THE TIMES is accepting applications for the next Write Team. The deadline is Monday, April 9. Everyone has stories to tell. How about you? — L. Cain.
“You should write that down.”
Man, I’d love to have a Hershey bar for every time I said that.
If you listen, people do talk about more than the weather or how they suffer so from allergies.
Now and then they tell stories.
About themselves. family, friends. Crazy things they hear or actually experienced.
My instinct is to take notes. But often it’s not my story to tell.
So I say, “That’s a great story.”
And, “That should not be forgotten.”
Then … “You should write that down.”
I say these things knowing it likely will not happen. And that is sad.
All those stories lost … or misremembered before they fade.
All that personal history turns into leaves that crisp and curl and fall off the family tree.
And when I say personal history I am talking about a lot more than dates and events.
More important are feelings and reactions. Our goals and all those mistakes and the things that made us laugh … or cry.
In the scheme of things — you know, the whole expanding universe, planets revolving, time eroding everything — does it really matter?
Why write it down?
Good questions, with many answers. As many answers as there are people.
Because everyone is their own story. And there’s beauty in the difference and real connection in the similarities.
Learning about others reminds us who we are.
Writing about ourselves reaffirms who we are.
I’m not suggesting everyone write an autobiography with hopes of a bestseller.
I just try to plant a seed with a simple thought: “You should write that down.”
Sometimes it works. It did with my grandmother, many years ago.
I have seven pages of handwritten memories she wrote because I asked her to.
Sort of her life story, and a reminder of how time reinvents the way things are done. And shapes us.
Her simple story is part of everyone’s story. That makes it important.
Kind of a time capsule recording the human condition.
Reading her story shows how she become the grandmother I knew.
Didn’t complain. Focused on the day’s work. Humble. Proud. Counted her pennies.
In 1912, she was 8 years old, living in Des Moines, Iowa.
“My mother did day work for other people and did laundry at home for others, always on the washboard as we did not have a washer," she wrote. "They either had a big wheel you turned by hand or a stick on top that turned the agitator to wash the clothes.
“My dad delivered coal using my uncle’s team and wagon. Each weekend they divided the money.
“Our house had two bedrooms upstairs where we kids slept, my four brothers in one room and my sister and I in the other.
“Downstairs was a large dining room and a large kitchen. A smaller living room where my parents slept. We had a folding bed that looked like a piece of furniture when folded up. We had a small chicken house and, of course, the little outhouse.
“We were still in this house when the first World War started in Europe and later this country got into it and some men from our neighborhood had to go into the Army.
“As the war went on more men were drafted. Some of my older cousins had gone and my oldest brother got his card to report on a certain date, and the morning before he had to report we were surprised by the news boys on the street calling get your extra paper, the war is over, the armistice is signed.
“So he did not have to go. We were all happy about it.”
Her words turned into a slide show of history … through her eyes.
She quit school to help at home.
She met her future husband on a blind date.
They went together to “popcorn movies” — admission was a 10-cent bag of popcorn.
She remembered clearly how he loved her long, dark, red hair.
She was 19 when they married ... so her parents did not object too much.
Her early years involved many job changes and moves between Iowa and Illinois.
And having children — five boys and two girls.
In 1933, there were many days without enough food.
“They started the WPA ($11.60 a week) and the surplus food program,” she said. “We rented a house on Main Street in Somonauk for $60 a year.”
Later in life they lived in a remodeled large chicken house and in their senior years in a mobile home on my parent’s property near Hinckley.
Clearly, my life has been a lot easier than hers.
Also clear is that her life is part of mine.
I know this — with details — because she wrote them down.
As I do about my life and experiences.
We all are part of the history textbooks.
We all have stories to tell.
And that’s why I often say, “You know, you should write that down.”
- LONNY CAIN, of Ottawa, is the former managing editor of The Times, now retired. Please email thoughts, comments or ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org or mail care of The Times, 110 W. Jefferson St., Ottawa, IL 61350.