Black and White?

Memoir is history. Your life is a microcosm of the world around you. People in the 20s did the Charleston dance, people in the 50s liked the twist. I was in college in the 70s and my boyfriend and I went to the disco to dance. Really? Long time ago! When you write a memoir you are writing history, history as experienced by a single person. Simply describing how you danced as a young person has historical perspective. Your life is played out against a backdrop of cultural and historical detail.

The history of the United States is pockmarked with racial tension. I had an experience when I was in high school in the early 70s that tells of my own brush with ugly racism. My hometown Quincy, Illinois has a fascinating history. Dr. Richard Eells, who was a staunch abolitionist, built his home in Quincy in 1835 and sheltered runaway slaves on their way to Chicago. His home became a major stop on the Underground Railroad. Fast forward to 1973.

Black and White?

I ducked into my classroom cheeks still red. My friends looked askance, a black girl glared and the white guys looked away. What had I done? Tony asked if he could share my locker and I said yes. Why not? He was cute, curly black hair, chiseled features, tall, handsome… and black. I was white, it was the early 70s. My daughter’s high school in 2008 was free of the social stigma of mixed race dating. Her high school had a healthy mix of blacks, whites, foreign exchange students from all corners of the world and there was an easy acceptance that was sadly lacking in my high school.


Tony and I engaged in the curious custom that marked the half hour before the first class of the day. Our school had long hallways that circled the building and kids walked along those halls before school started. We didn’t just hang out in groups. We walked. Groups mixed and evolved in the easy fluid movements of packs of walking kids, couples emerged, note was taken of who was with who, and who was with someone different than the day before, who was alone. Tony and I walked together, turned heads, broke the social mores of a time in US history not that distant from the civil unrest of the 60s.

He called me in the evenings and I loved our conversations. He described his family, large and rowdy, 3 sisters and 2 brothers. He often took the phone as far as the cord would allow so he could sit under the steps by the wall phone in his kitchen. I could hear feet shuffling above and voices drifting down. The small space beneath the steps gave him a semblance of privacy. I talked up in my parent’s bedroom. The phone was on top of my mom’s dresser, curly aqua cord entwined through my fingers. I loved the sound of Tony’s voice and listened as I watched a bird in the pin oak outside the window. Branches tapped on the window, dusty green leaves rustled in the wind as Tony’s voice; sensitive and sweet, spoke to me. I felt alive. Those conversations were a welcome respite for both of us, innocent, punctuated by silences that vibrated with what we left unsaid. I felt understood as he listened to whatever was troubling me at the time. The difference in our skin colors was not a factor.


But in the morning when we started to walk the halls of our high school our skin color set us apart. We walked together, we were a couple. The crowd parted, my friends shot me warning glances, his friends were more tolerant, smiled our way, some of the black girls made me uncomfortable as they shunned me with cold glares.

Our town Quincy, Illinois is on the Mississippi River in mid-state Illinois and has a colorful history. The town square has a statue commemorating the Lincoln Douglas debate that took place there in 1858. Quincy was the first Underground Railway station across the border from Missouri, a slave state. With that history of racial tolerance, how ironic that more than a century later, racial drama would swirl around me in the halls of Quincy High School.

One day I found a knife in my locker. Tony said not to worry, ignore it; it had nothing to do with me. Racial tension was high. I knew I should tell someone, it was my locker, I could get in trouble. Tony wouldn’t tell me what was going on. The next morning there was a fight in the school courtyard, the white kids and the black kids faced off. Violent shuffling knocked kids off their feet, shoving, nasty taunts, a few punches flew. Police were called and a few guys were hauled off, still kicking and yelling. Ugly racial slurs polluted the air. The rest of the day was tense and an eerie quiet descended on the hallways as kids went from class to class, heads down, nervous, skittish. The next day many parents kept their kids at home, uneasy about the fights. I went to school but got there late and went straight to class. The early morning ritual had been suspended as the atmosphere, usually carefree and fun had turned sullen and suspicious. The knife was gone. Tony was gone.

A week later our phone calls resumed, the early morning walks resumed, school achieved a semblance of normalcy. One evening I was on the phone, looking out the upstairs window, the oak leaves were turning russet and stubbornly clung to the branches as bright maple leaves flew through a brisk breeze. Tony’s voice took a new tone. He asked when we were going out, could we go to a movie soon? I paused. I faltered. I said I had to go. Conversation over.

Why couldn’t things stay the same? I loved our walks, liked being somewhat of a renegade as we shook up social mores and expectations, loved seeing a few other mixed couples start to walk with us. Our phone conversations continued. Tony shared about his mom’s anguish when his brother ran away from home. He felt understood. Why couldn’t things stay the same? He wanted more, he wanted to go out on a date. Somehow in my mind that was a step I just couldn’t take. I am deeply ashamed of that time in my life when I kept putting Tony off, making up excuses.

