Stories I Want
My Grandchildren to Know
I was hungry little girl. My mother and grandmother fed me love, and I cleaned my plate. I gobbled up their stories, too, and begged for more
Tell me about the time that …
I asked and asked and asked, even after I'd earned the stories by heart.
When it was time to go out on my own, their stories encumbered me. Breaking away took distance, and I cringed lest their stories veer, inevitable, unto how much they needed me — when all I needed was to get away.
When they were gone and I was free of their needs, they were beyond my neediness. That’s when I again wanted to know who these women were. Not just what their lives were like, but how they felt. How each step, slap or success shaped their heart. How blows and bliss formed their bodies.
Who did you love, grandmother? Did you love him for the curl of his hair, the breadth of his shoulders, the kindness of his words?
What was the source of your strength? Who did you pray to, Mother? When did that god die? Did you see his resurrection?
Those are stories I will never know.
These are my stories.
Each is uniquely different from your — yet just the same. I hope these stories and their themes will evoke your own stories so that your grandchildren will hear them.
Last History Lesson
Miss Cora Smith taught the children of her village between the rivers, Batchtown, Illinois, for 30 years. Among the dozen subjects in her school day was history. It wasn’t her best subject at Illinois Normal School, where she prepared for her career, and what she taught has been long forgotten, gone to dust with all those once-upon-a-time children.
Penmanship she mastered, arduously. Copybooks and a lifetime of letters preserve a flowing cursive script won by drill and practice.
The handwritten letter did the work of smart phones in Cora’s day. Telephoning caught on after Alexander Graham Bell made the first call four years before Cora was born, in 1877?. After World War II, phones become commonplace. When Cora died in 1970, nearly every home and business had a telephone, anchored firmly in it place, you in turn tethered to it by coiled black cord.
Cora gripped a pen or pencil to reach out to the world. More often a pencil, for before ballpoints, felt tips and sharpies flooded the marketplace, pens had status. Made by hand or purchased once or twice in a lifetime, they demanded attentive use and an ink supply at hand. Mostly she wrote on lined copy paper, a surface not made to last, though special occasion greeting cards were popular, and fine vellum paper might be used for major life events: weddings, births and funerals.
News traveled fast in Cora’s lifetime, 1881 to 1970.
Cora promptly posted her letters for daily, even twice daily, delivery, taken for granted by much of America until 1950. Batchtown was small enough that Cora and her neighbors received mail by box number and walked to the post office to pick up their mail.
What she wrote, most of that’s gone: opened, devoured, saved or discarded, lost. If the right words mattered, she wrote a draft. We see Cora in those rough copies and in her private notes, where a suppressed cry sometimes escapes decorum.
What Cora received was still-warm living history, recorded as it happened by family, friends and neighbors. It’s the stuff of life and death, combining cakes and clothes in the same letter as war and loss. About joy these rural Illinoisans and their far-flung kin were discrete. Of tragedy, in its most ordinary guise, they spilled buckets.
Read them as Miss Cora’s Last History Lesson.