Monday, July 07, 2014

Letter from Harrisburg

Written word makes family legacies last

If my husband’s Great-aunt Berniece hadn’t written it down, who but a few aunts would remember how the family ended up on this spread of farmland along Muddy Creek, and how a girl from Switzerland became my children’s great-great-great grandma?
The little blue booklet, with a hand-drawn sketch of a peasant girl in high-top shoes on the cover, is held together with a simple plastic binding, which shows that preserving the family stories doesn’t need to be costly or complicated.
“Memories of Mary: The Swiss Maid Who Became My Grandmother,” the title reads. I picked it off my to-read stack of books just before my 52nd birthday, and right there on the first page it said, “Mary Werner Hostetler — June 29, 1864-April 11, 1945. She was exactly 98 years older than me.
Mary’s father died when she was 6 months old, and her grandfather took on the difficult role of providing for the widow and her four children. In 1871 they followed a relative to America, where life was better but still hard enough that Mary had to work for another family to earn her room and board.
That family happened to be Mennonite, and Mary was baptized into the church at age 13. She married a Mennonite man from Missouri named Joseph Hostetler, and in 1895 they moved to Oregon, north of Salem. In 1911, they moved to this area. “One mile from Harrisburg,” the book says, adding, “Later, they bought some land across the road and built a better house and moved there.”
I wish Berniece had included maps.
The 78 pages include stories from Mary’s daughters and a dozen other descendants. Mary became a well-known and respected woman who was called on often to care for the sick, deliver babies and prepare the deceased for burial.
In other chapters, Mary’s grandson Herman broke his arm four times, Lloyd and his brothers made “the first self-propelled windrower ever built” out of a 1931 Chevrolet truck motor and frame turned backwards, and Berniece didn’t have a name until she was 4 years old.
“The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: Develop a strong family narrative,” writes Bruce Feiler in a New York Times article called “The Stories That Bind Us.”
Feiler goes on, citing a study, “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”
Stories told orally are the most entertaining, with dramatic aunts’ expert timing and emphatic descriptions. But oral tales die out with the tellers, and only the most persistent stories survive.
Also, spoken stories change in the telling, but a story on paper is a fixed reference. One family legend that every child in the vast relation knows is how Great-grandpa Daniel’s life was threatened by a carload of rough young men because he refused to buy war bonds, but then his attackers suddenly left. Years later, they told of a mysterious someone keeping them from carrying out their plans.
My 15-year-old daughter Jenny decided to write a poem about this event for a contest, and she used Berniece’s book to review the facts. She learned that three men, at three different houses, all faced the same threats.
Daniel’s son Frank said later, “Only a few years ago, I found out why they didn’t carry out their plans. They were prepared and ready to tar and feather us, but when they came there was a heavenly being that stood between them and us and they couldn’t get ahold of anybody. It happened at all three places.”
Happily, Jenny’s poem won fourth place out of 87 entries. I imagine her poem tucked into the back of her grandchildren’s copies of the little blue booklet.
A written record is also valuable because not everyone is a storyteller. While reading “Memories of Mary,” I was shocked to realize that if we depended entirely on my husband passing on his family history, our children would know only a tiny slice of it. He is great at passing along the values but less adept at repeating the tales.
Also, books are not limited by distance. Great-grandchildren on the other side of the country, far from the aunts and family reunions, can have the same stories easily at hand.
We have this record only because Berniece, the youngest of a large family, recognized the value of recording the family history and decided it was her job to make it happen.
Berniece interviewed her elders, wrote it down and typed it up. She prodded siblings into sharing memories, transcribed tapes, edited a lot and found a printer. She got a nephew’s wife to draw the cover illustration, bought multiple copies and passed them out for years, even to shirttail relations like me.
When you are young and your parents are healthy and your children are babies, you don’t think about writing things down, beyond jotting on the calendar when little Amy started walking and the cute phrases Ben said.
But everything changes when parents are suddenly elderly. You remember a vague image from a long-ago tale and ask your mom about it.
“What was that story about the time Grandma took you and Ervin on the train to visit Aunt Kitty in Cleveland? Who was Aunt Kitty? And do I remember right that Grandma wore a big hat?”
“How’s that?” says your mother, once a fountain of stories. “Aunt Kitty?”
That’s when you frantically start to write down all that you remember, asking your siblings, writing to aunts and uncles. “Was ‘Mommie Schlabach’ a twin?” “Who gave Mom that little table in the bedroom?”
Every scrap of information becomes valuable, every written word, the tiny spidery words on adhesive tape on the back of a bowl from Grandma Yoder. “For Amos. 1946.”
Amos is my dad, and this summer he is working on his memoirs. In Oregon for an extended visit, he sits on the couch and writes, careful Palmer method on the back of papers advertising an odor remover.
Some people choose to type their stories, tell them to a rapidly typing grandchild, or even put on a headset and speak into an Audacity recording program on a computer.
But Dad is 97 and prefers to write his history like he has always written letters — by hand, on his lap.
Dad loses his pen. I replace it. He misplaces his glasses. A kind soul finds them under a pew at church and drops them off. I bring him cups of hot water, his favorite beverage. I praise what he’s written and stay quiet when he’s concentrating.
I pray, let him get it all down. Please, let his mind stay sharp, let the words form and flow into his hand and out onto the paper, let them make sentences, paragraphs, chapters.
Let him tell his story.
He has covered his childhood, the history of the Amish church in Oklahoma and his Civilian Public Service days.
His grandparents lived in Mississippi, but the Amish group left because of tragedy — the young women would get sick and die in their first pregnancy. Malaria, people guessed.
His mother survived only by the grace of God, he writes. Then they moved to a safer climate in Oklahoma.
The Amish young people in his day had problems, he continues, because the young men liked to have fast horses and decorate the manes with shiny red and blue rings. The girls liked patent leather shoes and fancy dresses.
I smile. “Oh, Dad!”
Civilian Public Service changed his life. He went from being on the farm and going to town maybe twice a year, to living in other states with a group of conscientious objectors, working on dairy farms, planting trees and seeing the wider world for five challenging years.
At times he uses outdated terms now considered inappropriate or even racist.
“My best friend in school was an Indian boy named Woodrow Wilson.” I don’t correct him, knowing that his heart appreciates all kinds of people and fearing that I would stop the creative flow.
He is a perfectionist, writing and rewriting. “Rough draft” he notes in a box at the top of the page.
“Just get it down,” I tell him. “We can edit it later.”
My daughters type up the chapters as he finishes them. Jenny reads slowly. Emily types.
“Nah vos ich neksht schrava vill, sell muss ich decida druff,” he says in his German dialect when he finishes the chapter on Oklahoma. “I need to decide what to write about next.”
“Your marriage,” I suggest. “And your children. College. All the places you lived.”
He nods, thinking. I leave quietly and he picks up his pen and a new sheet of paper.
Slowly and deliberately, he writes. It’s as though he is digging up a treasure, handing it to us for safe keeping, passing it on, word by careful word.
“He needs another day,” I pray. “Strength and clarity, words and sentences.”
Because we are not finished yet, and there is always more story to tell.


