Monday, July 16, 2007

Journal Assignment X: Family Tales

Most families have their share of family lore that needs to be preserved for those who come later. Did your grandfather tell funny stories about an eccentric uncle? Did your mother tell stories about your brother's bad behavior at some time in his childhood, or embarrassing stories about yours? What about tales of encounters with early versions of TV or "motorcars" or other new-fangled inventions, immigration struggles, and/or life in the "old country"?

How I wish my father had recorded his story, told to my brother but only vaguely remembered now, of his arduous journeys to college on unimproved roads in a a Model "T" Ford in the late 1920's, not long before the family photo above was taken! The old picture above shows me, at age one or two, with my parents. How young we all look!

Family history should involve more than family trees and birth and death dates. It's the stories that count. Fortunately, my mother, Violet Marshall Funston (1911-2007) wrote her life story, My First Eighty-Six Years: a Midwestern Life, in 1997. The following example is adapted from her story. It recounts one of the tales her paternal grandmother told her about family life in rural Pennsylvania long before my mother was born.

A Husband for Mary?

"One day, as Grandma sat rocking and knitting, she got an idea of how to solve one of her family problems. ‘That’s it!’ she said aloud. Old Tom the cat opened one sleepy eye, looked at Grandma, and then at his dish beside the kitchen range. The dish was empty. He blinked his eyes and settled down again, his purring blending with the sound of the wood crackling in the kitchen range and the clicking of Grandma’s knitting needles as she knit another pair of socks.

"As Grandma’s idea took shape, the knitting needles clicked faster and faster, keeping time with her rocking. Tom awakened again, moved his tail out of the way of the fast-moving rocker, and then slept again.

"Tom was awakened next by stomping on the porch, and Grandpa, full of snow and the vibrant life that was Grandpa, burst into the kitchen with his violin under his arm. ‘Marvin’s cow is going to calve tonight,’ he said, explaining his absence. ‘Coldest weather we’ve had.’ Tom rubbed against Grandpa’s legs, purring his loudest. He was sure to get a tidbit from Grandpa’s lunch. He would sit on Grandpa’s lap licking his sleek black fur, hoping to be petted and to have his fat tummy rubbed.

"‘Joseph,’ Grandma asked, ‘do you think we could have a box social at the school?’" She meant the rural school where Grandpa taught.

"‘Whatever put that idea into your head? You were never much of a social butterfly. Aha! It wouldn’t have anything to do with trying to get a husband for Mary, would it?’

"Grandma ignored his question," but after she promised to clean the school for the occasion, Grandpa promised to ask at the next school meeting.

Aunt Mary, in her middle twenties, did not even have a boyfriend, while seven of Grandma’s other children were already married. "Mary wanted to run a millinery shop and had no interest in marriage. To Grandma, the only proper career for a girl was homemaking and raising a family."

At a box social, each marriageable girl decorated a box, filled it with her best cooking and baking, and waited for it to be auctioned off. Of course Mary was not interested in baking, but Grandma bullied her into baking an apple pie, and Grandma baked some bread for the box herself.

Grandma tipped off Marvin, whom she considered a likely prospect, and he won Mary’s box. "Mary shared the food with him; however, it was plain to see that she was not enjoying the food or Marvin."

Mary never married. After a while, the family moved west from Pennsylvania to Strawberry Point, Iowa, where Mary opened her millinery shop. She "decorated hats with feather plumes, flowers, birds, and ribbons. A woman would buy a dress and then come to the store to buy a hat decorated to match the dress."

It was at Mary’s hat shop in Strawberry Point that her visiting brother, Grandma’s son Edward Uhl, met Minnie Louise Blanchard, twenty years younger than he, and they fell in love, married in 1910, and later became my mother’s parents and my grandparents.

It’s strange how things work out. Grandma’s plot failed, and Mary became the first known career woman in the family, a tradition that has continued to this day.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne
Photo from the family collection


MrsA said...

I just found your blog. I LOVE it!!!
It is so nice to read such heartwarming stories. Thank you again for having such a lovely blog. I have bookmarked you and will be back to visit often.


seniorwriter said...

Thank you so much! Have you visited my other blog, "Never too late!" at and my column on the eGenerations web site? There are links to both on this blog.

Larry Lehmer said...

Marlys, I'm so glad I found your site. For the past 18 months I've been helping people in central Iowa preserve their stories through workshops, coaching and interviewing. Thanks for sharing your expertise through your blog.

seniorwriter said...

Thanks, Larry. Since I "reinvented" myself by writing, I've become an advocate of preserving family stories. If I lived in a smaller community and were younger, I'd certainly be leading workshops, but as it is, the Internet gives me a wonderful opportunity. Have you checked out the Memoirs sectiion on eGenerations (under "Connect") and my other bog, "Never too Late!"? I'm really enjoying all of this.

Feel free to use any of my writings you find useful, as long as you give me and my blogs and eGenerations the proper credit.

Sueblimely said...

I became interested in my own family geneology after starting what I thought would be a long, maybe impossible, quest to find my partner's birth family in England. He had been adopted by an Australian family as a baby. With the power of the internet it took me but 2 days to find his extended family.

My own quest is harder in that Irish records were destroyed in a fire but a tree of names is not so important to me anyway. It is the stories I have uncovered that bring the tree into bloom, giving it richness and life and creating vivid pictures of adversity and the power of the human spirit. One of my favorite stories sent by a previously unknown relative:

After taking a ship from Ireland to Scotland in c1893 he walked to Glasgow and found work at a hydroelectric power station. He then walked to the North East of England working as a labourer digging docks in Middlesborough. Once this project was finished he walked south to Hull to dig new docks there.

Knowing that all the navvies and labourers on these projects were from out of town and needed somewhere to live he was saving up little bit by little bit to buy a boarding house.

He finally achieved his goal, buying a house in Hull and opening his boarding house. He charged out of town dock workers 4d a night and sharpened their shovels to help them dig faster. Most of his 11 children were born in this house.

One of these children was my father.

seniorwriter said...

Hello! Yours is a fascinating family story. I'd be happy to include it here on my blog (with your name, of course) if you are willing. You'll find a link to my e-mail address on my profile page so that you can let me know. If not, it will remain here in the comments. I hope others will read it one way or the other. I haven't had much luck tracing my English ancestors, partly because they came to the United States so early and partly because most of the men for generations back were named John Marshall--a common name, indeed!

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