One night as we were talking, the dark came quickly, a few hard pellets of snow pinged off the window in a blowing gale. My breath fogged the window panes, my words came forth unbidden. No. I couldn’t go out. The patch of frost melted as my breath came in spurts and I said the one thing that changed everything, “If I go out with you the white guys won’t ask me out anymore.” Tony grew quiet. He mumbled something and hung up. I think of my words, my coward heart and cringe. The hurt in Tony’s voice haunted me. Tony quit calling. I was confused and sad. Only later I would realize that if a white guy wouldn’t go out with me after I finished dating a black guy, then he wasn’t worth it anyway. His bigotry would brand him unfit to date.

I missed those walks, I missed the beauty of our fingers intertwined, the shine of his mahogany skin contrasted black with white. I missed his voice. I tell myself I am not that person, that 16-year-old girl with a troubled heart, the white girl who missed her black boyfriend, the girl who was brave enough to push against the bigotry of her time… but not quite brave enough.


The Characters in Your Life

Your life is full of people. Make your stories sing by including character sketches of the people you love and the people who make your life more challenging. Use strong visual words in your writing to provide a lasting mental image of the person you are writing about. How does that person make you feel? The descriptions of the person you love and admire, or the person who drives you crazy, come alive in the reader’s mind with careful use of adjectives and words that evoke feelings. Will the reader come away from your story with a better connection with you and the person who you vividly describe?  I wrote an essay about my brother Larry, not only describing him, but also with insights into the challenge of being his sister!

He was the kid sitting on the floor reading Encyclopedia Britannica when all the other 10-year-old boys were out playing ball. He told me he liked the Q volume because it was more likely to have weird stuff to learn compared to, say, the B volume which was way too conventional for him.  He was my big brother Larry, eccentric and wildly weird. I was 3 years younger and looked up to him as he taught me that normal was not something to be aspired to.

Gerbil Pythagorus was kept out of reach of Shakespeare.

Larry liked to carry Pythagoras around in his pocket. Pythagoras was his gerbil and I liked to see him run up to Larry’s shoulder and around the frizzy hair that grew up and out instead of down. Larry told me he had some black blood, that somehow even though I was the palest white with Swedish ancestry, he was proud of his African heritage. The mystery was solved as my dad snorted when I asked why my brother was African and I was Swedish, but Larry pointed to his mass of bushy hair as if that was sure proof. Pythagoras skirted around in the brown frizzy bush and showed up on his opposite shoulder. He lived in a cage that hung from the rafters in the basement which Larry rigged up to keep Pythagoras safe from our black cat Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s unrealized dream.

Of course I had to have a pet too and finally convinced mom to let me buy a small white mouse and named him Algernon. Larry teased me when I shuddered at the naked pink tail as it slithered through my fingers, but Algernon became my wee buddy and I too walked around with him poking his whiskers out of my pockets. Algernon’s cage was kept in my room which was strictly off limits from the stalker Shakespeare. At night I would fall asleep either to bells that chimed the hour and softly melodic hymns from the church up on the hill, or to the incessant rhythm of Algernon’s treadmill.

When I was in junior high I stressed out about what to do for a project for the science fair. Of course I asked Larry to help, hoping his intelligence would trump his weirdness as he helped me select a topic. I was eager to start when he suggested that I try to train Algernon to do tricks. He extolled the traits of Algernon and told me that white mice were bred to be lab animals, so surely they must be pretty smart. Was I dumb enough to think the mice were doing experiments instead of being experimented upon? I listened to my big brother and we made our plans. Poor Algernon hid in my pocket nibbling a carrot while we discussed his fate.

Larry helped me build a small box from scraps of wood in the basement. It had a 2” piece of net across the center which made it look like a mouse sized tennis court. I was going to train Algernon to jump over the net. I thought I could just put a treat on the other side and when I said “Jump” he would see the food and hop on over there. That seemed harmless enough, but Larry said that was too easy. “Algernon won’t hear the word “Jump” and hop over the net, your idea will never work”.  He said, “To be scientific we have to be more sophisticated than that! This is a science fair Algernon is going to after all!”

So he lined the bottom of the box with copper screening and got some wire and a switch. I was getting a bit nervous watching him. His mouth twitched a little like it did when he made me a Dagwood sandwich and snugged sardines up to my pickles and then topped it off with an Oreo and mustard. He then hooked the wire up to a black box. “What’s that?” I asked, wondering how this project had gotten away from me. He said it was a transformer. The new plan was to put Algernon in the box on top of the shiny copper screen and then while I said, “Jump” Larry would flip the switch and allow a jolt of electricity to snake down the wire to the screen and shock my wee buddy. Larry said that would help Algernon learn what “Jump” means and he would leap over the net and get his treat. The plan was to train the mouse and then eventually be able to remove the screen once he learned his lesson.

