Outline

Synopsis: Chapter Descriptions

Just Above Bone

by Jerrie Hurd

Introduction

My family owned a sheep ranch located several miles in the foothills above the little town of Bone, Idaho. We described ourselves as living “just above Bone.” We meant that literally. We were a hardworking people not given to fancy figures of speech. I left home when I was nineteen years old, but I’m surprised to discover that I still live “just above bone” because I took the family stories with me. To understand the power of those same-old, same-old stories, I set off on a journey to gather and understand my storied legacy and how it shaped who I am. Do we expect our lives to turn out like the stories we’ve heard? And if that doesn’t happen . . .?

A Train-Stopping Love Story

I examine the story of my great-grandmother who literally stopped trains for love. It’s a good story, but I question why it became the central story in my family’s storied legacy—the one we tell most often to explain who we are.

Touchstone Stories

Still wrestling with the idea of a central story, like my family’s train-stopping one, I check with various friends asking if their families also have central/touchstone stories. Most do. I include a couple of examples. I also include the story of a friend who lost both parents under mysterious circumstances. Because of the controversy surrounding those deaths, her family does not have a single agreed-upon story. Evidently it isn’t enough to have a central story. Families must also decide how to tell their defining story. In time, that often solidifies into one right way to tell “our story”—another problem.

Never Doubt A Climbing Snake

I travel to a remote corner of Arizona where an elderly ranch-owning aunt drives her pickup truck 80 miles an hour over questionable backroads while regaling me with one family story after another. My aunt, who doesn’t travel in anyone’s slow lane, usually has no patience for nonsense. She surprises me with a new family love story—one I’d never heard—but returns again and again to the tale of a climbing snake. I finally get it. Nonsense stories are never about climbing snakes. They are about something deeper. My aunt saves me from my too-serious self and sets me up to appreciate a much broader range of family stories—a fabric, not a timeline.

Deep in Sheep

I introduce “Auntie Mame in Boots” the grandmother who successfully ran the family sheep ranch while trying to live as madcap as Auntie Mame, the main character in her favorite movie. Her daughters, embarrassed by their mother’s wild antics, want her remembered as “just a regular mom.” Her granddaughters, including me, love her because she gave us permission to break all the rules. Her daughters don’t want to talk about the gin bottles hidden here, there and everywhere. The granddaughters admit the problem but love the attitude. Stories depend on who’s telling them. That raises another question: Am I looking for the truth or something else?

No Matter Where You Roam

I go home. My mother hates my version of our history. She thinks I’m making heroes of the three generations of women who ran our family ranch. She views the women—herself included—as trapped. “What were they going to do? They were all widowed so young,” she tells me. By the numbers, she’s right. My mother, my grandmother, and my great grandmother were widowed at a young age—my mother was the youngest. She and I can agree on that much, but almost nothing else. Am I obliged I tell the stories her way? Or am I free to take from our shared history what I need/want? Is there an honesty issue involved in this? Or are the stories wiser than both of us?

The Family Photo Album

In my preteens, an elderly aunt repeatedly forced me to look through her photo albums while she named all the people in the pictures. There was one exception, a well-dressed gentleman she called “the meanest man in America.” She wouldn’t tell me his name and added that I was too young to understand why. She also claimed that the family was related to pirates. She had no pictures of pirates, so she was forced to tell me pirate stories instead. I remembered the pirate stories long after I’d forgotten the names. And I made it a point to find out the truth behind “the meanest man in America.” Here’s the question: Do we save the wrong things? We remember stories. We forget names, unless they are part of a story, not just a photo.

The One That Got Away

Every book about family stories in my local library is based on guilt. I know. I checked. According to these books, you need to gather your family stories before your elders die or you’ll be sorry. As the granddaughter of my mother’s mother (Auntie Mame in Boots), I’m not much motivated by guilt. Uncovering tales of climbing snakes and lots of family love stories is way more fun than dutifully recording “the things I ought to remember.” Then a friend tells me about her mother, who was likely a spy in South America just before World War II, but the daughter can’t be sure because she never asked, and her mother remained tightlipped to the end. Now she is haunted by what she wishes she knew. I share some of the tantalizing parts of this forgotten story because regret can be real.

