[Wisdom, truth and our personal family history are often as near as our grandparents or other older relatives yet do we take the time to ask and listen to their richly detailed experiences? Several years ago Kristina McMorris (Letters From Home coming February 22, 2011) discovered that her grandmother held treasures and stories that could never be found in any social media content. In today’s guest post, the debut novelist shares how what she learned by listening changed her life.]
Indeed, at some point, we’ve all heard about the daily hardships of living many decades ago. In fact, it’s become a common punch line guaranteed to garner chuckles: (spoken in a crotchety, old man voice) “When I was your age, I walked ten miles to school every day. Uphill both ways, in a blizzard, and with no shoes. But I didn’t dare complain, because I was lucky to have a school at all.”
I admit, the “uphill both ways” part always makes me laugh. You’d think after hearing it at least a hundred times, it would inevitably get old. But alas, no. There’s just something humorous about those legendary claims, so outlandish they couldn’t possibly be real.
Or could they?
When I was little, I used to love listening to my grandmother share memories of her childhood spent on her family’s Iowa farm. I still recall tales about my great uncles’ orneriness, of his driving the tractor into a lake and pouring sugar into the gas tank. I remember being shocked by Grandma’s mention of buying only one pair of shoes a year. (Given that my trendy Jelly shoes tended to break apart within a month, this bit of information made a lasting impression.)
As time passed, however, Grandma Jean told fewer and fewer stories, and not because she was running low on anecdotes, rather I suspect, because the grandchildren stopped asking. We became teenagers, then college students. We got jobs to pay for our cars and mortgages and electronic gadgets that are now obsolete. The quick pace of life rather than another’s nostalgic memories took precedence.
Then, several years ago, amid all that craziness, I decided to self-publish a cookbook filled with recipes Grandma Jean had collected and created over decades, a holiday gift for the family. Almost as an afterthought, I added a biographical section. And it was solely for that reason, while lounging in her cabin by the lake—with no cell phone to answer, no Internet to surf—that I spent an afternoon with my grandmother, asking questions.
Fascinating tidbits abounded as she recounted days of working as a soda jerk, a nanny, and even a worker at a battery factory. She told me about hunting for catfish in the muddy banks near the farm, about playing on the girls’ basketball team in high school, and how she milked the cows and gathered eggs every morning before school—which, by the way, did actually require a minimum walk of six miles to attend. (No hills either way, though; she was, after all, in Iowa!)
Finally, came the greatest highlight of all: From a closet she retrieved a collection of courtship letters sent by my late grandfather during World War II, a collection I had no idea existed. A collection that ultimately changed the course of my life.
For, when I left my grandmother’s house, the sailor’s written messages lingering in my mind, I began to imagine what could be a wonderful premise for a movie: What if a soldier, in the midst of WWII, fell deeply in love through a yearlong letter exchange, unaware that the girl he’s writing to isn’t the one replying?
Before I knew it, I was at my keyboard, attempting to compose my very first novel, LETTERS FROM HOME. Now, as a published and full-time author, I remain utterly grateful for that afternoon at the cabin, and, most all, for Grandma Jean’s stories. Each one comes from a place of wisdom and experience, from a way of life many today know too little about.
So, once in a while, set down your cell phones, hit pause on the daily chaos—and simply listen to tales of the past. It’s amazing how their storytellers can touch your heart, even change your life, if only you take time to ask.
Book Giveaway: The Divining Wand is giving away two copies of Sarah Pekkanen’s Skipping a Beat in a random drawing of comments left only on this specific post, Sarah Pekkanen and Skipping a Beat. Comments left on other posts during the week will not be eligible. The deadline is Wednesday, February 16, 2011 at 7:00 p.m. EST with the winners to be announced here in Thursday’s post. If you enter, please return Thursday to see if you’re a winner.