  1. The story from your great aunt must be a wonderful treasure. I would love to have a booklet with my great grandparents stories in as my Great Grandma was almost 100 years old and I have good memories of her. Mary Ann Mast

  2. This brings tears to my eyes. My mom had many dreams of writing many stories....her father's history, the history of the little church they helped start in AR.... She gathered information and dreamed a lot. Now, suddenly, she is gone! I wish I would have encouraged her more to get it done; get it written! We'll treasure the things she did write down, but oh, I wish there was more! Once they're gone, they're gone.

  3. Please don't edit out what you all view as "inappropriate" and "racist". Don't modernize him. Don't change history. Let it live.

  4. I would love to have a copy of your Dad's Oklahoma memories. My people on my dad's side lived in Missisippi for awhile, gave up after much bad luck and sorrow and moved to Oklahoma. Sounds like the same story to me.

  5. My Grandpa Beachy was apparently the only man in his community that did not buy liberty bonds. One of his "offenses" was being German-speaking.

    He was harassed by people who did not know him well. They painted his buggy yellow. They threatened to tar and feather him (I wish I knew more about that). He and his wife and two young sons spent a night in a straw stack, because of people having tried to force entry into the house at night through locked doors. This was in 1918.

    Grandpa was arrested on May 18. My uncle Glen was born on May 30, 12 days later. Poor Grandma.

    Grandpa spent a few days in jail, apparently partly for his own protection. He was beaten by fellow prisoners who were stopped by prison guards. According to news articles, his charges included sedition and disloyalty. According to a letter he wrote from jail to Grandma his charges were "attempting to cause disloyalty to the government, interfering with enlistments in the army and threatening the life of President Wilson." He pled "not guilty" to these charges.

    Also mentioned in the news articles was, "His friends aver he has contributed liberally, his limited wealth considered, to the Red Cross, the Army Y.M.C.A., etc."

    At a family sale, my parents bought documents about this saga, two letters and six newspaper articles. Mom wrote a "cover letter" and made copies for us children. Thus the story has been preserved.

    Last school year, my first cousin's 13-year-old son gave a speech on Conscientious Objectors, mentioning my grandfather's opposition. He won local and state competitions in his division. Last month he gave the speech in DC, in national competition. -- LRM

  6. My sympathies, Bethany. It's hard enough to lose the stories when your mom is elderly, but to lose her as you did...that would be one of many losses.
    Lucy--that sounds like wise advice.
    Merle--that definitely sounds like the same story line.
    LRM--thanks for sharing. Interesting parallels.

  7. Dorcas:

    Our church school, Christopher Dock, had a course in local history for 27 years. Each student had to tape an interview with a senior citizen and now the Mennonite Heritage Center in Harleysville, PA has 1120 of these tape cassettes. I am in the process of digitizing them so they are preserved for posterity. I consider these quite valuable. Some of these people are quite articulate. After their grandchild finished occasionally one of them would turn the tape recorder on and just tell stories in a quite unstructured manner. I just finished one of an elderly woman who couldn't remember anything about her early childhood except that her brother became very ill and public health officials fumigated the house. About her only toy was a rag doll which they said must be burned since it couldn't be properly fumigated. She said she cried tears and tears trying to persuade them to save her doll "but they all fell on stone".

  8. Wes--what a treasure those recordings must be, and what a heartbreaking story! Good for you for "digitizing" them even though I'm not sure what that is.

  9. The Baritone7/11/2014 9:45 PM

    Recording them onto a hard drive, so it's easier to keep copies of the stories and not needing to worry about a tape player eating the cassettes.