I grew up on a sheep ranch located in the foothills just above the little town of Bone, Idaho. As a family, we used to describe ourselves as living “just above Bone.” We meant that literally. We were a hardworking people, not much given to fancy figures of speech. All in all, it was a good place to grow up, but I never planned to stay there. By the time I was nineteen, I was studying in Salzburg, Austria and trying to pretend that I knew more than how to stack hay and drive a farm truck with multiple gears. I’d never seen an opera or been to an art museum. The fact that I’d spent long hours of my childhood reading every book I could find wasn’t helping me sort the details of a more sophisticated lifestyle. However, I never, not once, entertained the idea of giving up and going home. Besides the books, I’d absorbed the stories my family told. I knew I came from a long line of strong women who’d succeeded in difficult circumstances. Salzburg was no biggie by comparison. All I had to do was trust myself to figure it out. And I did.
Question is: when did I stop trusting that storied legacy?
It’s currently trendy to spit in a tube and send your saliva off to a lab. Back comes an analysis of who you are according to your DNA. I tried that. I’m completely vanilla. My Scandinavian ancestry barely dips into Europe, northern Germany, and a little part of Latvia. I was disappointed. A part of me was hoping for an exotic revelation. On second thought, I never really believed that who I am was determined by my DNA. I always knew it had more to do with story.
I’m talking about the stories that my family handed down to me—the ones I thought I’d outgrown or didn’t need any more. It’s easy to discount those same-old, same-old, heard-them-a-hundred-times tales, but, maybe, we shouldn’t. Maybe, that’s not wise. “In our family, we . . .” is a sentence many of us can complete with ease, whether or not we agree with the underlying sentiment. Recognizing that, why wouldn’t we assume that our ingrained sense of family is closely tied to our own sense of self—who we think we are?
Here’s the thing: I can be proactive about a predisposition to certain diseases revealed in a DNA test. Likewise, I can re-shape my family’s stories to fit my current circumstances, allowing me to be the person I want to be, not the person my family and their stories say I am. I can do that no matter what happened in my family’s past, but only if I pause and pay attention to the grip those stories have on me. That simple truth slapped me in the face one day.
I was critiquing manuscripts at the end of a three-day writers’ conference. Mid-afternoon, I sat down with a thirty-something writer who was working on a 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 that readers, I suspected, would find a downer, so I asked the author, “Why do you want to write this story?”
That’s a deceptively simple question that I usually have to ask several times before getting to the core. This writer is the exception. Without hesitation, she answers, “I wanted to understand why all the women in my family marry men we don’t love. I mean, God forbid 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 her bitterness, and not because I didn’t believe her. Families run these kinds of patterns all the time. I was startled because I hadn’t realized the book was autobiographical. And—more to the point—I’d recognized 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 huge exception. In my family, in addition to stories of overcoming difficult circumstances, we tell great love stories.
The author shook her head and continued. She felt trapped. Her family had a pattern of failed relationships. So why had she expected her marriage to be different? “It’s like they gave me a script. I can follow the family script or struggle against it. Either way, the script owns me.”
“The script owns you?”
She shot me an incredulous glance. “Isn’t it obvious? Following the family script means an incredibly strong mother-daughter bond because the women in my family are forever commiserating with one another about our failed loves. We never let anyone else in. On the other hand, if I took a chance on real love, I’d lose the support of my family, who got me through one bad marriage already. Given my family’s background, how likely is it that I can recognize real love anyway?” She shrugged. “How do you make some kind of Disneyfied happy ending out of that?”
I wasn’t used to being challenged quite so directly. Worse, I’m feeling increasingly uncomfortable. The more she talks, the more I wonder about my family and our love stories. Is that also a family script? If so, how have those stories—that family pattern—affected my life? At the same time, I’m mentally resisting the idea. Nobody takes family stories seriously. I don’t. Or hadn’t for a long time. What’s more, I don’t want to investigate this. I have other plans, other projects. And yet, another part of me is screaming, “Pay attention!”
The importance of family stories is best explained in Aesop terms. Take the famous Aesop fable of the ants and the grasshopper. The ants work all summer putting food away while the grasshopper fiddles. When winter comes, the hungry grasshopper knocks on the ants’ door looking for dinner. The usual moral is something like “Don’t fiddle the summer away.” Ok, fine, but who keeps the ants from dying of boredom—all winter long—if not that fiddling grasshopper?