What was I thinking? It was MY project, MY mouse and I didn’t want to shock him! Where was PETA when I needed them?!  But PETA wouldn’t come along until 1980, way too late for poor Algernon.

I made a chart to track our data and on the first day I gently put Algernon on the screen, said “Jump!” and Larry threw the switch. Algernon’s whiskers twitched, his tail twitched and went straight up in the air. His nose quivered and caught wind of the cheese over the net and he jumped and nibbled the cheese. Did it work?

We tried it again, twitch, quiver, jump. Twitch, quiver, jump. I put my finger on the screen one time when Larry let ‘er rip and felt a burning tingle go up my hand. But Algernon was a trooper and really loved cheese. Plop as he landed on the screen, “Jump!”, zap, twitch, quiver, jump!  I got a red ribbon at the science fair and aside from being a bit plumper; Algernon seemed none the worse for wear.

But day after day Algernon got more sluggish. I no longer heard his treadmill at night and I noticed a funny rash forming around his tail. It was spreading and his sleek white fur was falling off around the rash. Shakespeare needed a vaccination so I took Algernon along to the vet. We sat on the bench waiting our turn, the sleek black cat and the white mouse, together awaiting their fate. I was given a white powder for Algernon’s rear end. My mouse had diaper rash. Or so the vet thought.

I dangled Algernon by his tail and shook on the powder, but it didn’t seem to help. Algernon was getting worse and worse. His whiskers didn’t seek treats and he no longer poked his head up in his cage wanting to ride in my pocket. I was sad and wondered if that copper wire had shocked my poor pet to an early death.

My granddad came to visit and I heard my dad and Larry talking to him about what we had done to Algernon. Granddad decided the most merciful thing would be to put Algernon out of his misery. He gently took my innocent Algernon, stroked his back with a gnarly finger and put him in his pocket. “I’ll take care of it, don’t you worry”. So I wiped my eyes and went to my room trusting my Granddad to do the right thing. But Larry followed him out the back door and watched my Granddad clobber Algernon with a shovel, smash him good, and bury him out under the bushes along the edge of our yard.

Algernon was a true lab mouse, smart as his little mouse brain allowed, and sacrificed for the advancement of science. Larry wasn’t supposed to tell me what happened out in the backyard that sad day, but years later he let the mouse, er, cat out of the bag and told me the whole story.  Algernon was replaced by a gerbil named Aristotle. Aristotle was never subjected to such shocking treatment and lived to the ripe old age of 2. During his allotted years on earth I treated him gently. But every once in awhile I would go to the bushes in the backyard and take flowers for Algernon.

Larry currently lives in the mountains of southern Arizona and is still eccentric. He definitely made my childhood more interesting!






A horse is a horse of course of course

We all have dreams and things we hope to do someday. I added my girlhood dream of horses to my bucket list. I want to learn how to ride a horse! Write down your dreams, if you’re not making those dreams come true, just writing about them can help you sort out if they’re realistic or will remain forever a treasured part of your inner world.

A horse is the projection of peoples’ dreams about themselves – strong, powerful, beautiful – and it has the capability of giving us escape from our mundane existence.  ~Pam Brown

I wrote an essay about my latest effort to bring a dream out of my psyche and into my real world. It’s been so much fun, both writing about it and actually riding a horse! IMG_0104

1000 pounds. 1000 pounds is ½ a ton!  A horse weighs 1000 lbs or more. When I was a little girl I had a dream. I wanted to fly with the wind on the back of my own beloved horse. But when I was 8 years old, the fact that horses weigh 1000 lbs meant little to me. I loved horses and read lots of horse books.  I read My Friend Flicka, Black Beauty and Brighty of the Grand Canyon. Brighty happened to be a burro, but he was a close cousin of the horse, so that was good enough.  

The books  fueled my dream and even now 50 years later that dream hasn’t faded. I decided to broach the subject with my husband. It’s never too late, right? And it’s on my bucket list!

So back in December I jokingly told my husband Kim that I wanted a horse for Christmas. I am a city girl and knew that wouldn’t happen, but maybe just a few horseback riding lessons? Kim just gave me his, Oh Golly, What next? look and the matter was dropped.

So Christmas came and lo and behold, Kim actually gave me a horse! He even found one that is exactly the color I had always wanted as a little girl. A bay, dark brown with black mane and tail. But alas, it was a plastic horse model. Ha, funny guy. But he did give me a few lessons at a local stable.

