My grandparents’ shocking first date.

24281661_10157035223238916_2063691728_o.jpg“Once upon a time there was a farm girl — the youngest of six kids.  She was shy and thought she was ugly.  She had some very glamorous older sisters and some very rowdy older brothers. They all lived in Aroostook County, Maine.

Imagine rural Northern Maine farm country in the 1920s — all hands on deck to harvest potatoes for 6 weeks in the fall — schools closed, housewives left their homes.  Every man, woman, and child headed to the fields.

Long days were spent bent over, digging potatoes out of the earth by hand.

Generation after generation.

Paid by the barrel.

The girl did, too. For those 4 to 8 weeks, she traded her smart dresses for a black-and-red wool plaid coat, heavy pants, work boots, and gloves. Up to fourteen hours a day.  Most workers ate hearty picnic lunches in the dirt fields.  Some farms fed their workers huge hot lunches at midday.

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One day a tall dark stranger (okay, there were no strangers in the small farm town) — a tall dark older boy noticed her and asked her on a date — and she said yes!

For their first date, Percy flew her over those potato fields in a post office airplane!  According to the Smithsonian Institution web site, the US Postal Service took over air mail services from the Army in 1918. The promise of the mail drove decisions to light landing strips, push for electric beacons, and floodlight tall buildings.  If the planes couldn’t fly at night, the mail didn’t actually move any faster than by land. The airmail pilots were considered a “suicide club” and we can only imagine what Sybil might have thought of all of this!

 

PostalAirplane.jpgNobody really remembers how soon after that first date it was that they married.  They did not “live happily ever after” — nobody does!  Haha.  But they had a family of their own and a farm of their own — where Sybil fed the farmhands enormous 4-course meals at noon — and they did good works in their community. ”

This is a bedtime story I told my kids, and after its first telling, they were shocked that the story was about their own family! Thirty years ago I gave my beloved grandparents one of those “grandparent books.” They filled it out and I thanked them.  I looked it over and was delighted, then put it on a shelf.  They were both gone by the time I read the four lines about their first date, and I have so many questions!

Family history gives kids a foothold in history.  Kids see their role within a larger context, and learn the value of their actions and contributions. It humanizes the players, too, to trace the path to the present.  The gruff terse one, and the doting, perhaps nervous one.  Our kids won’t know about any of that, its importance to us, or what their elders were like as people — unless we tell them.

Pass your stories along with FREE prompts to talk about over dinner.  And consider capturing your family history.  It is SO MUCH FUN to get together to discuss a photo like the potato-picking one above! Once the conversation starts, everyone remembers more.  It’s all here:  http://bit.ly/2h3aYmX

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Path to the Present: what’s your story?

I worked in academic archives for almost 20 years, and I know how the documents of history are collected. Mostly, “those four guys over there” decide that their work is important and they put it in boxes and give it to someone.

And those documents are how we write history.

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What historical stories are YOU keeping under wraps?   Photo by Dương Trần Quốc on Unsplash

If I sat down with you, and you told me about your history, and we talked about what the women in your family did, and you told me about how your mom made it through domestic violence, how your family came to this country via a different route than Ellis Island, what happened when there were no heirs to carry on the family name, or what the transition from farm to city was like in your family, that story would be unique. And it should be saved.

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Each of my kids came to work with me a couple of days a week in the archives. Yes, that is a typewriter in the background…

There are lots of paths to the present.  And the only stories we can tell about our present and how we got here are the stories that “those four guys over there” decided that they wanted to save.  You can certainly find musicians, or women, or even lefties that collaborate on growing a collection of papers. But the documents of history are only collected by, and saved at, large institutions — when someone does make an effort.  Until now.

What I think is important is this: telling the stories of the real history, and what’s really happening on the ground — for two reasons. First, because it helps families feel grounded and kids feel confident to know their family narrative (stories of hardships, and the coping skills that got everyone through, are particularly strengthening). Second, because the story of history will never be thick enough.