Here’s the thing: If my family gave me an ant’s point of view, likely I will have to make a big shift to appreciate silly, seemingly slothful grasshoppers. On the other hand, if I come from a grasshopper family, likely I’ve learned to look down on steadier, plodding lifestyles that are just not cool. Now, think what happens when a grasshopper marries an ant, or an ant hires a grasshopper. Story is serious stuff—like it or not.
Before our scheduled hour was up, I tried to explain to the author that my family tells love stories—something very different from the pattern in her novel. I wanted to her to understand that, at some level, families and individuals choose how to tell their stories, and that she could change her novel and her life if she wanted to—but she shook her head. Her novel was autobiographical; therefore, she felt constrained by real events. She didn’t think she could lie about who she is or about her family’s history.
Maybe it goes without saying that we cannot separate who we are from where we came from. I can act all grown-up and tell myself that I’m my own person, but, like a reflex, when I cook, I cook the way my mother cooked. When I open my mouth to talk politics, I sound like my father. When I’m shopping for clothes, pink is not a possibility: my grandmother hated pink. Those are the little things. The big thing is my family’s love stories. I’d always considered myself luckier than most because my family tells great love stories, but I realize now that there is a hazard. If I listen long enough, I could spend a lifetime expecting to be swept off my feet. What happens when our lives don’t turn out like the stories we’ve heard?
Several years ago, I took a class from the novelist Ursula K. LeGuin, who was a great believer in the power of story, but not the kind of story that dominates blockbuster movies and bestselling books. She preferred “carrier-bag stories,” her phrase. Even in pre-history, bringing down a mastodon was likely an event that demanded the telling of a story. But killing a mastodon didn’t happen every day. Gathering seeds and roots and berries and snaring small game in nets was the regular routine. For that you don’t need a spear, you need a carrier-bag, a place to put the things you’ve gathered including the medicine bundle, the talismans and the stories that transfer culture—the stories that literally tell the group how to get through hard times—this winter and next winter and the one after that. Even in the Twenty-First Century, most families tell stories that center on how they survived, started over, or managed to overcome great odds. The message is simple: our ancestors survived. We can, too, because we’re part of a long tradition of brave, resourceful people.
If you go beyond that central theme, there are other stories, told less often, but not less powerful. I began to wonder, what was in my family’s carrier-bag? Turns out, that’s not a question with a simple answer. I poked around, not really knowing what to expect. At minimum, I hoped to stop running patterns I don’t understand, like never wearing pink. Mostly, however, I wanted to understand those love stories. I’m pretty sure my family’s track record in the relationship department is no better than most. So, what do we gain by telling ourselves great love stories?
I had no idea where this project would take me. I traveled from that ranch in Idaho to an island off the coast of Denmark with various stops along the way. I talked to aunts, uncles, cousins and friends of the family, anyone who would listen and try to answer my questions. My understanding of story and the power of story grew and changed as I grew and changed. Along the way, I created a mantra for myself and my project: Why that story? Why that story told that way? Those might seem like simple questions, but they aren’t.
This book is the result of that journey and those questions. I’m sharing my carrier-bag, my collection of the strange, wonderful, inspiring, heartrending discoveries that I made with the hope that others will be inspired to gather and examine their own stories. Let me be clear, I was not doing genealogy. Yes, I gathered some documents as I went along, but I wasn’t focused on names and dates—the things that have to be written down to be remembered. I was gathering stories—the stories that I can’t forget, even when I might want to—the stories that my family uses to explain who we are in a sense that is much larger, much more significant, than simply where we were born or how we died. And, yes, I know that sometimes those stories are exaggerated and not always true. However, I was surprised to discover that most were connected to real events. In some cases, the stories include details that the teller couldn’t have known were historically significant. The teller was simply repeating things he or she had heard from a previous generation or generations, but when I took the time to check, I was impressed at how deep the collective memory goes. That said, I don’t think stories have to be historically correct to be powerful. They just need to be repeated and believed, which is why I kept coming back to my mantra: Why that story? Why that story told that way? In other words, why does my family tell a particular story with a particular slant or purpose? What, exactly, are we saying about who we think we are? Trust me, those questions will reveal layers and layers of surprises including the root reason a group of individuals continues to identify as a family. It’s because the stories establish a set of core values.
