Friday, November 9, 2018

Families--the Gift That Keeps on Giving.

     November is the Month of Giving Thanks. Everybody else saves it for Turkey-and-Football-Thursday, but we Teaching Authors take the whole month to be thankful. Cutting to the chase, I am thankful for my family. Not just my husband and daughter and extremely needy dog. I am thankful for my extended family...not only both sides of my family, but both sides of my husband's as well.
Me, my daughter and husband. Benihana wouldn't let us bring the dog.

     Whether it's luck or karma or whatever, my entire family are terrific storytellers. Not that any of them thought that of themselves. They didn't  think there was anything particularly fascinating about their lives. I beg to differ.

   It began with Mom. I loved stories. Not just the ones in books, but the ones Mom told about her childhood. To an only child like me, living on a farm with seven siblings who lived to prank the neighbors sounded exotic. Mom, who was so self conscious about writing, she wrote rough drafts of letters to her family, was a hilariously uninhibited storyteller. The first stories I ever wrote were based on Mom's childhood.  She hooked me on writing and family stories.
From left-Mom, a visitor, Aunt Georgia, Uncle Jim. My grandfather
is behind Jim, the other adults are the parents of the boy in front.

Mom's youngest sibling was my favorite aunt, who had a unique perspective on the family.  Born when my grandmother was 45, (unimaginable in the 1920's), she was the only child at home during WWII. My mother and her brothers were in the service, one sister married, the other two working and rarely home. The stories she told me were ones my mother never knew.  Her sweet, gentle remembrances of the Pittsburgh homefront formed the core of Jimmy's Stars.
Aunts Agnes,left and Sarah, hanging laundry, 1944

Aunt Agnes as a young woman

From Mom's family, I learned the concepts of point of view and unreliable narrator.  My aunts and uncles could tell me a story I had heard from Mom, but each had a totally different take it on it. The same family tale from eight different people, and each remembered a detail the others didn't. Each felt differently about the same event. I learned that people could experience the same event, yet perceive it in a different way. In my nuclear family, there were only two sides of a story, mine and my parents. What a revelation to learn that all adults didn't see things the same way!  I learned truth could be a personal perception.
The only picture of all Mom's siblings, minus one. In front, from
left, Sarah, Mary Anne, Mom. Back, Georgia, Andy, Jim, Agnes

 My Grandmother Rodman dropped out of fourth grade. She was needed at home to raise her five half siblings as her mother slowly died of "consumption." Her stories were distinctly Dickensian. Her older brothers left home at 12 and 14 to get away from their "evil stepfather", who abused all of the children. When her mother died, and "evil stepfather" tried to marry my 14-year-old grandmother, she too ran away and became a "hired girl," always with the idea of returning for the "little'uns." As a young mother, she, my grandfather, my dad and his older brother lived through the deadliest tornado in American history. I heard these stories over and over. My grandmother had a keen eye for detail, and knew how to sequence a story, building to the climax. Again, she didn't think her life was anything but ordinary....but in addition to the violence of her childhood, and the gore and horror of "The Storm," her stories contained descriptions of making peanut brittle, being given her dead mother's clothes ("Somebody ought to get some wear out of them.") memorizing poetry for contests at her one room school house. I soaked it all in.
Grandmother Rodman, my Meemaw. She told her stories while  crocheting,
or as she is doing here, embroidering.

My father-in-law John, age 2
My father-in-law John could tie with my grandmother for The Childhood Most Like a Dickens Novel prize. Losing his train engineer father in a wreck at age four, dying slowly at home from burns from the exploding locomotive boiler. His mother leaving him and his three-year-old sister with maiden aunts, while she went to chiropractic college in St. Louis. She was a take-charge-lady who wasn't counting on remarriage to save her little family. Although she did remarry, the family bounced from state to state during the Depression, barely getting by.

While his childhood was grim, his adult life was nothing but sheer luck. He joined the Navy in the 1930's to pay for college. He did his time, then went to Purdue, only to be recalled in 1940. His base? Pearl Harbor. His ship left for maneuvers Dec 4, 1941, missing the attack on the US fleet. Over the next four years, he survived two ships sunk in torpedo attacks, met and married my mother-in-law, an Australian debutante, and fought in so many naval battles I've lost track. The Battle of Savo Island is the one I remember.

Like my grandmother, my father-in-law John had an incredible memory. He once told me that when he couldn't sleep, he reimagining every night watch on ship--the other sailors, the weather, the enemy vessels. I could  (and did) listen to him for hours. He was the only WWII veteran I knew who would talk about being in combat...while sober.
John, high school graduation and sister Virginia.

"You're a good listener," he'd say. "None of my kids care anything about the war or family history." I couldn't imagine someone not caring about their family's past, but my husband and sister-in-law didn't. I am sad that they cared so little for their father's brave and incredible life.

Babs' engagement picture, 1943
 My mother in law could also spin a yarn, before Alzheimer's took her past.  I mean, who has a father who founded a political party and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth? Who grew up in a mansion on Sydney Harbor, facing what would one day by the Sydney Opera House? Raised by nannies and sent to a convent school, and was a junior Australian tennis champ? Who squabbled with her younger sister (by ten months) as to which was the "pretty one" and which was the "sporty one." Who worked for MGM Australia after the University of Sydney "invited" her to leave? ("I don't believe you are quite focused on your education.  Perhaps later.") My mother-in-law, that's who. And speaking of different POV's, I heard all these stories again, during the one delightful and memorable afternoon I spent with her sister, still living in Sydney. (She assured me that she was the pretty one!)

This group of storytellers also includes my horde of cousins, thirty plus including second and third cousins. The Rodman bunch have my grandmother's eye for detail. The Smith crew have the same deadpan humor as Mom. Oh, and then there are their parents, aunts and uncles by marriage. Dad's older brother brought home a British war bride who had hair-raising stories of living through the London Blitz. Aunt Agnes's husband had a Horatio Alger childhood, the kind that only a smart and enterprising boy in Depression Era Pittsburgh could have experienced. (Favorite story--selling a war bond to Art Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, as part of a newsboys' bond drive.)
Just some of the cousins. From left, me, Melissa, Kelly, Fran

This is my family. They all have(had) their quirks and prejudices and ongoing feuds with other family members. They also had guts and drive to live through hard times, wars and personal sorrow. Lucky for me, they didn't believe in forgetting their pasts, good or bad. They told me, always the eager listener.

As a child, I overheard Mom talking about me.

"She's a writer," Mom said, in an exasperated voice. "I don't know where she gets it."

But I do--from Mom and Dad, Meemaw and Pawpaw.  Aunts Agnes, Sarah and Georgia. Uncles Tom, Andy and Jim. Uncle Gee and Aunt Eileen. In-laws John and Babs, and Babs' sister Adele. All my cousins, but especially Sherry, Val, Melissa and Walt. Thank you all. Through you, I've lived other lives and times. You gave me the gift of our families stories. The best gift a writer can have.


April Halprin Wayland said...

love how much I have learned about you and your family of storytellers, Mary Ann ~ thank you <3

Marcia Strykowski said...

Old photographs are such fun, thanks for sharing!