One of my college writing classes started every morning with free-writing as a warm-up. The idea of free-writing is to put pencil to paper and write without stopping for three minutes—just let the words flow. I have no idea what I wrote most days, but once the subject was grandmothers—yours, the cliché, whatever. Mine had died recently. I didn’t want to deal with those feelings, so I started writing about my grandmother’s house.
Her house wasn’t large, but it was furnished nicely–like something you might see in a magazine, and, for some reason, that was held against her. Most of the family considered her an indulged wife, who supposedly spent my grandfather’s money as fast as he made it. Proof was that she dressed better than anyone else in the family, and her house was always “fancy.” At the time, I was feeling confused, because her furnishings looked ordinary, almost shabby in my mother’s house. Suddenly in the middle of writing, I realized my grandmother was not the spendthrift she was reputed to be; she was an artist—probably a frustrated one. She took ordinary furnishings and ordinary clothes and made them look good together. She had style. As a result of that free writing exercise, I’ve never thought of my grandmother the same way again.
Want to gather your family stories? Just start writing. Sometimes you’ll discover things you didn’t know you knew.
If you meet a hobgoblin and he asks for a coin, find one. Dig deep if you have to. Otherwise, he’ll turn the forest around and you’ll lose your way. When I read that old eastern European tradition, I thought, THAT explains it. Aren’t we all lost in one sense or another? Maybe, we aren’t paying the hobgoblin.
Too many of us underestimate the Little Folk. Or think we outgrow them. Generations past didn’t make that mistake. My German grandmother literally believed in kitchen elves. They were blamed for spilled and spoiled food. She believed it was good, common sense to keep them placated. Even today, an Irish friend knows every fairy tree in her part of County Cork and never messes with them. She doesn’t need the trouble. Is that superstitious or wise?
Stories explain things we can’t explain easily. Got a problem (hobgoblin)? Find a coin, pay the price, deal with it. Otherwise you risk letting things get more tangled, less clear, even more difficult. We all know that, but stories allow us to frame the idea with humor. “Paid the hobgoblin?” might be a way to gently remind ourselves to get on with things. It also acknowledges that we all have hobgoblins, all of them ugly.
How we tell our stories makes all the difference. For example, my grandma Melba had an original spin on Aesop’s famous fable of the ants and the grasshopper.
According to Aesop, (620-560 B.C. Greek slave and famed storyteller) the ants were busy, as ants usually are, putting food away for the coming cold. The grasshopper preferred to sun himself and fiddle. Of course, when the seasons changed, the grasshopper found himself hungry and without food. He had to beg from the ants. Aesop’s moral is a warning about what happens when you fiddle the summer away.
My grandma Melba ended that same story with a question: “And who do you think kept those ants from dying of boredom all winter long, if not that fiddling grasshopper?”
She was right, of course.
Better yet, telling the story her way allowed her grandchildren to have fun and toil at art without apology–as well as the so-called serious stuff.
Do you have a different take on an old story? Share it in the comment section.
We’re not down to bartering with matches.
Between the first and second world wars, before my grandparents immigrated to this country, Germany went through hyperinflation–a time when money was worth less and less, hour by hour. My grandmother, Marta, would stand in line on payday, get my grandfather’s check, cash it, and immediately spend the whole amount on something, anything, that she could later use as barter. Of course, everyone was doing the same thing and so often it was hard to find anything to buy. Once the only thing she could find was matches. She spent his whole week’s wages on matches, so many that she couldn’t carry them home. She had to hire someone to help her. Food would have been better. Someone was always willing to trade for potatoes or cabbage. But matches were better than money. Only fools hung onto their money.
Both of my grandparents told that story with pride. They survived. Marta managed to trade her matches for enough food and goods to get her family through the next week and the weeks that followed until they immigrated arriving in the New York City, with three small children, in 1933–not exactly a time of economic certainty for America either.
The same woman who banked on matches was also willing to bank on America at the depths of the Great Depression.
Of course, in hindsight it’s easy to see the wisdom of leaving Germany in 1933, but, at the time, her family in Germany thought she was crazy.
Sometimes it takes a story to help us keep perspective. That’s also the reason for this blog–homage to those little stories we don’t ever forget but sometimes don’t appreciate enough.