I have come to believe that knowing my family’s storied history may be as important as knowing my family’s medical history. And I’m not alone in that belief. It has been documented that people who experience a genealogical void often have serious identity problems. Hence the drive for adopted children to find their “real” parents and for African Americans, who have a slavery background, to make a genetic connection to a particular part of the African continent.
I’m lucky. No genealogical void. I have a rich and colorful background—plenty of stories, more than enough surprises, and lots of dirt. Doesn’t every family have at least one pirate and/or Mormon polygamist in their past? The trick is deciding the takeaway. Dirt is where things get muddy. It’s also where things grow. I uncovered stories I’d never heard before and stories I’d heard too many times in too many conflicting versions. In every case, I never assumed the first version was the right one. I always expected that if I turned the dirt one more time, I’d find a different perspective, something wiser or wittier. In that, the old stories never failed me even when some family members did.
“What do you want?
“Who asked you to look into this?”
I asked me. And I’m glad I did. It sounds too simple to be true, but when you change the way you tell your story, you change everything.
A Train-Stopping Love Story
My family tells one story more often than any other—the story of my great-grandmother Sophia and the railroad she took hostage. Around our kitchen table, Sophia’s story is told heroic-style, meaning we don’t just tell the story, we brag. My great-grandmother didn’t stop one or two trains. She brought an entire railroad to a standstill. No surprise, there are several versions of the story, and every reason to believe it’s exaggerated. Stories get better over time. That said, this one seems to be based on a real incident. And, more important, it’s a good story.
In 1879, when Sophia was fourteen years old, she ran away from home, from her abusive stepfather, and got a job working for the railroad. She weighed less than a hundred pounds, a detail my family adds 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 women who fed the men 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 advance that day. Then the women 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 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 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, constantly “watching out for each other”—a polite euphemism for the fact that one occupational risk was from the track-laying men, who might not be a “gentleman” or who might ‘forget himself” 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 companies’ crews were typically 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.
Those railroad-building details are interesting, but I’m not under the impression that this part of my family’s history is extraordinary. In times past, life was physically hard, and lots of people had to overcome all kinds of gritty difficulties. Does that matter? Recent research at the University of Graz, in Austria, 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, when I remind myself of the difficulties my ancestors overcame, I approach my own challenges with a greater sense of identity and self-confidence: If my great-grandmother Sophia brought an entire railroad to at standstill, I can do this. I’m made of the same stuff. Evidently, that attitude can make a measurable difference, which is probably why most families continue to tell stories that emphasize how hard it used to be and/or what amazing, resourceful people they came from. My family is no different.
In Sophia’s case, 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, so all its workers were owed considerable back pay. Sophia was owed more than a year’s worth—which became the young couple’s first disagreement. George, her fiancée, doubted that she 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, Sophia would be lucky to get anything. George wanted her to forget the money and come away with him. They would make do, together, 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 their impasse spread up and down the railroad lines. In the five years that Sophia had worked with various crews, a great many railroad workers had met and come to like her. More to the point, they knew she was strong-willed. Most were not betting on George being able to change her mind. The story of the young lovers and their standoff changed to sympathy. And sympathy changed to action. 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 other 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 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. In fact, 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, it was the bosses who gave in. They paid Sophia and her husband-to-be what they were owed. It is said that, at the wedding, the band played all night and the guests 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 one hundred and sixty acres in southeastern Idaho. Those acres were the beginning of a sheep-and-cattle ranch that would include thousands of acres by the time I knew my great-grandmother—when she was in her nineties, and I was nine years old.
My grandma Melba ran the ranch after Sophia. Then my mother assumed responsible for the largest remaining piece, which is still a couple thousand acres. Meanwhile, I live in a Colorado college town, a thousand miles away, and still that story hangs over my life, telling me on a good day that I can do anything, and chiding me on a bad day for not conquering the world. Until I started thinking seriously about family stories, I didn’t appreciate how often I thought about that story. I had assumed it existed mostly as deep background. I left home when I was nineteen. I thought I was my own woman, making my own decisions, too busy—far too busy—to wonder why a thousand miles didn’t insulate me from stories I’d heard a thousand times. I suspect most people shrug off the family stories, not only because they’re just stories, but because they’re the same old stories. We think we know them, until we stop and really pay attention. In my case, I needed to take a deeper look at my family’s love stories. Sophia stopping the trains is only one.
