DEEP DIRT: Adventures in Digging Up Family Stories–Sample Pages

Chapter 1

The Story Is Me

“Pay attention to the fairy godmother” is my motto. It’s a twist on Cinderella. When my grandmother got to the end of that classic tale, she always paused and added, “We like the prince. There’s nothing nicer than a fine, handsome prince, but you need to pay attention to the fairy godmother. She’s the one who got things done.”

I amused myself thinking she meant women, like herself, older and largely unappreciated. I thought, good for her, we all need to get a dig in whenever we can. I’ve since changed my mind. I think, “pay attention to the fairy godmother” means notice how your family tells their stories. Turn those tales inside out, the way grandma did, and really look at what they’re saying, because, more than likely, your life has been shaped by the stories you heard.

Who knew? I didn’t.  I thought I was living my life, my way. I’d left home when I was nineteen, and I’ve never lived closer than a thousand miles since. I was my own woman, making my own decisions, too busy—far too busy—to wonder why I thought a thousand miles insulated me from stories I’d heard a thousand times. Truth is, most of us shrug off the family stories, not only because they’re just stories, but because they’re same old stories. We think we know them until we ask: Why that story? Why that story told that way?

Just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about genealogy. Nobody remembers names and dates without writing them down. I mean the stories we can’t forget, like the one my family tells more often than any other—the story of my great grandmother Sophia and the railroad she took hostage. (BTW she’s not the grandmother who gave me the “pay attention to the fairy godmother” advice. I’ll get to her later.) Around our kitchen table, Sophia’s story is told heroic style, meaning when we tell her story we’re not talking about how she stopped one or two trains. Our grandmother brought the entire railroad company to a standstill.

No surprise, there are several versions of the story, and every reason to believe it’s gotten better over time. Stories always do. That said, it seems to be based on a real incident.



In 1879, when Sophia was fourteen years old, she ran away from home because of an abusive stepfather and got a job working for the railroad. She weighed less than a hundred pounds, a detail we add because, in this case, size matters. Working for the railroad was no easy town job.

She began as a cook’s helper and later became a cook—part of a crew of men and women who were laying railroad tracks across some of the last outposts of the American frontier. The job consisted of fixing dinner at night and breakfast the next morning in one place. Then, while the men were laying track, the women loaded their tent kitchen onto mules and moved four or five miles down the roadbed—the distance the men were expected to get that day. Then they unloaded their mules, set up camp, and had dinner ready by the time the men caught up with them. This was hard, backbreaking work, done six and a half days a week.

And it was dangerous.

The cooks were often out ahead of the men at a time when marauding Indians were marauding mainly because they were hungry. Besides that, the job had its own hazards. Sophia knew a girl, her age, who was crippled when one of the mules fell on her, and another who was blinded when one of the stoves exploded. Those tragedies were felt keenly, because the women formed extraordinarily close bonds in as much as they were constantly “watching out for each other”—a polite euphemism for the fact that one occupational danger was from the men on those same crews “who might not be gentlemen” or “might forget themselves” while working in remote places. Add to that the usual hazards—sudden storms, bad water, medical emergencies. The list goes on and on . . ..

However, none matched the raw, unregulated competition between rival railroads that sometimes led to two companies laying track through the same narrow canyon. The company that finished first got paid. The other got nothing. In that race, both company’s crews were often guarded by armed men, who hardly needed an excuse to start shooting. What’s more, since everyone knew that crews worked best on full stomachs, kidnapping the competition’s cooks was considered fair game.



So far, nothing new, everybody knows, in times past life was physically hard. Does that matter? Recent research at the University of Graz has identified an “ancestor effect.” Individuals who think about their ancestors just prior to a job interview or college exam boost their chances of success. Dr. Peter Fischer hypothesizes that “thinking about one’s origins . . . provides people with a positive psychological resource.” In other words, reminding the brain of the difficulties your ancestors overcame, you are able to approach a task with a stronger sense of identity and self-esteem—an edge that can make a measurable difference, which is probably why families continue to tell stories that emphasize how hard it used to be, how lucky we are now, blah, blah, blah, etc, etc, etc.



In Sophia’s story, she not only overcame the day-to-day difficulties, she stood up for herself. She was still young—nineteen years old—when she fell in love. He was the crew foreman, and, when he proposed marriage, she accepted with one condition. Before they set a wedding date, she had to collect her back pay.

