My Story/Your Story/Our Story of 9/11

9/11 image with statue of libertyThe tenth anniversary of 9/11 has come and gone.

It is one of those shared moments that each of us remembers differently. I was putting on my running shoes. The television happened to be on.  I  called my friend and told her a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. She started to ask where we were going meet for usual 45 minutes of exercise. “Turn on your television,” I told her and for the next 45 minutes we watched together, talking on the phone the whole time. We caught the moment when the second plane hit.

My husband had gone to Boston on business the Monday before. He wasn’t schedule to return until Friday. All week he kept thinking they’d get the planes flying by Friday. Saturday morning he started driving and was glad he had a car–any way to get home. Took him two days. When he went to turn in the car in Boulder, Colorado, the place was a mess, cars being turned in from everywhere, more than the local car rental place could park in their parking lot. Confusion. Frustration.

My husband and I remember 9/11 as an inconvenience–an ongoing inconvenience every time we fly. There are worse stories. There are families who lost loved ones that day and families that continue to lose loved ones to the wars and aftermath of the clean-up.

Events that everyone remembers are anchors in time. I’m old enough to remember the Kennedy assassination, the events of 1968, and watching the first man to walk on the moon. What are the anchor events in your life and that of your family? Are they written down?

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Filed under Event, Family Stories, History, Memories, National Story, Story pegs

We’re Related to Pirates!!

pirate drawing“Pirates!” my son exclaims. “We have pirates in the family? Awesome.”

“Vikings,” I repeat, thinking that isn’t exactly the same. I’m standing next to a Viking burial mound on an island off the coast of Denmark talking to him via cell phone. He’s responding on the wavelength of the current zeitgeist that includes Talk Like A Pirate Day, every September 19, and recent books that tell how to release one’s inner buccaneer–a California thing.

The island is Samsø—an hourglass shaped landmass in an arm of the North Sea. It’s twenty miles long, six miles wide, pinched to half a mile at the point where in the year 726, the Vikings dug a canal, a remarkable feat of engineering that allowed ships to sail from the fjord to the mainland with speed and safety—polite language for outrunning another ship. OK, think pirate, raider, explorer. Then also remember a remarkable shipbuilding culture complete with a pantheon of Norse gods. The Vikings gave us Valhalla and Thor. It is said that Samsø is where Odin learned magic.

I’ve returned to Samsø where my Danish ancestors once lived to see if I can learn anything about my family’s background. Vikings and/or pirates was not what I thought I’d find.

There’s more.

Near the remnants of the old Viking canal, there is a sandbank with newly uncovered Stone Age dwellings. According to a local pamphlet, pollen analysis indicates that grazing cattle and sheep on Samsø is a tradition reaching back to the beginning of Neolithic time, in other words, since mankind first began to keep domestic animals.

Cattle and sheep! That’s what my family raised on our ranch just above Bone, Idaho, even though sheep and cattle were not supposed to mix in the American West. Here’s the larger thought, since my family goes back father than written records on Samsø, I have to consider the possibility that my roots in this place might extend to the last ice age and that cattle and sheep have been part of my family’s livelihood for tens of thousands of years. Cattle and sheep still grazed in the island pastures that I passed. It was enough to give one pause.

However, nothing stopped me like the reproduction of an old Viking house. It exactly matched the description of the first house my Danish ancestor and her new husband made from the wagon that they’d brought across the plains. According to the family stories, they turned the wagon over, mounded earth over it, and made it through the cold months.

Cattle and sheep; pirates and dugouts, until you return to the old places you might not sense how far our stories echo across time.

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Filed under Family history, Family Stories, History, Legend, Old Storytelling Traditions, Why Stories?

Celebration of Quilts, Dump Cake and Hard Times

quilt exampledump cake recipeIf someone in your family hasn’t reminded you of  The Great Depression lately, you haven’t been listening.

I have an quilt that my mother found among some old things and gave to me. From the fabrics, I already know it was made in the 1930s, when everything, including fabric, was precious. From the workmanship, I know it was hastily made. Not all the pieces match. It’s a common pattern, thirty star blocks, predominantly yellow in color. The charm of a handmade quilt is that it’s make-do made art. Since most of us have had to make-do, at one time or another, we know it’s one thing to handle hard times with grace and another to handle them with style. Taking scraps of material too good to throw away and turning them into quilts has to be one of the higher expressions of make-do.

Dump-cake is another example. The recipe that has came down in my family is actually quite good. If hard times include dump-cake, I’m not likely to whine. Of course, the recipe assumes you have a jar of fruit sitting around. Canning your own fruit and vegetables is also an art that not many of us do any more.

My mother is sure we’re all going to have to learn those old skills again. She sees a root cellar in every back yard. Hope not, I like my deck and umbrellas. However, I do have a compost box.

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Filed under Family history, History, Keepsakes, Memories

“Who Do You Think You Are” Videos Are Free Fun

Maybe you’re a fan and haven’t missed a single episode of NBC’s TV Show Who Do You Think You Are? If not, the complete episodes from season two are available on NBC’s site.