We also tell the story of a girl rescued by a young man riding a white horse. I’m not kidding. The story is exactly that clichéd. That girl was Melba, my grandmother, the second woman to run the family ranch. I affectionately call her “Auntie Mame in Boots” because Auntie Mame was her favorite movie, and because she spent most of her life trying to be more madcap than the movie’s 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 Dolly Parton.
Melba met Sophia’s youngest son, Irvin, at a summer dance. She was sixteen, living with an older, married sister who had children of her own and resented the extra mouth to feed. Melba remembers hard work and never having anything nice (meaning clothes) to call her own. Irvin, on the other hand, was handsome, funny, and he rode a white horse. Literally.
By that time, Sophia and her family had prospered and 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 her house on his way to pick up a wagonload of beet pulp, a by-product of processing sugar beets 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 more than she liked him.
Irvin was not the only one to notice that Melba had an eye for a good horse as well as a good man. The neighbors had begun to gossip. We usually tell this story with an attitude of mockery, as if pitying those poor neighbors for not seeming to understand that any woman in her right mind would always choose both—the fine gentleman and the good horse.
Continuing our love-story tradition, my father supposedly proposed to my mother in the fourth grade. In the family photo album is a picture 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 is glancing sideways 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. Then studying the photo closer, I couldn’t help wondering which came first, the story or the picture? 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 not. So, what can I say? Either the story is true, or the story has been repeated so many times it has replaced memory.
My sister, Sharen, an engineer with several patents to her name, has never been impressed with the family love stories. When I explain my new interest in those old stories, she rolls her eyes. “You mean the family fairytales?”
I draw a deep breath. Are they mostly make-believe?
All stories are a mix of lies and truth. That doesn’t change the power—the hold—they have on us.
I have an example. A hundred and fifty years ago, a legendary “tie yourself down” stretch of railroad ran along Beaver Canyon, one of the places where Sophia worked. The road was so rough a crew was stationed there with the sole purpose of cleaning up after the cars that lost their load on the rocks below because they weren’t tied down. “Tie yourself down”—meaning prepare for a rough ride—is a phrase I whisper to give myself courage. I whispered it long before I learned that the term originated with my family’s railroad background. Most of us have no idea how deep the stories go. 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 parents’ 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 boy she fell in love with in the fourth grade. Sophia’s love story didn’t end like a fairy tale, either. She was a widow longer than she was married. In both cases, however, these are not the stories we choose to tell most often.
Ironically, my grandma Melba, the one who married the fine young man riding the white horse, was skeptical of fairy tales. She frequently read to me when I was a child. I remember that whenever she got to the end of Cinderella, 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.”
At the time, I thought she was being silly. I knew that was not how the story was usually told. When I was a teenager, recalling her version of that story, I amused myself thinking she was talking about women, like herself, older and largely unappreciated. I liked the twist. I thought Good for her. We all need to get a dig in occasionally. Now, as I reconsider my family’s stories, I think she was wise—wiser than I knew. “Pay attention to the fairy godmother” means notice how the story is being told because it shapes how we see the world.
Here’s another example. My family has tales we call “Oh Dear Me’s.” As a child, I was allowed to tell an “Oh Dear Me” once, 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 retelling, except to wallow in self-pity.
I know a 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. That’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 rich in memories.
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. I found out that 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. I couldn’t help wondering how deeply that ritual would affect the living child. 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 with? Either way, she would not escape the story of her birth. None of us do. And unless we make a conscious choice, our stories can get stuck in our head.
“We are the White Horse Nielsens.”
“We don’t tell “Oh Dear Me’s.”
“WE STOP TRAINS.”
“Yeah, right, and how many trains have we stopped lately?” my sister, Sharen, the no-nonsense engineer, asks.
In our Cinderella-imbued 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 my father returned from the war, he, still in his uniform, took my mother to the local Saturday night dance. 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. And they don’t prepare us to deal with the disappointment that inevitably follows.
And yet, we keep telling stories, repeating them in countless variations because we love stories. I can’t imagine who I’d be without my stories. Who among us doesn’t stand, fight, walk away—or tell love stories—based on some notion of what the people in her family do? For reasons I have yet to understand, my ancestors decided that, to hold a family together, you need a good love story. And so, when it’s my turn, I tell the Porsche story.
