Mind & Spirit

Janine’s Journal: Write Down Your Life Stories!

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During the writing process, we inevitably meet some fascinating people. Just imagine if these people, and our famous historical figures, hadn’t preserved their life stories.

Janine Pumilia photo

During these magazine cycles, we writers tend to “live with” the people we’re writing about, mulling over what we‘ve learned, waking in the night with sudden insights, unresolved questions.

One of the folks riding along with me in my head the past few weeks was born in 1796, but wrote such a compelling narrative of his life that I feel richer for “knowing” him. I’m now a big fan of John Phelps, founding father of Oregon, Ill., not only because he led an interesting life, but because he bothered to write about it. Wouldn’t he have been surprised to know that, 150 years later, people around the world can pull up his narrative simply by pushing buttons on a box in their homes?

Phelps was what we’d call an “early adopter.” He was among the first to rush off to war, to go West (Illinois), to establish a keelboat business in these parts, to transport goods around his region by steamboat. Had he lived in our generation, he’d probably be running an Internet empire by now. (read more about him, and Dixon founder John Dixon, HERE)

Some say it was Phelps’ daughter, Sarah Johnston, who urged her father to dictate his story in about 1861. Good for her! How many of us have parents and grandparents whose memories will be lost because we were “too busy” to record them?

Phelps’ narrative is particularly rich because of his candor in recalling failure and success, as an entrepreneur, and as a human being. He journeyed without planes, trains or automobiles; he either rode an animal or paddled a boat through this wild new country and expected his family to follow him, which they did. A friend of Phelps wrote: “The first steamer that ever ascended the River above Nashville was chartered and freighted by him [Phelps] … The name of the boat was ‘President.’ Thousands of people lined the Banks of the River to get the first view ever had of a steamboat.”

Can’t you just imagine the excitment?

Strangers who treated Phelps kindly made a big impression on him, like the Indian squaws who saved his life when he was a youth braving the wilderness alone, on his way to fight in the War of 1812; or the man who gave him $5 after overhearing the story of how Phelps lost all his money. It strikes me as wonderful that this man of high adventure treasured his memories about the kindness of strangers. Those of you who’d enjoy reading Phelps’ entire narrative can easily find it by googling John Phelps, Oregon, Ill.

But the thing is – and this is important – you don’t have to paddle keelboats or be Laura Ingalls Wilder to have memories worth recording. Humans tend to think that every time period is interesting, except their own. I wonder how many people have failed to write down their own stories simply because they think of themselves as “too ordinary.” It’s mostly ordinary people who have carried civilization forward.

I recently ran across my mom’s written recollections of her grandparents, ordinary people who lived in Rockford during the early 1900s. In less than five pages, I not only met Edward and Eva Sheldon, but also 1920s west Rockford as seen through a child’s eyes – Mom’ eyes. She describes what a good cook her Grandma was … “She could make the BEST pie dough, quickly, and never used a recipe. And she could pare an apple without breaking the peel.”

Clearly Mom was fascinated by the neat fabric squares that her Grandma kept in a big, flat box. Eva sewed beautiful quilts while Grandpa Sheldon, a Rockford homebuilder by trade, listened to baseball games on the radio. Grandma Sheldon was too deaf to hear the radio well, and wore a hearing aid with a battery 2 by 5 inches large that she “carried in a pocket sewed into her underslip.” The couples’ legendary kindness was forever imprinted on their granddaughter.

After Mom moved to a nearby farm with her parents and sister, her grandparents would visit the farm to help out.

“Grandma would come out early and make pies for threshers. Mom would bake several fresh chickens, gather three or four vegetables from the garden and make a delicious feast for the 12 to 15 hungry neighbors who came to help thresh. My Dad and the hired men would then go to the other farmers’ when they threshed. Everyone had to help each other or the job wouldn’t have been done while the grain was at its peak.

“My grandpa would always set up a bench outside under a tree with water buckets, soap and towels so the men could wash up before eating. Threshing was a dirty, hot job.”

I bet threshing days seemed pretty darned ordinary to them, but I find it fascinating to read about.

Great grandma Sheldon was 46 when Mom was born in 1921 – the same year women got the right to vote. I wonder what she thought of that event. Did she immediately sign up to vote? Did it cause any friction with her husband? I wish she would have written her thoughts down. Mom recalls going to old Rockford College with family to hear Jane Addams speak. “Mostly I remember that I was wearing a new coat and tried hard not to get it dirty.”

When Eva Sheldon unexpectedly died one March night in 1951, having made a pie that day, Mom and her sister Shirley went immediately to her house to be with their Grandpa, “who was in great distress. Shirley and I made green tea – Grandma’s favorite – (she put milk in it, being of English descent) and ate Grandma’s pie in the middle of the night, knowing it was the last pie of hers we’d ever have.”

That I can glimpse this poignant scene through my mother’s words is priceless to me. I’m so glad she wrote it down.

To those of you who think “no one cares about my memories,” I reply that people change over time, and often come to care about family history later in life, after the struggle to build their own lives eases up. And sometimes interest in family history skips a generation. Besides, it’s not only family members who may be interested in reading about your life.

When he was 64, Phelps wrote to his wife, Sarah:

“… You, my dear companion, whose destiny has been chained to mine for the past 43 years, sharing with me the toils, troubles and disappointments which us poor mortals have to encounter through the rough journey of life, always bearing your part with noble fortitude and always submitting to what could not be helped, without a murmur when borne down by misfortune, and destitute of common comforts, you did not complain, but were always ready to assist in trying to elevate our condition.”

Wow. Makes me feel a little guilty for complaining when we lose power for a few hours. I’m so thankful someone saved that letter.

There’s no time like now to write down your story or the memories of someone you love. Like a message in a bottle, you just never know who will be delighted, some day, to discover it.

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