Not long ago I saw an ad that asked the question, "What's your story?" That question brought back memories of "old" people I knew when I was a child.
Living next door to my family was a couple who told my parents my brother and I should call them Grandpa and Grandma. At the time, I guessed them to be in their late 70s. Grandpa told me he had immigrated to the United States from Sweden when he was three years old. He said he came from a large family and when his aunt said she and her husband were going to America to have a better life, his parents asked if they would take him with them.
Grandpa would tell me about his childhood. He said he'd only been able to go to school through the third grade and how he had taught himself science, history, geography and more by reading everything he could get his hands on. As an adult, his favorite magazine was the National Geographic. He could hold his own in a conversation about any subject.
A few houses up the street lived a woman whose name was Margaret. She was a widow. I would spend an hour or so of an afternoon visiting with her. She told me her husband had worked on the railroad. One day there was a terrible accident and her husband was killed. Tears gathered in my eyes as she spoke of how she heard a knock on her door and when she opened it, there were six men standing there holding a door on which her husband's body lay.
She had the men set the door down on her dining room table and then told them they could leave. She said she washed her husband's body, then dressed him in clean clothes. When she was finished, she went next door to ask her neighbor to call the mortuary so funeral arrangements could be made.
One of my favorite people to visit on a Sunday afternoon was Gracie – a woman who had lived next door to my grandfather and helped him raise his five children after his wife died. Also a widow, she lived in a very large house with her brother.
My mother told me of how, when Gracie was told the living room floor was painted red, she set to work and removed every speck of paint even though she was blind. I heard lots of stories from her about my grandmother and what Grandpa went through to raise my mother and her sisters and brother.
Gracie's brother had to have his hands and feet amputated as a result of severe frostbite. He showed me what he called his "gardening hands." Although normally he had artificial hands that were metal hooks, he'd designed "hands" that were a small rake, a hoe, a small shovel, and shears. Using these devices he grew a large assortment of vegetables, which Gracie canned.
Remembering these stories gave me the idea as an adult to talk with relatives and gather as much family history as I could.
Hearing about the hardships all four of my grandparents endured to immigrate to America deepened my admiration of them and their determination to provide a better life for their children than what they'd had.
A wealth of history – not only family but community as well – awaits those who are willing to spend the time listening to stories and looking through old pictures. Now is the time to do it, before those who can give voice to the stories are no more.