I roped a friend into joining me for lessons and the first day I looked at the horse I was going to ride. I looked up. His name is Laddie… and he…weighs… over 1000 lbs. He’s a big boy. I asked the instructor if she ever had old folks learn to ride and she assured me she’s had people even in their 70s come for riding lessons. The first thing we did is groom the horses. I was told about the different brushes and what they’re used for and I must admit, as I brushed that horse along his neck and across his back in broad sweeps, I fell just a little bit in love. His eyes are soulful, the ears perked forward in delight and the velvety lips nuzzled my shoulder. The instructor said that he would love for me to talk to him so he could get to know me. I talked in a low soothing voice, sweet nothings. He snorted. Just the response I’m used to.

After the grooming we got a lesson on how to bridle the horses and heave the saddles over their backs and buckle the cinches.  Okay. So now this ol gray lady was supposed to get up on the back of this 1000 lb beast? Whose idea was this? Up close and personal… Laddie was tall. Did I mention he weighs 1000 lbs? Of course I had done some reading about horseback riding lessons and many of the websites related how dangerous horseback riding could be. I needed a helmet. I needed hard toed boots in case my feet got stepped on. If I fell off I needed to learn to roll away from those stomping hoofs. I told this to my husband and he asked, “Can’t you just do something without reading about it and learning stuff you’d be better off not knowing?”

So I gave Laddie a gentle pat on the side of his head, and hoped he was patient and kind. I looked up to his back and breathed a sigh of relief when the instructor brought over a step stool. I tried to forget that usually it was needed for all the 4’ tall kids who took riding lessons. I stepped up, put my foot in the stirrup and swung my leg over. She told me how to hold the reins and position my legs and I nudged him gently with my foot. Finally the horse took off at a walk and I practiced turning with leg pressure and a gentle tug on the reins in the direction I wanted to go.

Laddie stopped. Just stood there. He pawed the ground and gave a little whinny as if to say, “This lady has no clue!”  I chirruped my tongue and gently nudged his sides. No go. The instructor was watching my friend ride her horse around the arena and looked over at Laddie and I at full stop and said I was confusing the horse.  Excuse me? I was confusing the horse? I thought he was confusing me. He was supposed to ‘go’! She came over and started jiggling my foot in the stirrup. “Relax your feet! You’re all tense, the horse can sense that and is trained to stop when the rider is confused.” I guessed it was likely that the horse was just confused about why this heavy lady was on his back when he’s used to an 80 lb slip of a girl.

Laddie and I finally got our communication sorted out and off we went. When it was time to dismount the instructor said to swing my foot well over his rump. If I bumped the rump it may startle him and he’d take off with me half off and half on.  Oh gosh, really?  I managed to get my leg up and over, behind me, try it sometime, and just barely brushed his back.  Back on the ground again. After another lesson I was able to get that sweet boy to trot. My feet were relaxed, no one was confused, and off we went. The gentle motion and tiny bit of speed, seeing the muscles of Laddie’s withers flex and ripple, hearing the staccato of hoofbeats, and knowing that I was in control of a 1000 lb beast, now that’s a rush!

Wedding Day Glitch

You know you have a good story to tell and there are so many ways to tell it. A story unfolds differently on paper than it does orally. Maybe 2015 will be your year to save your stories in writing. When my daughter Andrea got married 9 years ago she found a gorgeous wedding dress. But there is a story about getting that dress to fit properly. If I told it orally to a friend it might sound thus, “Andrea’s dress felt too tight on her wedding day and she told me she couldn’t wear it! Her friends helped her relax and solved the problem.” When told on paper the story grew and I was able to include many sensory details and a touch of humor:

Too tight, breathe!

The zipper slowly inched upwards; each quiet click as the plastic teeth engaged was a victory. “Let your breath out, tuck your tummy, arms up!” That should have been my first clue.  My daughter had dismissed each hanger down the rows of white satin and finally pulled a dress out with a gasp of pleasure. “This could be it!”  We had been looking for her wedding dress for months, in and out of shops. We finally decided to try Hope’s Bridal Boutique even though it looked like a big pink barn in an Iowa cornfield. Because it was. Cringe. The ivory satin showed off her tan bare shoulders, was trimmed with tiny pearl beads and had intricate pleats on the bodice. Lovely, elegant. She went to try it on and came out needing help with the zipper. The clerk, a young lady with more enthusiasm than expertise, finally got it zipped up but the stitching looked stretched close to bursting. “Uh, Andrea, it’s a size 6, do they have it in a size 8?”  She was twirling in front of the mirror trying to see herself from all angles. Evidently she saw everything but that zipper, those poor plastic teeth clasped in a death grip. Andrea thought it would work. The clerk, eager to make a sale said they could take let it out a bit so I pulled out my plastic.