My husband-to-be courted me in a brand-new Porsche. I didn’t know much about cars at the time, still don’t. I grew up on that ranch in Idaho, and 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 I went back to college the fall after meeting him. The first weekend he came to see me, my roommates’ mouths dropped. “He drives a Porsche?” they asked in near unison. I nodded, embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know I was supposed to be impressed.
Now, whenever I tell the Porsche story, I always add that whatever impressed me about my husband-to-be, it obviously wasn’t his car. He’s never needed a fancy car or anything else to catch my attention. Even better, our story has deepened and distilled, as stories do, until there are times when I don’t have to tell the whole tale. “Honey, you don’t need a Porsche” is enough said.
Genealogy focuses on a timeline—births, marriages, and deaths. Stories are a theme. No one doubts that families exist on a timeline. The idea that families also have a theme—a central story—can come as a surprise.
Buzzy Jackson, author of Shaking The Family Tree, thinks about it for a moment. Then she readily agrees. Hers, she tells me, 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 lets out, she explains that besides thinking “Jackson” was such a common name, she wondered if she could actually trace her father’s family; she has always been curious about why her grandfather made that move from Alabama to Michigan. She also notes that she has a Russian-Jewish side of the family with a different story centered on how and why they came to America—immigration being a more common theme for most Americans, she suggests. I think she’s right. My mother’s family tells love stories, but my father’s family tells a more typical immigration story.
I had no trouble identifying my train-stopping grandmother as the touchstone story central to my mother’s family. It is the story we repeat most often within the family and the first story usually told to outsiders. And Jackson, who has written about family histories, named hers with ease. Ok, but was that usual? Were people generally aware of their touchstone stories? I began asking. For a while I was obnoxious, asking anyone and everyone who would listen long enough to consider my question. Most responded with a degree of puzzlement. Clearly this was not a question that came up often. Some didn’t want to be bothered. Others had to think before responding.
Maria Krenz was born in Budapest, Hungary, during a 1944 bombing raid. She came six weeks early and was lucky at that. A couple of weeks later, Jews were not allowed to use any hospital. If she had been born closer to term, her mother would have had no medical help. However, her lucky birth was not an auspicious beginning. A preemie, whose mother’s milk had dried up, she was burden on her family when food, for any of them, was hard to obtain—milk especially. It got worse. She was still a baby when her family needed to keep her quiet while they hid in a walled-up room in the back of an aunt’s apartment.
When an older daughter, from her father’s previous marriage, asked if she and her baby could hide with them, Krenz’s father turned them away. The risk of keeping two infants quiet was just too great. Fortunately, the older daughter and her child survived, but turning her away, like that, haunted Krenz’s father. Here’s the part that testifies to the power of story, especially a touchstone story. Krenz doesn’t actually remember those events. She was too young, a baby. But she heard her mother talk of those times so often and with such detail, she told me it felt like a memory—more real than events she actually remembers.
She was a young child when the Soviets arrived in Hungary and the whole nightmare replayed. Stalin began to deport anyone he and/or his Hungarian henchmen considered an elite—that included the college educated, the former owners of businesses and men who were military officers before WWII. Krenz’s parents fit more than one of those criteria. Deportation orders arrived on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Her mother lived in fear of a knock on their door that, fortunately for them, never came. However, waiting every other day like that, constantly expecting the worst, triggered the mother’s memories. She told and retold stories of hiding in that small room with a baby that had to be kept quiet and no milk. Krenz thinks that’s why those stories are the first ones she remembers when she thinks about her history.
Sometimes to calm her mother, Krenz would ask her to tell stories of the “good days,” before the Holocaust, when her mother’s family were high-placed financiers who lived in a fine house with lots of servants. In the “good days” Krenz’s mother had studied at Oxford and regularly attended mass at the local cathedral having converted years before the war. Krenz says that stories of the “good days” were like fairytales—little diversions. “Good days” stories were never as powerful as stories of the days the family spent hiding—events that left her mother broken and barely able carry-on in more than a perfunctory manner. After Krenz’s father died, her mother taught English and worked for the State Translation Bureau to earn a living but never managed to pay the bills. At age nine, Krenz took over the family budget, cooking the family meals and making most of the decisions.
Maria Krenz has written her story in a memoir entitled Made in Hungary. The focus of that book is on Krenz’s early years and the stories her mother told over and over and over. Today she lives around the corner from me in Boulder, Colorado, and is active in the local Quaker congregation. She likes the Quakers, she told me, because they don’t force you to accept any particular catechism, but she studies Jewish culture and history, partly out of interest, but also because she fears her mother might be right: “they” will never let you be anything but Jewish. That’s how deeply her mother’s story is buried in her life.