My Father’s War

A nephew visits. He asks about my father (his grandfather). He’s been told that he looks and acts like his grandfather, but he never knew him because my father died before my nephew was born. I find some old photos, and we agree that my nephew looks like my father before he went to war. Before he went to war is the key phrase. My father was a paratrooper in World War II and saw lots of action in Europe, including the Battle of the Bulge. Like many World War II veterans, he rarely talked about what happened over there. I have the love letters he wrote my mother. Reading those letters, I sense a change coming over him. In one letter, he admits: “Darling, I’m not the same man I was.” The sad part of my mother’s story is that she married a different man than the one she fell in love with. She often said that my father never got over the war. Sometimes she said that to excuse him. Other times she said that to explain her own disappointment. When we tell war stories, do we acknowledge how battle-scared soldiers come home to haunt their families?

Lost Luggage: The Immigrant Story

My father was three years old when he arrived in America with his parents. They escaped Germany in the 1930s, not because they were Jewish, but because my German grandfather had been politically active and needed to leave. My grandfather’s friends knew how to get him out of the country, but getting his whole family out was more difficult. Then someone told him that the Mormons were helping families go to America, so he joined the Mormon Church. My grandmother, also described as a peace activist, planned to stay with friends in New York City. However, when she arrived in America, US immigration officials told her that, since she and her family were being sponsored by Mormon missionaries from Idaho, they had to live in Idaho for the first five years. She refused and sat in a jail for three days. But she couldn’t go back. Reluctantly she and my grandfather and their family moved to Idaho, a semi-arid plateau so different from Germany that she never acclimated and slipped into early Alzheimer’s. Most immigration stories are like that. Everything gets lost along the way. A generation later, immigrant families begin their story with how they came to America as if there was no time before that event. This is also true of my mother’s Danish immigrants, who immigrated a couple of generations earlier.

My Religious Heritage

On my mother’s side, I am a direct descendant of one of the survivors of the Martin Handcart Company. When it comes to the Mormon settlement of the Salt Lake Valley, stories of the Martin Handcart Company are among the most hallowed. I visit the place in Wyoming where the survivors took shelter. I listen to the guides tell their version of this story. I have more than one religious heritage, so, later, I also visit a church in Virginia built in the 1600s by some of my family’s Huguenot ancestors and discover that the story shared by the guides at that site is also sanitized —no mention of slaves. By now I’ve come to believe that I need story (my history) the way I need love and connection. Sanitized stories don’t meet that need.

The Fairy Folk

Like religious stories, tales of fairy folk are mixed with my family’s history. I come from generations of no-nonsense, hard-working people who don’t suffer fools but nevertheless leave drops of sugar-water in fancy teacups for the fairy folk. Then I uncover a mystery. A generation after leaving Germany and Denmark, land of storks and forest elves, my family switches to folk tales featuring Old Man Coyote and Raven—stories more akin to those of local indigenous cultures. I wonder why. I don’t think my family is consciously appropriating Native American culture, so why the change? The answer comes from a surprising source.

Old Man Coyote and Deep Story Traditions

By now, I’ve learned a deep respect for the power of story. Storytelling is a tradition older than recorded history. I pause to discuss story itself. And because there is no way to talk about story without telling a story, I share my own Old Man Coyote tale.

Just Above Bone

Three generations of women have run my family’s ranch. We describe that ranch and ourselves as living “just above Bone,” meaning a few miles higher into the foothills above Bone, Idaho. Because of that ranch, my mother’s family tells a great many stories anchored in a sense of place. In an increasingly mobile world, I find that reassuring. I also know that a similar sense of place cannot continue. What does that mean for my children and their children?

The Barefoot Guide to Summer and Every Little Thing That Matters

I visit an aunt in Virginia, who works at the DAR Library. It’s her job to check the genealogies of applicants seeking membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution. She tells me that I’d be surprised how often people falsify their genealogies, hoping to be accepted into that venerable organization. I also discover that my aunt has collected a stack of life stories written by various family members. It is a Mormon tradition to write a life story. Many of these are written late in life and average less than five pages. So, what do people write about themselves when they are writing less than a page a decade? Surprisingly, they write about kindness. They will include the basic facts of their lives, but then write at length about someone—sometimes a stranger—who helped them or was kind to them. Evidently, at the end of life, being a member of DAR matters less than small kindnesses.