Andrea holds her breath.

Andrea went to the fittings and never said a word besides, “All good, mom, love my dress!” The August day finally arrived, hot and sunny, her wedding day. Her best friends came in the church and hugged Andrea, their pretty dresses encased in plastic bags slung over their shoulders. I was fussing with other details so said I would come in later to see them after they put the dresses on. When I finally got down to the dressing room I hung back watching. Laura, the maid of honor was saying, “It’s okay Andrea, let your breath out, tuck your tummy in, arms up!” That was my second clue. Andrea was flustered and starting to hyperventilate. I said, “Andrea, what’s wrong, I told you a size 8 would be better!” Laura was behind Andrea frantically making motions that had to mean, “Mother of the bride…. Shut up. Now!” Finally those brave zipper teeth were clenched together and Andrea gasped, “All good, mom, love my dress!.” The girls looked lovely. The bridesmaids were swathed in classic rose piped in black and Andrea’s dress was appropriately fastened in all the right places. All was well.

They headed down to the sanctuary where the photographer was waiting for them. After a few poses Andrea was looking flushed. She started to nervously fan her face with little jerky motions of her lovely manicured fingers. Her breathing was reduced to panicky gasps. I thought I saw an exasperated look on the photographer’s face but it was fleeting. He was a seasoned professional used to dealing with nervous brides. He calmly suggested the bride take a 10 minute break. The bridesmaids hovered around her like mother hens and gently led her to a little room to the side where they could have some privacy.

I opened the door and they were all sitting in a circle holding hands, awash in a sea of rose and white satin. Andrea’s dress was spread around her, her waist rose up from the froth of beaded satin. Was she hyperventilating again? What was that she just said?  It sounded like, “I can’t wear this dress, I can’t breathe, I can’t wear this dress!” Her lovely fingers started that jerky little fanning motion again. I blurted out, “Andrea, you have to wear that dress, you’re getting married in one hour, you know how much that dress cost??” Was I sounding shrill? Laura gave me an icy look that would’ve frozen molten lava. I opened my mouth, closed my mouth, and obediently left the room in full retreat from Laura’s riveting glare.

I sat down and waited. Glancing over at the photographer I gave him an apologetic smile and caught him checking his watch. We watched the door to the little room willing it to open. When it finally swung open, the young ladies waltzed out; calm, cool and collected. Their dresses were smooth, their heads were held high. They were ready for pictures. Andrea’s dress was resplendent and she held herself with regal poise, smiling sweetly for her big day. I was amazed and delighted and watched with all the tender pride and emotion only a mother of the bride can feel. My baby girl was getting married!  

After a beautiful ceremony and yet more pictures I peeked in the little side room wondering how in the world Andrea’s too tight dress expanded to fit comfortably. There on the floor was her expensive bra, forlorn stays pointed skyward, its absence creating just the ease to make her day perfect.

Think of one of your favorite family stories and write it down! Or have someone interview you about it. You’ll have fun with the sensory details and end up with a story worth saving!



Broken to blooming

A couple posts back I wrote of a humorous way to veil the story of an uncle who met with death via the electric chair. I suggested making a puzzle of that skeleton in your closet. I admit, that was a dodge. My skeleton was rattling its cage, but I ignored it for the moment and told it to be still and hide. Behind my smile. What is hiding behind your smile? To remedy the joking attitude I offer an essay I wrote about the more serious topic of a sad occasion. I am vague, I do not tell all, I respect the privacy of all involved. It’s more about a transformation. From bitter heart to joyful. If there’s a story you need to tell, for your own healing, for venting, for sharing a burden, you don’t need to tell all.  I wrote this years ago about a Christmas gift. Worry not, my smile today is pretty real.

dirt-3-bulbsI was promised paper whites; tall, thin, elegant, spring green stems and flowers in the dead of winter. The picture showed a spray of delicate white petals, narcissus. I got the bulbs for Christmas so I can have a prelude to spring in the wintertime. Dead, flaky, brown lumps with pointy ends waiting to sprout; what kind of magic is this? Not dead, just dormant. Want magic? Add water! I opened a bag of fragrant peat and soil and was transported months ahead to springtime. I planted the bulbs with tender white tips poking through the peat and put them in the cold garage for a couple weeks.

canstockphoto2335461With upheaval, disruption; ripped from a comfortable bed, those bulbs came to me. My upheaval in life was similar, once complacent in my comfortable life. Sure there were undercurrents, perhaps like the squirrels digging nearby, vibrating the soil, threatening to eat the bulbs. The shovel dug those bulbs; exposure, roots cut off.

The bulbs were packaged and dormant until I planted them in soil, added water and stored them in the cold garage. As long as I harbored anger, resentment, my heart too stayed in cold storage. Darkness reigned, pain, rage, unforgiving spirit.

