The ‘Story’ part of Family ‘History’

by Kim on September 11, 2009

I have always been fascinated with family stories. Mine, in particular, but other people’s families too. These stories constitute the fabric of which we are made. It’s the story-telling that intrigues me.  As Frank Delaney says in Tipperary “Memory is a canvas – stretched, primed, and ready for painting on. We love the ‘story’ part of the word ‘history,’ and we love it trimmed out with color and drama, ribbons, and bows. We always decorate our essence.”

My grandfather's store, their house was in the back.

My grandfather's store, their house was in the back.

I’ve told you about my train-robbing grandmother – Archiving the Photos AND Telling the Story: Ruby. As a result of Ruby robbing a train, my mother had a difficult life. She grew up in the Depression in the mountains of Tennessee. She was raised by her father, a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. Even though she had three older brothers, she was doing most of the housework at the age of 5. Their house had no electricity or running water, so the boys would bring in the firewood and the pails of water.  My mother was in charge of cooking, doing the dishes, and the family laundry down by the springs. Every night, they had beans and cornbread. Every night, she washed their 5 plates and spoons. After dinner, she would read by lamplight until bedtime.

My mother, age 8, in her woolen cap

My mother, age 8, in her woolen cap

My grandfather had his hands full with teaching and running a grocery store and though he loved my mother, he didn’t have time to participate in her life much. I have a photo of my mother wearing a cap, with very short hair sticking out, about the age of 8. No one washed or brushed her hair and by the time her father realized that she was extremely infested with lice, the only remedy was to cut off all of her hair and put a woolen cap on her.  Her brothers taught her to smoke cigarettes at the age of 10 and laughed at the silliness of it all. She wore her brother’s hand-me-downs, not owning a dress until her teen years. My heart aches for my mother as a young girl, living this hard life.

My mother loved to tell the story about her Christmas gift one year. Her father gave her a $5 bill. She asked her father to keep it for her. For one entire year, she would approach her father at the store and ask him for some of “her money” for some candy at the store. Her father played along with it, even though they both knew the money ran out well before a year.

During the Depression, my grandfather extended credit to his customers as well, and ended up loosing the store to his creditors. Their house was attached to the store, so they lost their home too. My grandfather took his 4 children and moved into an abandoned log cabin. The chinks were gone between the logs and my mother remembered it snowing on her bed.

So this explains some of the grit of my mother’s personality. I often say that I’m from a long line of wild women. I am often amazed at how well she mothered us – considering her background. She cared for us in extraordinary ways, considering she grew up without a mother during very difficult times.

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