The railroad company was having financial difficulties. As a result, everyone working for that particular company was owed considerable back pay. She was owed more than a year’s worth. That became the young couple’s first disagreement. George, her fiancée, doubted that Sophia would ever collect all that was due her. Most of the so-called “skilled men,” like him, would eventually settle for less than what they were owed. As a lowly cook, she’d be lucky to get anything. He wanted her to forget the money and come away with him. Together they would make do on hard work.

Sophia had great respect for hard work—she’d certainly done her share—but she’d been poor all her life. She was not going to start her married life with just the clothes on her back. On that point, she was adamant. She would marry George when she got her back pay and not one day sooner.

Word of the young couple’s impasse spread up and down the railroad lines. In the five years that she’d worked with various crews, a great many railroad workers had met and come to like Sophia. More to the point, they knew she had a mind of her own. Most were not betting on George being able to change her mind. Soon the story of the young lovers and their stand-off changed to sympathy for George’s plight. Then sympathy changed to action.

The strike started when the men in the camp, where Sophia was working, quit early one day for her sake. Once started, the strike spread quickly. Next day, it had jumped to two more camps. Three days later, it involved several more camps. Men, who were laying track in three directions, simply put down their tools and refused to go on—not because they hoped to get their own pay—but because they wanted to see Sophia married in style.

The railroad bosses fired her. Without an easy alternative, they must have thought that she’d give up, get married, and move on. If so, they were wrong. Sophia stood her ground, the men refused to return to work, and the strike continued to spread. Probably because the railroad bosses got stubborn, the strike went on much longer than anyone might have imagined in a situation where no one got paid unless they laid track fast and finished first. However, in the end, it was the bosses who gave in. They paid Sophia, and it is said that her wedding included an orchestra that played all night and guests who danced even longer “when they had to whistle their own tune to keep celebrating.”

Sophia and George’s back wages, combined with her savings, were enough to buy approximately two hundred acres in southeastern Idaho. Those acres were the beginning of a sheep and cattle ranch that would include tens of thousands of acres by the time I knew her—when she was in her nineties and I was nine-years old.

My grandma Melba ran the ranch after her. Now my mother is responsible for the largest remaining piece, which is still several thousand acres. Meanwhile, I live in a Colorado college town where being stuck in traffic might tempt me to forget my heritage if it weren’t for that story. It hangs over my life, telling me I can do anything on a good day; chiding me for not conquering the world on a bad one. We all live with those ups and downs.

Then one weekend I was teaching a creative writing seminar in a nearby resort. One of my students was working on an autobiographical novel about three generations of women—mothers and daughters—who seemed to do nothing but increase each other’s misery. It was a well written, if melancholy, book, but because I suspected that subsequent readers might also think it was too much of a downer, I asked the question I often ask: “Why do you want to write this story?”

It’s a deceptively simple question that I usually have to ask several times before getting to the core. Stories don’t happen. We choose them, and why we choose a certain story can make all the difference in how we tell it. This is the exceptional student. She knows why.

“I wanted to write this book when I realized all the women in my family have married men we don’t love,” she told me. “I mean, God forbid that one of us should actually break the cycle.”

I was startled, not because she was so clear-eyed about her central narrative, not because of the expressed bitterness (that was in her book), and certainly not because I didn’t believe her. Families run these kinds of patterns all the time. I was startled because I’d recognized some similarities between the generations of her family and my own. Actually, I thought the similarities were nearly universal. Except for the particulars, she could have been writing about almost any set of mothers and daughters, mine included, with one exception. In my family, we tell love stories.

The big one, of course, is the one about Sophia stopping the trains for love’s sake, or money’s sake. I’m not sure we make a strong distinction. However, we also tell the story of a young girl being rescued by a man on a white horse. That story has to do with Melba, the grandmother I call “Auntie Mame in Boots,” because Auntie Mame was her favorite movie, and she spend most of her life trying to be more madcap than the main character. It’s an oldie—1958, starring Rosalind Russell. Move the scene from a New York apartment to a sheep ranch in Idaho and you get the picture. Or, if you haven’t seen the movie—think Madonna or Lady Gaga.

Melba met Sophia’s youngest son, Irvin, at a summer dance. She was sixteen, an orphan, living with her older sister who resented the extra mouth to feed—never a good situation. Irvin was handsome, funny, well to do, and rode a white horse. By that time, Sophia and her family had prospered. They were known as “The White Horse Nielsens” because even their wagon horses were light-colored grays, notably well bred. All that next fall and winter, Melba watched for Irvin and went out to greet him whenever he rode past on his way to pick up a wagon load of beet pulp, a by-product of processing sugar beets that is fed to livestock in winter. Unfortunately it is a notoriously fragrant by-product. Melba teased him about courting her while “smelling worse than vinegar.” In turn, he accused her of liking his horse better than him.