I finally went out to the garage and brought the bulbs into the warmth of a pseudo spring. I watered them and waited and watched. With God’s patient watering of my blighted spirit, I humbly hoped for change. I imagined the water coursing up the new root system, a life force surging to the tips of the bulbs which were reaching toward the sun streaming in our kitchen window. They grew and turned green, up and up they grew; new life in the dead of winter. God gives water to the soul, the battered heart. It was a battle, the ugliness of resentment, my pride, my pain. What was real, what was true?

If a plant can have a false start too early in the spring, the promise of sunshine turning harsh with a frost nipping tentative new growth, so too did my heart balk with false starts. My mind was tormented by negativity, ice on the tendrils of new hope, a false start stymied by unbidden thoughts. But as the sunshine and warmth of spring becomes constant, so too did healing come. Warm tears healed and purged, my heart thawed to behold new trust.

My potted bulbs graced my kitchen windowsill. The tender shoots of green developed sheer little packets with blossoms tightly folded within. I knew in just days those green buds would split open, powered by a mysterious life force, an inevitable, transformation, amazing to witness. Soon the petals would unfurl, bask in the light, the ugliness of the bulb forgotten, the tender newness of a flower would behold the sun.

window-bloom-21Those bulbs took weeks to transform, given good soil, water and sunshine as I witnessed a great awakening, drab bulbs to fragrant flowers. Alas, it took long months for my heart to shed the bitterness that threatened to condemn me to a life blighted by resentment. Forgiveness was the life force, powered by prayer. Sunshine always? Of course not, but the ebb and flow of life is again mostly positive, a bit more tentative to be sure, a bit more suspect at times… but I once again can see sunshine and rejoice!


Fragile Thread to my Past

How many of you have boxes of old letters, papers, or diaries in your attic, garage or basement? My grandmother Marguerite died back in 1980 and awhile ago my dad’s brother, Uncle Tom was going through some of her things that had been boxed up and ignored for years. He found some papers that chronicled the story of my great great great great grandmother, yes that is 4 greats!  Her name was Elizabeth Bussard. She was a German who worshiped in the Church of the Brethren. Persecution drove Elizabeth and her husband from place to place until they finally turned their faces to the peaceful shores of America, the home of religious freedom.

grappling hook
A grappling hook fished Elizabeth out of the Atlantic.

On their long and perilous voyage of months’ duration her husband and their only child became ill, died and were buried at sea. I can’t imagine how traumatized she must have been to lose her family at sea while journeying to a strange land. Adding to all the sorrows and bereavements of the voyage she met with a serious accident. She had lowered a kettle into the sea to fill it with water and fell overboard. She was rescued with grappling hooks and managed to hang onto her kettle as she was raised up back onto the ship’s deck.

That grappling hook is a fragile thread connecting me to my past. If a sharp-eyed sailor had not seen Elizabeth fall overboard and thrown her that hook, I would not be here. Some folks would say that fact was a coincidence that eventually led to my birth on down the family line, but I would like to believe it was the hand of God in my life and the life of my ancestor Elizabeth Bussard.

But that was not the end of her hardship. Upon arrival of the ship in America, the young widow was sold as a bond-woman for 3 years to pay for her passage across the Atlantic. She was sold to Colonel George Welton of Virginia and then sent into the fields to cultivate corn and tobacco. But because she was a hard worker her Master set her free after just one year and as a free woman she married John Stingley which is the maiden name of my father’s mother. This all happened in the 1740s through 1750s.

Marguerite Stingley, my father’s mother. Her great great grandmother was Elizabeth Bussard.

I love this story and am in awe of Elizabeth Bussard and her tenacious spirit. I feel honored knowing that she is my ancestor.  I am a Christian and her story is part of my spiritual legacy.  Knowing that her faith was strong enough for her to risk a journey to America to escape religious persecution is so meaningful. But I only know this because my uncle took the time to sift through old papers; papers that had been moldering in his attic for over 3 decades! That is my challenge to you today. If you have papers from the estates of your loved ones, take the time to see what treasures they reveal. It’s your family history, your legacy! Preserve it while you can.

Skeletons in your closet

There are so many reasons folks give for not wanting to start writing a memoir. Hopefully I’ve helped lay to rest the idea that your life is too mundane or you’re not significant! Your story is a good one. Another very valid reason is that you may have something in your past that if revealed would either hurt or anger family members. That is a real concern as you want to be sensitive to secrets or betrayals, and of course don’t want to libel or slander anyone. Write down what you need to get out and you can always choose to remove paragraphs that you don’t want anyone to see. Or you can share something in a creative way that would be recognized by those who know the situation and just be a puzzle to others. This example uses humor to acknowledge Great Uncle George, the black sheep of the family.