The Love Letters in My Garage

I am the keeper of my sister’s love letters. The letters are from an old boyfriend, not her husband. They are in my garage because she never, never wanted her husband to “get his hands on them.”

When she dies, I read them. First, I am surprised by how much I didn’t know about my sister. Next, I am haunted by the idea that she couldn’t escape an abusive marriage for all the usual reasons but also because of our family stories. How do you fail at love in a family that tells love stories?

Warning: “Happily Ever After” Is a Long, Long Time

On her eightieth birthday, the great-grandmother who stopped the trains and built our family ranch is finally mentioned in the local newspaper. It is the only mention of her, except for her obituary, that I’ve found. The article highlights the arrival of numerous family members and my great-grandmother’s merriment while opening her birthday gifts. She’s described in that newspaper article as a beloved, cheerfully sweet little old lady. If she didn’t gag when she read that, I did. Joseph Campbell, the great guru of mythology, thought that women kept the home fires burning so that men would have a reason to return from their great adventures of self-discovery. He didn’t think women had important stories of their own. Obviously, he never hung-out in my family’s kitchen. My family tells female-centered stories. Does that make us unique? I doubt it. However, I am troubled by a lingering question: Is it possible that we don’t know how to tell women’s stories? I illustrate this problem with an “ever after” fairy tale and a list of the important but often ignored details from my great-grandmother’s life. Those details are ignored in our storytelling, I decide, because we don’t know how to include them in the usual story structure.

Travel Alert: Pirates in Your Past

I return to the old country—a tiny island off the coast of Denmark. My mother’s family immigrated from this place so long ago, I’m not sure what I will learn from the trip. I am surprised. I discover far more than I expected, including the fact that the island was once a haven for Viking pirates. My elderly aunt with the old photo albums was right. We are related to pirates! What’s more, I realize that my family still honors traditions that started here even though we no longer know the origin. Our storied past shapes us even after we’ve forgotten most of it. That’s how powerful stories are, especially family stories.

Secrets of a Skunk Chaser

I take a pottery class from a famous Pueblo potter in New Mexico. I’ve never tried pottery before. I’m taking the class because I’ve been told that stories are part of making traditional clay storyteller dolls. I want to know the storytelling part. I’m not disappointed. Our teacher insists on telling stories as we work, but not “bragging stories” about where we’re from or what we’ve done. In fact, she insists that we use only our first names until the class is over. That way, we can concentrate on the clay. Halfway through the week, she gives us teasing names—an old Native American tradition. I am Skunk Chaser. “Now, Skunk Chaser, tell us who you are?” She means that in a storytelling/mythic sense, not my usual bio. I struggle at first. How do I tell my story as myth? Turns out, this is a surprisingly satisfying exercise.

The Three Musketeers

When Covid-19 hits, my two sisters and I agree that we will text each other every evening just to make sure that everyone is ok. We call ourselves The Three Musketeers because we’ve always watched out for each other like that—always had each other’s backs. Understandably, when my son dies of Covid-19 weeks before the vaccine becomes available, I find myself relying on my sisters as I’ve never done before. As I’m preparing his memorial, I realize my son has lived in fourteen different places from Seattle to Berlin. He never had any real connection to the family ranch or the little town of Bone, Idaho. I doubt he ever thought of himself as being “just above Bone,” so what, I wonder, is the point of my gathering all this family history stuff? Then I remember that my great-grandmother, the one who stopped trains for love, buried her husband and a grandchild in the same week during the Spanish flu epidemic. Because I gathered the stories, I know she survived the Spanish flu epidemic and went on to do large and important things, including holding her remaining family together. Because of that story, I also felt that she had my back. I have another son and granddaughters. When I think about it, I doubt any of them think of themselves as being from a place “just above Bone,” but someday, maybe, because of the stories I’ve collected they will know that they come from good and strong people and hopefully that will comfort to them in times of need. And that, I decide, is why stories—our stories—matter.