He was not the only one to notice Melba had an eye for a good horse. The neighbors had begun to gossip. Within the family, however, there has never been a question. Any woman who couldn’t love both wouldn’t be considered worthy of the family name. It sounds juvenile when you put it on paper, but we usually tell this story with an attitude of mockery, as if pitying those poor neighbors who didn’t seem to understand that any woman in her right mind would always choose both.

Supposedly my father proposed to my mother in the fourth grade. We have a picture in the family photo album of the two of them and their fourth grade class. Nothing out of the ordinary, it’s a school picture—three rows of 1930s schoolchildren lined up on the steps of their schoolhouse. Everyone is looking at the camera except my dad. He has taken a step back and cast a sideways glance at my mother, who’s standing next to him. It’s such a fun, sweet picture; you want to believe the story of their fourth-grade love. On second thought, the picture is too perfect. You have to wonder which came first, the story or the photo? With that in mind, I asked my aunts, one by one, if my mother or my father had ever been interested in anyone else. They claim no one. So, what can I say? The story is true, or the story has been repeated so many times it has replaced memory.



Stories are how we make sense of things; everything else is just data. The process of making sense leaves no possibility of neutral narrative. Every story exists to make a point, not prove a fact. Take the old Aesop fable of the ants and the grasshopper. The ants work all summer putting food away for the coming winter. The grasshopper fiddles. When the snows come, the hungry grasshopper knocks on the ants’ door looking for food. The usual moral of this story is: Don’t fiddle the summer away.

But . . .

Wait a minute . . .

Who kept the ants from dying of boredom, all winter long, if not that fiddling grasshopper?

Here’s the problem: If your family gave you an ant’s view of the world, likely you will have to make a big shift in your thinking to appreciate silly, slothful grasshoppers. On the other hand, if you come from a grasshopper family, likely you’ve learned to look down on steadier, plodding lifestyles—just not cool.

My student wasn’t buying it. She insisted that she was telling her story “the way it was.” Any modification would “be a lie.” As our conversation continued, I realized she and her family took pride in a belief that they lived on the bedrock of reality. No fairytales for them. By implication, she was suggesting my history was mostly fairytale.



A hundred and fifty years ago, there was a legendary “tie yourself down” stretch of railroad along Beaver Canyon, one of the places Sophia worked. The road was so rough a crew was stationed there with the sole purpose of cleaning up the boxcars that weren’t tied down and therefore tipped over and smashed on the rocks below. “Tie yourself down,” meaning prepare for a rough ride, is a phrase I whispered to give myself courage, long before I knew the term originated with my family’s railroad background. Most of us have no idea how deep the stories go. Most of the time we never question our family’s way of describing the world. “Tie yourself down,” we say and go on like that’s the only way.

Here’s the sad part of my parent’s story. My father served in World War II. Besides having his feet frozen in the Battle of the Bulge, he was one of the first paratroopers to jump into Germany across the Rhine River. I’m told that the survivors of that jump, few in number, talked about whether any of them would get out alive. In a sense, none did. It is the unanimous opinion of the family that my father “never got over the war.” To make a long story short, my mother married a young man who was different from the one she fell in love with when they were both in the fourth grade. Sophia’s love story didn’t end like a fairytale either. She was a widow for twice as long as she was married. In both cases, however, those are not the stories we choose to tell most often.



Do all families have a central narrative—a story they tell so often it seems like a theme? Buzzy Jackson, author of Shaking The Family Tree, seems to think so. Hers is the grandfather who “took us out of the south and brought us into the modern world.” In a few stolen moments before her son’s school let out, she explained that besides thinking “Jackson” was such a common name, she wondered if she could actually trace her father’s family; she was also curious about why her grandfather made that move from Alabama to Michigan. She also noted that she has a Russian-Jewish side of her family with a different story centered on how and why they came to America—immigration being a more common central theme, she suggested.

Pat Roberts, a professional genealogist, thinks stories that explain how the family came to be in Michigan or on a ranch in Idaho are often good places to start. At the same time, she shakes her head as she explains that the average person stays interested in genealogy less than two years—about the time it takes to disprove the stories. “They quit because they love their stories,” she added and then went on to tell me about the person who’d been told his whole life that he was related to Roy Rogers, a 1950’s movie star. Confronted with contrary evidence, he went home to break the news to his mother, who refused to believe. “Well, you just need to look harder,” she said.