“The Smiths were proud of their family tradition. Their ancestors had come to America on the Mayflower. They had included Senators and Wall Street wizards.

They decided to compile a family history, a legacy for their children and
grandchildren. They hired a fine author. Only one problem arose – how to
handle that great-uncle George, who was executed in the electric chair.

Rattle the skeleton of Great Uncle George!

The author said he could handle the story tactfully. The book appeared. It said, “Great-uncle George occupied a chair of applied electronics at an important government institution, was attached to his position by the strongest of ties, and his death came as a great shock.”

Hopefully you don’t have any skeletons in your closet who died in an electric chair, but you get the picture!

Maybe you are hesitant to share your inner world with other people. Writing often brings out details and insights that would be news to your family. Talk to family members who might be impacted, get their permission, or reassure them that your thoughts won’t go beyond your private pages. Most people write a family history book that is only read by family members. If stories don’t go public that is often enough to assuage the concerns of breach of privacy.

You may feel like you can’t write a memoir until key characters die first. Write it anyway, just don’t share it! Yet. Even later after they’re gone, be sensitive to how their children or grandchildren may feel about any revelations. Or go ahead and share your truth and brace yourself for the outcry! You have every right to share your story and can also choose to conceal details that are most inflammatory. Balance your desire to write your life stories with their need for privacy. What are your thoughts on writing and sharing sensitive personal stories?



Down the Rabbit Hole

Have you ever felt like Alice in Wonderland when you approach sensitive topics for your journal or memoir? Or wonder if answering painful questions when interviewed is worth the effort? When I lose sleep over canstockphoto18533206painful issues in my life, I see Alice’s rabbit hole and fear falling down into the labyrinth of memories. Will I risk getting stuck in the quagmire of thoughts unspooling from the dark recesses of my soul? As memories stir I can feel the rough edges and instinctively rear back, startled, backpedaling to safer places in my psyche. The minute of revelation is poised on a pinprick of time, holding some strange power over me as I resist being submerged in a snarled tangle of unresolved issues.

So what good could possibly come from entertaining memories of pain, what good from assigning words to the mess?  You can’t change the past!

Studies have shown there are actually health benefits from writing or talking, such as lowered blood pressure, and increased immune and cardio-vascular function. Some people have even experienced relief of symptoms like asthma or arthritis pain. Emotional health benefits are touted too, like relief from depression or enhanced happiness as memories are put into words. Stress reduction, both emotional and physical is another benefit. 51HV+ckXYdL._AA160_A good book that reiterates these truths is Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by Louise Desalvo if you’re interested in reading more about why and how you should write a journal or memoir!

Writing down your feelings can actually be your ladder out of that rabbit hole. The dangers of being stuck in the quagmire all but vanish as you find words for your story. Tangled cobwebs of thought are freed, thoughts that had been spiraling into themselves wreaking havoc on your soul clarify until they can enjoy the light of day. Seeing your thoughts and feelings on paper can make your experience more real and can lead to a final resolution of issues. May peace reign!

Take charge by writing about an emotional upheaval in your life. Your thoughts will become coherent and you’ll have a story that will enrich your memoir. Or tear those pages up, burn them, and you’ll reap the benefits of calm and peace.

Storytelling, From Journal to Memoir

If you still don’t believe you have a story worth telling, or that your life is too insignificant to merit writing about, or you have a tough inner critic that shoots down your every thought, I challenge you to start by journaling privately. Loosen up your mind and shrug off the feelings of self-consciousness that come from wondering what folks will think of what you write. Be a little wild and just write. Wild? Yes. Tell your stories! All those inhibitions, fears of not being good enough, wondering what so- and-so would think if they read what you write, all those thoughts that cramp your expression will evaporate until you’re left with the distillation of your true thoughts. That can be a little heady, that can make your thoughts free… and yes perhaps a bit wild.

Journal privately and let the words flow. Access your wild side!

If you start with a journal you can write about all the things that happen in your life; the good, the bad, and the ugly. Tease out the feelings that are keeping you up at night. Often reducing nebulous feelings to words helps release their power over you. To paraphrase the title of  a good book on writing by Natalie Goldberg; write down to the bones. Strip down to your raw emotions, express your anger, fear, sorrow, joy, and hope. Rant if you need to. My rants can rage and bounce all over the page and leave me wondering where that came from! Write letters and then destroy them. Sometimes the simple act of writing will help you find out what you really think and help you sift through your life to the story you want to tell, while the chaff of insignificance blows away with the breeze. Thoughts in a jumble? Raw hurt or joy or wonder can be sorted out on paper until you unearth that story that will resonate with your children and grandchildren.