Bonnie Gangelhoff woke up March 24, 2015 feeling that time had taken a cruel, surreal twist. From her clock radio, she was hearing that Germanwings flight 9525 had gone into a steep dive and crashed into the French Alps. On March 24, 1968, the plane Gangelhoff’s parents were on went into a steep dive and crashed in the Irish Sea. That morning, as she was waking up, no one was sure what had happened to the Germanwings flight. They would later decide that a suicidal co-pilot deliberately put that plane into a dive. However, no one has ever satisfactorily explained what happened to Aer Lingus 712, the plane Gangelhoff’s parents were on in 1968.
Here are the known facts. Aer Lingus flight 712 was traveling from Cork, Ireland to London’s Heathrow airport on a clear, sunny day. The last message from that flight’s co-pilot is garbled but seems to indicate another aircraft in the area. It definitely says they are “descending, spinning rapidly.” There was no black box on the aircraft. The fuselage was never raised from the bottom of the Irish Sea. Most of the bodies, including Gangelhoff’s parents, were never found.
One theory is that a rogue missile fired from a missile-testing site near Aberporth, Wales, hit the plane. That is officially denied. It was a Sunday. Supposedly there were no tests on Sundays, but independent investigators claim to have found inconsistencies in the logbooks. Second theory is that a special radar transponder on the aircraft failed causing a British warship, conducting tests in the area, to mistake the craft and shoot it down—also officially denied. There have been two investigations. The one in 1970 reached a vague conclusion that leaves open the possibility of another aircraft, perhaps a drone used for target practice, being in the area. The second conducted in 1998-2000 unambiguously blames mechanical failure, but those results are not widely accepted by surviving family members and disputed by all subsequent independent investigations.
Gangelhoff was in her last year of college when this happened. In 1968, young people, her age, were protesting the Viet Nam war, questioning authority. She became one of them, protesting the war on the streets of Washington, D.C. To this day Gangelhoff remains highly skeptical of all authorities and all official reports. “Trust but verify,” she told me repeatedly. She believes the facts related to the crash of Aer Lingus Flight 712 can neither be trusted nor verified.
When she shares that history with me, she also confides that she wants to write a book. She asks if I think her story would be better as nonfiction or fiction? She is leaning towards fiction because she wants to focus on the uncertainly that Aer Lingus Flight 712 inserted into her life without getting tangled in disputed facts.
I agree. The real story is her story. Facts are data. Story is how we make sense of facts. Something happens; it changes our life; sends us in a new direction. Trying to make sense of the senseless, we rehearse the events until we arrive at some kind of satisfactory explanation—an important process. In some cultures, an event hasn’t truly happened until the elders decide how to tell the story. These cultures recognize that how history is remembered determines the future, if not the survival, of the people. I suspect many families do the same thing, telling and retelling their central story until it embodies the values and skills they hope will help their future generations.
Most of us don’t choose our touchstone story. More like we learn to live with it. Krenz wonders what if? What if she had been born in a different time or place? Gangelhoff describes her life as “front-loaded,” meaning at a young age, when most of us think we’re invincible she had to deal with the fact that nothing is certain.
My family’s stories are not as raw as those of a Holocaust survivor. And, unlike Gangelhoff, I don’t have to wrestle with the details, trying to make sense of my central narrative. Long ago, my family decided how to tell our story—epic-style with emphasis on the grandmother who stopped the trains. That means it would be easy—too easy—for me to sit back, relax and go with the flow. Why not? We’ve been telling our history the same way for generations. What’s more, it’s a nice story—a fun story. And, it’s about a woman-hero. There are few enough of those. I should be all set.
Ah, yes, but narrative is never neutral. Every story comes with a set of values and a point of view. If I don’t pay attention, my family and their touchstone story could roll over me like one of those trains my great grandmother supposedly stopped. Do I want that? Are the values in that story my values? Have I thought about my own history long enough to even know whether or not I have an opposing view? Do I know who I am without that story?
Not easy questions. Time to stop annoying friends about their families’ central narratives and start getting serious about my own. Nobody is going to figure this out for me. I know, I know, I tell myself, but where do I start?