I have a folder called Family Stories. It started with my Oma’s funeral. I’d gone around that day, asking people to remember the sayings she had, “You haff to laff,” “It comes handy-in,” “It’s an unicum [oonickum],” “I simple cannot,” and, to her own children when they were growing up, “Act normal and you’re acting crazy enough” (except said in Dutch). I wrote down every remembrance, every story, every detail someone told me.
And I’ve done that ever since, whether with my family or my husband’s, because I know that if I don’t scribble them down somewhere, I’ll forget. There are stories that stick with me, like the Nazi soldiers coming to the house for my Opa (because he worked in the Resistance) and his sister-in-law dressing him in a lace cap and nightgown, plunking him in a rocking chair and handing him a baby, and then showing the Germans around the house, “See. No men here. Just women and babies. Women and babies.” They bought it, and he was safe. That one’s so good I’m putting it in the second David and Saul novel, with David getting the nightgown and baby treatment. Or one my father’s earliest memories: he was playing outside during the war and the air raid siren came on, and his mother (and nanny?) screamed for him to come inside, but he wouldn’t, because he was only two, and it was fun outside.
There is one story that I’ve been wanting to write about in a more formal way for a long time: the time my mother’s house burned down when she was 6 and she managed to salvage something both silly and important and everyone laughed at her. catapult* magazine gave me that opportunity, and I’m grateful to them for it.
Even in the writing of that piece, I found out things I didn’t know before. I had to call my mother for clarification and learned that the outhouse she used until she was 7 was a two-holer, and that the Sears and Spiegel catalogues were the toilet paper of choice. Also that they moved into the basement of the new house the year after the old one burned down, and lived in just the basement for a few years while her Uncle Herm built the house above them, as they could afford it. This was apparently a common way to build houses back then.
Don’t get me wrong, I love every item I have from prior generations, and I recently made clear to my dad that I don’t want him to give away their art after he and my mother have died (which won’t be for many, many, many years). But the real heirlooms are the stories, the reminders of different ways of life, of the fears and struggles and triumphs of those who eventually made me (and my husband). The fun stories and the not-so-fun ones. They’re all important.
So I’ll keep jotting down the details as my family members let them slip. I’ll keep stealing good stuff for my fiction. And I’ll keep turning them into more formal pieces, so I can learn even more. ETA: Since publishing this, I learned two things I got wrong — there were 5 kids in the house, and she only had to run 1/4 mile to the neighbor.
When my mother was six, in the summer of 1947, her home burned down. Her mother was in the barn, and the four kids were in the house. After the four-year-old noticed fire licking out of the wood-stove pipe in the kitchen, my mother and her older sister got the kids out of the house and then ran a mile to the neighbor’s — he didn’t have a phone, either, but he had a car and could drive to a phone.
The fire department doused the flames, but the house was a total loss.
Their neighbors followed the truck, gathering to commiserate. Once the ruins cooled, the kids took turns dashing into the house to see what they could salvage, tossing the spoils on the grass. My mother was very proud of one thing she managed to save: my grandmother’s ratty house shoes.
Everyone burst into laughter, leaving her mortified and confused.