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Just dropping by ... The history gift

Yevet Tenney for Progressive Dairyman Published on 07 February 2019

Writing a life history is like gathering a bouquet of flowers to give to a friend. It would be ludicrous to cut every flower in the garden. Bouquets are beautiful because they are rare and fashioned with a loving eye. Only the best flowers are chosen and displayed to show their delicate beauty.

I just finished reading my mother’s 45 journals to her. Yes! Forty-five hundred-page journals! She is nearly blind with macular degeneration, and she can only hear certain voices. Mine is a loud theatrical voice, so I am the self-elected reader. We have laughed and cried over the many experiences she recorded. There were many doldrum pages, as in real life. Everything isn’t an adventure or even worth recording, but because she chose to write every day, she didn’t lose the treasures that come every once in a while.

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She wrote about holidays, funerals and weddings. She even copied one of my fourteen-hundred-word articles into her journal. I was shocked. No word processor or typewriter. Tedious longhand. I would have folded up the article and stapled it to the page. She wanted to preserve it in her book. She didn’t want it wrinkled and lost, so she copied it. What a woman! Her only regret is that she didn’t have a journal years earlier. Me too! I would have loved to read her thoughts and feelings about her childhood, courtship, wedding and how she felt when each of her six children were born.

I wish my other ancestors would have written journals also. I remember when my grandfather passed away like it was yesterday. I walked up the path under the willow trees. I noticed the group gathered around my grandfather’s lawn chair. I knew he was there. Tears stung my eyes. I couldn’t join the group; the police and the hearse were already there waiting to take him away. I made my way into the old ranch house.

In the dim light of the living room, I saw Grandma sitting in the rocking chair. I hugged her. Our tears mingled for a brief second. There were no words, just the silent “I love you” we both felt. I pulled up a chair, sat down and held her hand.

Her son, Lynn, entered. “Here is the stuff from Dad’s pockets,” he said softly. “Where do you want them?” Grandma held out her hands and Lynn deposited the contents in her lap. Grandma, almost blind, picked up the pocket knife and stroked it gently. She fingered a silver and turquoise Navajo bracelet. Then she picked up his copper wrist band that he wore on his left wrist because it helped his rheumatism. A few pennies and quarters rested in her lap with a pack of gum. He always carried Juicy Fruit gum to give to his grandkids. Every child was his grandkid. That was the way he was. Seventy-five years of love!

When the family asked me to write his biography, I realized how little remained of his seventy-five years. I went to each of his 10 children and asked them to tell me about their father.

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“He was a cowboy.” “He was a great man.” “He served people, but I don’t remember that much.” Without exception, the answers were vague. When I exhausted my information resources, I had less than 10 hand-written pages of his life.

I felt cheated. I wanted more! I wanted the Old West to live for me, through him. I wanted to know what made him happy and sad. I wanted to know what he felt was most important in life. I wanted his wisdom, but there was nothing, just the cold hard facts. He was born. He lived and died.

My husband’s first wife passed away with cancer. She kept a few journals and wrote a brief life sketch. The information she left to her children is priceless. There are pages about each child’s birth and her feelings about each one. There is a sweet letter to her youngest son who will never know her because he was only 9 months old when she passed. She wrote pages and pages about her discoveries and wisdom as she shared her successes and failures. That mother’s written words will reach across the ages with a loud, resounding “I love you” to her posterity forever.

I have encountered every excuse imaginable for not writing: “I can’t write.” “Nobody would be interested in my boring life.” “I don’t have the time.” “I can’t write a life history; my life isn’t over yet.”

The answer to every excuse is a question: “Would you like to have a journal of your great-grandfather and grandmother? Would you like to know how they lived, what was important to them and what they learned in life?” The answer is always a resounding, “Yes!” Then, don’t you think your children and grandchildren will want to know the same about you? The answer is not always quick, but the real answer is simple. If you love your family, you will leave them a legacy of love through your recorded words.

What makes an interesting life history? The Bible is one of the best examples. There are five elements in the Bible that make it exciting.

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1) It communicates the truth.

2) It contains genealogy.

3) There are stories.

4) There are worthwhile bits of wisdom.

5) There is enough detail to make the stories live.

Consider this: Jesus was born in Bethlehem. He got lost when he was 12. He was tried in a Roman court and found guilty, and was sentenced to hang on a cross.

The information is all true, but there is no genealogy to tell who he was. There is nothing to gain by reading those sentences. In fact, we could assume that Jesus was a troublemaker. By contrast, after we read the Bible, we feel uplifted and have a desire to live better. That is because someone cared enough to add the detail. The writers of the Bible cared passionately about the subject and the reader.

Writing a life history is like gathering a bouquet of flowers to give to a friend. It would be ludicrous to cut every flower in the garden. Bouquets are beautiful because they are rare and fashioned with a loving eye. Only the best flowers are chosen and displayed to show their delicate beauty.

Does that mean you only share information that is beautiful and happy? Absolutely not! A bouquet becomes more beautiful if there is something “not so beautiful” mingled with it. A spray of baby’s breath, a fern or even a dried weed can bring out the beauty of the rose.

Often, we have experiences that feel like thorns and dried weeds. By telling those experiences, we help someone else deal with the same problem. My mother shared her frustrations, fears and disappointment when caring for her aging mother. It has helped me to better care for her as she reaches her closing days. Mom shared gardening tips and things she learned that worked and did not work. I don’t have to do the same grueling experiments because she shared.

If the experience makes a lasting, positive difference in your life, or would help someone become better by reading the experience, then share it. If it is just whining about how unfair life is, it is better for those experiences to die with you. There is nothing so tragic as words that reach back from the grave to wound another human being. Remember, when you are gone, you can’t say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t really mean that.”

Writing a history or journal is rich with rewards. If you leave a history, your posterity will get acquainted with you. Thinking through your history, as you write, gives insight and direction to your life. Your mistakes and successes are there in bold black letters. That gives you an incentive to live better. You desire to be honest and share good experiences. As a result, your life will become a quest for good experiences.

Best of all, in your heart, you will recognize you are giving something priceless to future generations. What could make you feel more valuable and important? Open the door to your past and future – write a history and keep a journal.

Reading Mother’s journals to her has been a precious experience for both of us. I got to know her in so many new ways. She is getting dementia in her later years. That tragedy is softened because of her journals. They have helped keep her grounded and connected to who she really is. When her self-worth wanes, she has evidence that she truly did accomplish many wonderful things in her life. I am forever grateful she took the time to write.  end mark

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