my grandparents had: friends that got together regularly and had fun when they were young, riding in my Papa’s car called “Sir Nutmeg”, and friends who went through the hard times of the depression with them, and friends who played dominoes with them when they were older and lived in Florida.
I started asking my mom about some of the stories, and she told me more wonderful stories. I learned that February is a month when most of my relatives died, and it was a hard month to bear for my Nana and still is for my mom. And me. I’ve never liked February either, although I thought it was because it was the middle of winter, often cold and snowy or rainy. I now think, maybe there’s more to it. It is a month of birthdays for my partner, children, and grandchild, so I’m trying to turn my feelings about it around. (It helps that Sarita likes to celebrate her birthday for the whole month, so we do special activities almost every weekend.) My mom tells me how Nana decided she’d probably die when she was 86 because that’s when her mom died (and her husband), but Mom told her she was already 87. “Darn,” she said, “I missed it!” So now my mom is writing her own stories on her laptop, and I am learning more about her grandparents, my grandparents, and my mom. It is really exciting, and I’m learning that my young adult idea about the perfect life for them was so wrong. They had good lives, hard lives, and some things didn’t get better until very late in life, but my Nana experienced independence, and she had plenty of hobbies, and my mom has wonderful memories about her own life, before and after having her children.
I treasure having these memories in writing, because my memory is worse than ever — it’s never been great, but chemo has not helped. They fill me up in a way that makes me feel more complete, causing my ancestors to become part of my soul. They make it more meaningful to wear that turquoise and coral ring that used to be Grandma’s, or the pearl ring given to Nana by her best friend, whom her mom did not like because she was too much of a tomboy. I love to look at the embroidered picture of Nana’s house over my couch that Mom made, or the pen and ink picture my dad made of a great grandfather sitting under a tree fishing.
I have even more understanding and appreciation for my own children seeking their birth parents, (as both are adopted by me) and trying to negotiate meaning and understanding into their present families and lives, as these people are found. My oldest daughter has a new relationship with her birth father, a shy and gentle man, who reminds her of herself more than she can believe. My youngest daughter is in new contact with her birth mother, who has decided to really push for a mother-daughter relationship after essentially giving her up twice (once at birth, and once when she was 13, and made contact, then pulled away, unreachable). They both have so much on their plates, that they have just a marginal interest in all that I’m finding out about my family, (not genetically related to them). Maybe that’s why it’s important that I find out everything I can, to hold in case they get interested as they get older, and to hold just for the meaning it gives to my life. I can appreciate all my parents have done to get their stories, to hold on to their keepsakes, and to convey that information to me. I feel extremely fortunate for this, as I know that others do not have the same experience, the same access to information about their family’s past.
So as I prepare to move to another state (yet again in my life), I box up the knick knacks that come from my family, I think about where I can put them in a tiny little house. I used to think there would be no room, they would all have to go in storage, but now I’m rethinking that, and figuring out a place where they can be available and in my sight (at least on a rotating basis), and I organize the writings so that I can easily remind myself of where I came from, and then spin off my own stories. I encourage my children to do the same as they make their discoveries. They are leading such interesting and amazing and crazy lives, I’m hoping they will write it all down for their children, because it would be hard to believe it was all true otherwise! And I say to everyone else, write your stories — the world is changing so fast, even little bits and pieces of writing about whatever you have experienced in life is going to be wonderful history some day. Find whatever stories you can, remember them, write them!