Gwyneth PaltrowMy favorite is Gwyneth Paltrow discovering that she’s related to a long line of famous rabbis. She also uncovers the tragedy that scarred one of her grandmothers, making her withdrawn, described by her son as “an ambivalent mother.”

Steve BuscemiEvery episode uncovers surprising emotional material but not necessarily material that is storybook nice. Steve Buscemi finds an ancestor who deserted the army during the Civil War also abandoning his wife and children, leaving them to think he’s dead, while starting another family in another state. A dentist, he eventually dies of tuberculosis–an occupational hazard for dentists of the day.

The episodes center on a celebrity going in search of his/her family history with the help of experts and a camera crew. However, within the stories are suggestions that can apply to anyone interested in discovering his/her family stories. Near the end of her segment, Gwyneth Paltrow turns to the camera and says, “There’s energy in your ancestors, not just facts.”

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Filed under Family history, Family Stories, History, Television, Why Stories?

Getting the Facts Right But Not Necessarily True

caution signIn the latest issue of Creative Nonfiction, Sharon DeBartolo Carmack discusses the joys and hazards of writing family narrative. That’s the currently popular way of publishing one’s family history. Think, Alex Haley’s Roots. Think facts placed in an historical context that includes setting, character and plot. Often families hire writers like Carmack to create these histories for them.

Hooray.

About time.

Carry on.

caution signAs a fan of family stories, I have long had trouble with charts that reduce lives to birth, marriage and death dates. That said, there are problems trying to keep the history interesting and accurate. John Philip Colletta, a pioneer in melding genealogical facts with creative writing once wrote:

Attorney, litigants and witnesses exit the courtroom, descend the long iron staircase and step out onto the portico. Lighting a cigar or pipe, or tucking a plug of tobacco inside the lower lip, the men watch the starlings poking in the rain-saturated lawn.

caution signSounds perfectly plausible, until Colletta got an e-mail from an ornithologist who informed him that starlings weren’t introduced into the area until 1890, decades after the event took place.

M. Mark Miller, who writes a history blog on Yellowstone Park that’s strong on story  not to mention his book Adventures in Yellowstone, encountered a different problem. While writing an article on Fred Bottler for The Pioneer Museum Quarterly he discovered–a truth too true. One of the stories, told by Bottler’s son, Floyd, concerns a pair of needle guns, which were an early type of repeating rifle.

caution signIt’s a fun story, I’ll let him tell it:

Floyd said his father won the guns in a card game with soldiers at Fort Ellis, an army post near Bozeman. Although Bottler knew the guns technically were government property, he thought they would be handy if Indians attacked his isolated ranch. He decided to keep them.

An officer at Fort Ellis, Lieutenant Gustavus Doane, heard that Bottler had the guns and decided to retrieve them. Floyd said that when Doane arrived at Bottler’s house, the rancher invited him in and seated him where he could see the guns hanging on a wall.

Floyd said Doane would look at the guns, then look at Fred, and then back at the guns. Finally, Doane told Bottler that a man living on the edge of Indian country needed such guns and he could keep them—but only if he kept them out of sight when he visited the fort.

Then, Floyd said, “Their eyes met again and held for a long moment. Then both men rose and the hands met in a strong clasp”

I couldn’t resist quoting that directly in my article. But when I asked Ann Butterfield, the Pioneer Museum Associate Director, to read a draft of my article, she objected.  She said she liked what I had written, except for that “gazed into each other’s eyes” stuff. “Men just don’t act that way,” she added with a scoff.

I immediately checked my source and confirmed that I had quoted Floyd accurately. I assured Ann of that, but she wasn’t really  mollified. That made me think.

It’s my job to present old stories for today’s readers. I want people to read straight through my stuff and say: “That’s interesting.” I don’t want them stop and say: “This just doesn’t sound right”—even if it is right.

I also like to quote exactly what people wrote because their word choices make personalities and emotions shine through. It’s always a balancing act to decide when modern sensibilities might collide with old fashioned ways of saying things.

When I turned in final draft of my article, it didn’t contain the “gazed into each others eyes” quote. Writing narrative history is not just about getting the facts right; it’s also about getting the reader’s experience right. If it distracts, it’s got to go.

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Filed under Definition, Family history, Family Stories, History, Why Stories?

Fairy Folk and Family History

A couple of local gents are drinking a pint in a pub near Cushendall, County Antrim, one evening when a redhead comes through the door. “Ah, there’s that Liz Weir who believes in fairies,” one says.

Weir, an Irish storyteller with an international reputation, stops. “And you don’t?”

He smiles and shakes his head.

“So now, tell me, will you be cutting down that fairy tree on your place any time soon?” She means an old Hawthorne growing inconveniently in the middle of one of his fields.

He turns back to his pint.

“Why not, may I ask?”

He shifts in his seat. “Bad luck.”

