Thursday, April 16, 2009

Get Your Family Stories While You Can

"When I was a kid, we didn't have TV's. We listened to the radio!"
I must have heard my mother say this over a hundred times. As a kid, it was difficult for me to imagine life without TV. I am part of the TV generation, and to think of evenings without one was unfathomable.
I also remember, as a youngster, looking at pictures of Model T's. My grandfather picked up the book and proceeded to tell me (in his wonderful Italian-American broken English that I can still hear to this day) how he witnessed a man getting run over by one of these horseless carriages. After the ordeal, the 'victim' picked himself up from the road, with little more than a few cuts and bruises.
I remember my father telling me about how poor they were during the depression in the 1930's. One of the treats he and his brother wanted badly was to have 'Wheaties' cereal - "the Breakfast of Champions." Unfortunately, their parents would not splurge on such a wasteful product so, instead, the brothers would have cookies, cake, and any other homemade treats their mother and father baked and mix it all together in a cereal bowl with milk. That was their cereal! And my dad continued eating his 'cereal' that way his entire life.
These are just a few of the many precious memories I have of my parents and grandparents. My mother, lucky for me, is still alive and of sound mind and body, and is still telling tales around the supper table. But, my father and grandparents have been gone now for many years.
I write this to try to get any reader of this blog to sit themselves down and write out the memories they have of their parents, grandparents, and even great grandparents (if they can). Also to speak with uncles & aunts, great uncles and great aunts, elderly distant cousins, etc., to get even more stories of their family history. No, not the gossipy ones that were once only spoken about in whispers, but the fun stories that can be passed on to the next generation.
I'd like to share one such story about my great great grandfather, Nelson Robertshaw, as told to Nelson's grandson Bud Monterosso. It takes place around the year 1860 in upper Canada:
Nelson gave Bud a glimpse of his early life that we in the 21st century may find very difficult to comprehend in comparison to a child’s life today. In the 19th century, children began working almost as soon as they could walk. In many cases, they were even apprenticed out - actually living with their teacher - to learn a trade. I’m pretty sure Nelson was not apprenticed out, but I do believe that he did live with his ‘teachers,’ the lumbermen, in the lumbercamps. According to Bud, Nelson began working with the local lumberers when he was only eight years old. He began his ‘career’ by using an axe to strip the smaller branches off of the trees that had been felled by the lumbermen. (Can you imagine giving an eight-year-old an axe today? Social services would be knocking on your door in a heartbeat!). He then would take those branches and drag them into a large pile on which to build a bonfire. I would imagine that in the long cold months of early autumn through early spring in northern Ontario, the bonfire was the place to be! Besides the heat from the fire, a nip of whiskey was also a good way for the lumbermen to keep the chill off in the Canadian freeze, and Nelson, at that tender age of eight, was given his first drink while working with the lumberers. They’d say to him, “Take a drink, it’ll warm you up!”
I spoke with Bud a few dozen times to get stories such as this. You see, Nelson and his wife lived with Bud's family in the 1920's and 1930's so Bud, ever the family historian without even realizing it, would ask his grandparents questions and, luckily for me and other descendants of Nelson (and his wife Linnie) remembered their answers. Bud is no longer with us, having passed away three years ago, but because of him I have been able to put flesh on the bones of my great great grandparents.
And this is exactly what I am trying to get you folks to do!
And do it now, before it's too late. If I had waited just a couple years longer, many other stories from other relatives would have been forever lost.
Please take some time and talk to the elders of the family. They enjoy speaking of the past - digging into the recesses of their minds - and to have an avid listener to boot will truly make their day!
And then write down your own memories for your descendants...something like, " When I was a kid, our TV was in black and white - we didn't have color - and we only had 5 stations..."



Mrs. G said...

Good post! My Dad had a pocket tape recorder that he'd put his reminiscences on while he was at work during his down time. He just said it as he remembered it and my sister has transcribed it exactly as he said it. To read it you can just hear his voice! It's my Mother's memories however that have never been written down. Thanks for the kick in the pants to get going while there's still time.


Historical Ken said...

Thanks - how important it is that we learn our heritage.
That is so cool what your father did! What a smart man.