To get started passing your family history to your own kids, I have a handy guide to get you started.  Dinnertime Family History gives you five prompts to talk your way through the school week about your generation and your parents’.  Get your free guide OVER HERE and start tonight!

If you’d like to do more, I can walk you through it, researching and sculpting the perfect interview questions, conducting the online meeting/s with up to four attendees from anywhere with online access, and ensuring that you have multiple, accessible copies of your results.  You’ll know more about your family and yourself, and you’ll have another tool in your parenting toolbox, too!  Read more about it here.  Reach out to have a conversation about Capturing Oral Family History: Angela@AngelaLTodd.com

My dad’s handwriting, and his laugh: why interviewing family matters.

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My dad’s upper-and-lower-case handwriting takes me back to long summers in Maine every time I see it.

Do your parents text you? They do? Then I was jealous of you: I imagine little notes, daily check-ins, a joke, sending them cute pictures of the kids all of the time…. Plus, no long calls, squeezing that flat cel phone between your shoulder and ear, getting your brain irradiated to greater or lesser degrees… My 14-year-old son joked that it’s like sending telegrams, morse code — or even smoke signals!

Anyway, neither of my parents have smart phones, and we don’t do any of that. I used to be jealous of you.

Then, I took a good look at this: my name, in my dad’s handwriting. Very distinctive. Every time I look at it, I remember: living with my Dad all summer — shopping lists on the fridge, notes to remind us what time the yellow school bus left for swimming lessons at the lake, things to do at work the next day (he was town manager of our wee Maine town), notes to himself about house projects he always had going — or about the businesses in development or currently underway.

I went everywhere with him: the dump, grocery store, (he taught me to jump up and click my heels in the air by practicing on a grocery cart!).  We went to the hardware store with wooden floors and to the Red Barn antique shop, where we would stock up on puzzles to get through the winter.  In winter we’d assemble puzzles and play cribbage, as he did growing up in northern Maine farm country.

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Pa’s boots.

And every summer when I visit, we spend at least ONE night sitting at the kitchen table remembering together and reminding each other: when we had a concession stand at the local stock car racing track, when we got pulled over TWICE in a borrowed Cadillac on the way to my grandmother’s house.  That time my car broke down in the Shaker Village (luckily they had a phone!); that time my car broke down and the store-owner wouldn’t let me make a toll call; that time when my car spun into a snowbank and I was closing my eyes to calm my nerves and didn’t see the skiers coming to bail me out — so when they knocked on my window we all screamed and scared each other to death!

Pa has a distinctive laugh, a low throaty chortle. Even if I felt confident that I could remember all the stories, I would only remember my side — not that he’d left a party HE was hosting to pick me up in that broken down car. Or that he’d had words with the shopkeeper. Or that he’d overheard skiers telling friends about stopping to help and getting scared out of their ski pants… And then there’s his laugh.

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Big Nanny

Recording is the answer.

My mother has a recording of HER mother from the early 1980s, and hearing Big Nanny’s voice, her tisk-tisk sound, her laugh… it’s soothing and exciting.  I’m a cultural historian, and her voice is as important to me as hearing her words, hearing about her early childhood, and how far we’ve come as a family — and a nation — that nobody lives within FEET of the railroad tracks any more.  The sound of her voice says as much as her words.

A preservation technology firm will preserve and make available my grandmother’s voice.  And I suggest that we get to work on capturing YOUR Family Oral History while you can.  I will walk you through the whole process, researching and sculpting the perfect interview questions, conducting the online meeting/s with up to four attendees from anywhere with online access, and ensuring that you have multiple, accessible copies of your results.  You’ll know more about your family and yourself, and you’ll have another tool in your parenting toolbox, too!  Read more about it here.  Reach out to have a conversation about Capturing Oral Family History: Angela@AngelaLTodd.com

And to get started passing your family history to your own kids, I have a handy guide to get you started.  Dinnertime Family History gives you five prompts to talk your way through the school week about your generation and your parents’.  Get your free guide OVER HERE and start tonight!

And follow along on Facebook, where I’ll be posting a family history prompt every #ThrowbackThursday !

xoxox

Angela