Other genealogists seem to regard all family stories with skepticism. “They’re wrong,” another one told me. “First rule of good genealogy is to disprove the family stories.” Later, he also admitted that family stories were often the reason people got interested in researching their heritage, and that he was mostly referring to the classically untrue stories, like thinking you are related to an Indian princess. “American Indians didn’t have princesses,” he explained, in case I hadn’t gotten it. However, he liked secret stories. “Pay attention to the whispered stories,” he added. “Those can be truer than the rest.”

In fact, stories don’t have to be true to be effective. It is well known that if one member of a family joins a religious cult or radical political organization, other members of the family are several times more likely to also join. Knowing families can shape us in extreme cases, why wouldn’t we assume they shape us in subtle ways?

In my family we have tales we call, “Oh Dear Me’s.” As a child, I was allowed to tell an “Oh Dear Me” once, as a way to rant against the unfairness of the world, but I was never encouraged to repeat one. The family attitude was that nothing would be accomplished by such a re-telling, except to wallow in self-pity.

I know another family that handles hard times by referring to them as memories. “We’ve just made a memory,” they’ll say in the face of some new setback. It’s their way of creating an emotional safety net. According to their scheme of things, you have no way to lose. No matter what happens, you’re always richer in memories.

Once when I had an occasion to spend several weeks in Ireland, I watched a mother and her young daughter stop frequently at the graveyard across the street from where I was staying. Found out they were visiting the grave of the child’s sister, her twin. The mother seemed to think it was important for the living child to share her memories, almost daily, with the stillborn sister. When I heard that story, I couldn’t help wondering how deeply the living child would be affected by that ritual. Would she feel the burden of living for two? Or would she come to think that she was luckier than most because she had an unseen sister to share her life? Either way, she would not escape the story of her birth. None of us do. And unless we make a conscious choice, our stories become our tape loops.

“We are the White Horse Nielsens.”

“We don’t tell Oh dear me’s.”


“Yeah, right, and how many trains have you stopped lately?” my student asked.


For me to dismiss her story as an elaborate “Oh, dear me” makes as much sense as thinking I have the family formula for stopping the world. In fact, you can argue that her narrative has the advantage. In our culture, when a woman marries the man of her dreams, she’s supposed to live happily ever after.

My parents had one perfect moment. Right after he returned from the war, my father took my mother to the local Saturday night dance. He was still in his uniform. She was flushed with the happiness of having him home. When he took her in his arms and started to dance, everyone else stepped back and let them have the floor. And then, when the dance was over, everyone applauded.

Moments like that are rare.

The women in my student’s family never have to deal with the disappointment that inevitably follows a moment like that, because they tell their stories differently. Nevertheless, even my student came around to the idea that her family had created an unusually strong bond between the generations of their mothers and daughters partly because their central narrative didn’t allow anyone else in.

I don’t know why my family made a different choice. Somewhere, somehow, we decided that to hold a family together, you need a good love story. And so, when it’s our turn, my husband and I tell the “Porsche story.”

My husband-to-be courted me in a brand-new Porsche 912. I didn’t know much about cars at the time, still don’t. My excuse is growing up on that ranch in Idaho. On a ranch, you drive the kind of vehicles that handle dirt roads and lots of dust. Old pickup trucks, mainly. Of course, I appreciated the new car shininess and the new car smell, but I had no idea that a Porsche was more than just another German-made car. In fact, I thought it was just a flattened version of a Volkswagen.

That is, until that fall when I went back to college. The first weekend he came to see me, my roommates’ mouths dropped. “He drives a Porsche?” they asked in near unison. I nodded, too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know I was supposed to be impressed.

Now, when I tell the story, I always add that whatever it was that impressed me, it wasn’t his car. Over the years, the story has deepened and distilled, as stories do, until there are times when “Honey, you don’t need a Porsche” is enough said.



The seminar ended, my student moved on, I have no idea whether or not she finished her novel, but, because of that encounter, my life took a turn. I’d come to realize that besides giving us a starting place, our families give us a starting script. We stand, fight, walk away—or tell love stories—based on some notion of what people in our families do, and few of us ever question why. Seemed like a serious gap. Open to being blindsided. That’s also when “pay attention to the fairy godmother” began to haunt me with hints of deeper meaning. Clearly I needed to check out my family stories and ask why we tell our stories our way. Much as I wanted to think I was my own woman, I suspected that was a lot less true than I wanted to believe. Time to face up. Only I lived a thousand miles from home and had no idea where to start.