This same principle works with the interviewing process too. Find someone you trust to ask the questions that will loosen your tongue. Or interview someone close to you to find out the untold stories. The private stuff can be sorted out later as an interview is refined to uncover the gem of a story.

Some folks like to start out journaling, then lift material from that secret private place to a memoir that can be read by all. Do you already have journals that you would hate for your kids to find and read? Do you sometimes have an urge to burn them? Sift through them first and salvage the heady stuff, the froth of your life that can add color and illuminate your unique personality. Most likely your life is more interesting than you first thought as the stories all come together, and yes, perhaps, just perhaps, a bit wild! Wild is good. You can always tame your beast later when you uncover stories you can share.

Here’s a hypothetical transformation of feelings from an event to a private journal, then to a memoir with a wider audience:

Experience: You are betrayed by someone you love and trust. Your chest feels tight, your hands are clammy, and your gut roils as you experience the bludgeon weight of a betrayal.

Journal: I feel anger, hurt, sadness, distrust, jealousy and confusion. But the feelings are condensed into one heavy weight, stifling, crushing. Thoughts swirl. Am I loved, can I still love? What is love anyway? Can love exist without trust? I never would have believed it could happen. Today the unthinkable knocked me off kilter, shocked me to my core. _________ said this, revealed betrayal. I responded with _________.  I feel numb, crushed. You get the gist… so many of us have been there for all sorts of reasons. The journal entry sorts through feelings and explains what happened.

Changed to memoir:  This part is tricky and in a later blog I’ll write about how to figure out how much to share when there is the possibility of hurting someone with new knowledge, or heaping insult on injury by exacting your own mini-betrayal by sacrificing someone’s privacy. The beauty and power of a memoir is measured by the illumination of universal truths in experiences that folks can relate to or empathize with, stories that affirm and release our feelings that resonate with people. We discover our lives are not ordinary, but significant in ways we had never thought of!  A well told story can protect the privacy of those concerned while interpreting an event to reveal the common thread of shared humanity. Oh.. you wanted an example from an actual (or hypothetical!) memoir based on the above experience? Tune in later!

Your life is Significant

In my last blog post I told of my great-great-grandfather moving to Iowa from Sweden in the 1860s. I learned that story from my great-grandmother Paulines’s amazing yellow book of family history. She also told of how her father Sven had the idea of mailing a small packet of seeds to his mother Lena back in Sweden. He told her to plant them in a pot and see what grew. So she did. She carefully planted a few of the funny looking seeds, put the pot on the windowsill and waited. It wasn’t long before she had to move that pot to the floor and soon after that she was inviting her friends and family over to see this strange new plant from the New World. It was maize; she had a stalk of corn growing tall in her parlor! canstockphoto4025004Corn had not yet been introduced to Sweden and Sven wanted to show his mother the new crop he was planting in Iowa.

I love that story! Lena was the wooden shoe maker and I would guess she wouldn’t have thought her life story was significant. Lots of folks made wooden shoes, she was no different. But how do you think she would have felt if she knew that her expertise would be appreciated by her great-great- great granddaughter in Iowa! And that I got a chuckle picturing that tall stalk of corn in her parlor! Lena lived in a world I will never experience except through the stories preserved in our family history. Yes her stories are significant! And so are yours.

When I promote storytelling, a common concern people have is wondering if their story is significant or thinking their lives are too mundane. I encourage everyone to look at their lives in new ways. You are important and you have a unique voice, a story to tell that no one else has lived. The historical era you live in also shapes your story. Your parents may remember how the Great Depression or World War II impacted their lives. Perhaps your life was impacted by the baby boom and ensuing prosperity, or the Vietnam War, either here or abroad. Were you a flower child, a hippy at Woodstock? Your kids and grandkids will be fascinated with how your life is embedded in history.

I was born in Kansas and grew up in Iowa and Illinois. I have farm roots on both sides of my family, but have no personal experience of farming. When I was about 10 years old my dad drove his family across Iowa as we headed to Lake Okoboji for a vacation. I lived in Illinois at that time and the soil there is an orange-brown clay. As we drove past a fallow Iowa farm field, the rich black soil amazed me, teased my imagination as I thought of my ancestors’ farms. canstockphoto3349522Time folded back on itself as the fields shimmered in the summer sun. The emerald green corn reaching for the sky called to me, as it had called to my great-great-grandparents, the Iowa loam nurturing the vibrant corn, a constant over the years, a part of my heritage.

My patient papa heeded my cries to stop and I jumped out of the car with a leftover baggy from lunch and scooped in a few crumbles of black soil warmed by the sun. I imagined my family roots groping through the soil year after year, anchoring my soul to the rich Iowa farmland.