Weir likes to tell that story because she’s not bashful about leaving the fairy folk alone. She won’t walk on Tiveragh, a well-known fairy hill, day or night, and, because we happen to be chatting on an April afternoon, she reminds me that May Eve (April 30) is coming. I should avoid all dairy that day because it will sour. She also advises that I plant primrose around my newly remodeled house to keep the fairies away and never throw water out the door for fear of drenching one of the little folk and making him/her angry. Before building, I’m to place a brick at each corner of the new structure. If next morning, the bricks are still in place, I can build. If one is knocked out of place, I’d be advised to build somewhere else.

Every one of my grandmothers gave me similar advice. Sophia, the no-nonsense founder of the family ranch, left drops of water in teacups to keep the fairy folk happy. She thought it made good sense. Since nobody has enough good luck, why risk bad? Likewise Weir is one of the most sensible people I know, computer savvy, widely traveled, a former librarian, who simply chooses to acknowledge what most of us try to ignore—the fact that things are not always what they seem. She’s not alone. Witness how casually we talk about Karma, practice Feng Shui, and bury St. Joseph statues upside down in the backyard.

When the poet W.B. Yeats traveled through the Irish countryside in the late 1800s, looking for stories of the fairy folk, he titled his resulting book, The Celtic Twight. When Eddie Lenihan traveled the same areas in the late 1900s also looking for old stories, he found a tradition as lively as ever. His book, Meeting the Other Crowd, begins by wondering if another book on Irish fairies is really necessary and never expresses any concern that the fairies will go away any time soon. Of course, his fairies aren’t fey. They are described as dangerous, a source of taboos, and otherworldly enchantments, that sound closer to alien abductions than Disney films. He prefers not to mess with the fairy folk and, evidently, you don’t want to mess with Lenihan. He got an Irish highway routed around a fairy tree.

Like Lenihan, Weir doesn’t worry that the fairy folk will disappear. They have the gall to exist even when we don’t believe in them. Instead she worries that folklore worldwide will be dumbed down by mass media. Among other things, I suspect she means—pan flutes. Last time I was in Sedona, Arizona, every tourist shop had flute music playing the in background. Same music in similar shops all over Dingle Penninsula in Ireland. Here’s the point, if you decide to look for your family stories, expect the trolls, fairies, and talking animals to tag along. The fairy folk are everywhere. We disguise them as children’s stories, laugh them off as nonsense, but, like the old gents in the Cushendall pub, we know better.

Keep in mind that encounters with the magical world does not mean going for easy solutions. A wave of the magic wand can conjure as much trouble as help. The charm of these stories is that they often focus on the youngest child or the smallest animal. Clever wins the day. Evil is not defeated. It’s tripped up, tricked, outwitted, making it something less feared than fooled.

Likewise, don’t let that simplicity fool you. The fact that you find these stories mixed in with the family stories regardless of family origin or cultural traditions suggests something psychologically deep. Stories old enough to have mingled with the fairy folk require a different attitude. Slow down, take a deep breath, open your imagination, and close your eyes. Remember, nobody asked you to go looking for old stories. You went anyway. Dug around, and, when the dead rise to be kissed, don’t back away. You can’t claim you didn’t know how deep the roots went. This is old memory, soul talk, the awakening of inner rhythms. This is the long ago and far away land of repeated dreams, songs that linger, footsteps we don’t expect but recognize.  I have a friend who introduced me to Trouble Trolls. When they knock, you don’t hide behind the door, you open wide, invite them in and dance with them. They’ll never be your friends but they might like the music and they could have gifts wrapped in their gnarled fists. Every story is wet like that with symbol—folklore even more so.

Even so, Mark A. Finlayson, doing research on artificial intelligence at MIT, believes that stories allow us to communicate complex ideas on a low bandwidth, which is why they work so well for children. Also why we never out grow them. Consider the complexity of modern parents who pay for two eggs and hire two surrogates to gestate two children at the same time so they will be like twins, but not really. How do you explain that to the children? According to NY Times Magazine (1/2/2011) you call them “twiblings” and invent a fairytale: Once, there was a couple who wanted to have babies. They tried and tried, but no babies arrive, and they were very sad. But then a Fairy Goddonor brought them some magical eggs . . ..

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Filed under fairytale, Family history, Fantasy, Old Storytelling Traditions, The Little Folk

The Ancestor Effect!

family tree graphicThinking about your ancestors makes you smarter!
Recent research at the University of Graz has identified an “ancestor effect.” Individuals who think about their ancestors just prior to a job interview or college exam boost their chances of success. Dr. Peter Fischer hypothesizes that “thinking about one’s origins . . . provides people with a positive psychological resource.” In other words, reminding the brain of the difficulties your ancestors overcame, you are able to approach a task with a stronger sense of identity and self-esteem—an edge that can make a measurable difference, which is probably why families continue to tell stories that emphasize how hard it used to be, how lucky we are now, blah, blah, blah, etc, etc, etc.
Is there a family that doesn’t tell their stories that way?

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Filed under Definition, Family history, Family Stories, Old Storytelling Traditions, Why Stories?