A few months ago, Rosie asked me if she has a great-grandmother. I told her yes, her Dad’s grandmother, Helen. We call her Gramma Nell. "Oh right!" she said, "I know her!" I love when my kids have questions about their family and how we’re all connected – it’s pretty confusing to sort out who's who when you’re young. Heck, it’s confusing when you’re grown.
I have always had a deep respect for the generations that came before me. It’s something my own mom instilled in me at a young age. In fact, my mom and I wrote a book about it! (but that’s a story for another day...if anyone knows a good children’s book publisher, let me know) So I try to take every chance I get to show my girls the value in soaking up all they can from those around them who've been around the block a time or two. And it all starts with reaching out, starting conversations and asking questions.
A few years ago, I heard about a man named Jack in Tennessee who had recently lost his wife. A friend of his was asking people on Instagram to send in cards to cheer him up. Jack received thousands of cards from all over the country and the girls and I decided to send him one, too. But we didn’t just send him a note saying “we’re thinking of you,” we wrote him a letter full of questions about his life, where he lives, his farm and his wife. We took the time to show him that we wanted to know his story, and sure enough, he wrote us back.
Jack told us about his farm and how many tomato plants he grew. He talked about his dog named Lassie and that he likes chocolate ice cream best of all. He told us how much he missed his wife and their weekly lunch dates.
The girls were thrilled to hear his stories. They felt proud that he’d taken the time to answer questions they so thoughtfully came up with. We still have his letter tucked away – it’s one of our own family treasures now. Someday they’ll unfold it and read it to their kids and remember this little moment in their childhood where they did something good and received an even bigger gift in return.
So when Rosie asked about her great grandmother, I knew it was the perfect opportunity to reintroduce this concept of interviewing people who’ve lived entire lifetimes worth of memories and adventures.
Around the same time, they’d seen the Bluey episode about the 80’s and were fascinated to hear my husband and I tell them about how different TV was in the 80’s when we were kids. If you missed TGIF, that was it. There was no DVR. There was no pause button.
…so I posed the question: “I wonder what TV was like when Gramma Nell was a kid? I wonder if she even had a TV at her house?” And that’s all it took. The questions began to fly and we worked together to write them all down. A few weeks later, we got to sit with Gramma Nell and ask her ourselves.
Belle was dying to know what her bedroom looked like when she was a kid and if she had a best friend. Gramma Nell explained that when she was young, they lived in a little bungalow. Her bedroom was painted white and she had a small attached bathroom (“just like ours!” said Belle), and her best friend’s name was Molly. They met in first grade and lived in the same neighborhood. Years later, Molly was her maid of honor and they’re still friends today.
Rosie asked about her favorite toys and how she celebrated her birthday when she was growing up. Gramma Nell showed us a little blue vanity for her dolls that her own Dad had made her. She said birthdays were always fun because they played games and her mom would make little party hats for each child. She explained that her mom went to teaching college and was always very artistic.
She told us that she did not have a TV in her home growing up (the girls were SHOOK), but her family did have a radio. She remembers being in her living room listening to the radio when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and President Roosevelt delivered his famous Day of Infamy speech, declaring war on Japan.
We sat around the kitchen table at my in-laws house for a while just talking about her life. We heard about the rec center where most of the neighborhood kids spent their summer days. It was across the street from her house and had a huge swimming pool, a playground and all the essentials a child back then could want.
And then we got to my favorite part: the love story. I know she holds a lot of it close to her heart, and rightfully so - I imagine it’s her most prized possession. So I was grateful for the bits she was willing to share. Not just because I love a good love story, but because when it comes to love and relationships in particular, I always want my girls to grow up knowing what is possible for them.
Helen (Gramma Nell) knew John because he was her friend Kathy’s older brother. But one day, when she was 13, she saw him across the field at a baseball game and got that rush of certainty – that knowing feeling that simply can’t be ignored – she knew in that moment she would marry him someday. Years would go by before their relationship even started, and in 1951 he enlisted in the Navy to train to be an airman. Gramma Nell wrote him a letter while he was at boot camp and he wrote her back right away saying, “It sure was swell of you to write.”
A little more than a year later, while he was home in between training, they had their first date. They went to the movies – she doesn’t remember which movie they saw.... “Probably because I wasn’t paying much attention to the film,” she said.
Over the four years he was gone, John wrote Helen 274 letters and she still has every last one.
That was just the beginning, though. They went on to get married and have 8 children. They built a beautiful life together that was full of love and adventure and hard work....and I imagine endless piles of laundry and dishes. In his last few years, Gramma Nell said she’d pull out their letters and read them to John. As she told me this, she made a point to share that she wished she’d done that more often throughout their marriage, not just at the end. “It was fun to remember those early days,” she said.
I couldn’t help but think what a treasure those letters are for her. His actual words, thoughts, dreams and wishes written in ink – right there on paper for her to read and hold whenever she wants or needs. That’s the magic of writing things down. Your words take on a life of their own – one that knows no end. Those letters are a treasure for our whole family because they tell the very beginning of our family story for generations to come.
…..Once upon a time, a girl named Helen wrote a sweet note to a boy named John and popped it in the mail.
I think John said it best all those years ago: it sure was swell of her to write.
Want to try this with your own kids, but you're not sure where to start? While I realize this isn't a new idea - talking with your loved ones and asking them about their lives and history - I also know it doesn't come naturally to everyone....but, it's easier than you may think!
Here are few questions to get you started:
What kind of house did you grow up in?
Tell us about your bedroom as a kid. Did you share with a sibling?
Did you have any pets growing up?
Who was your best friend?
What was your favorite toy to play with?
How did you spend your summer vacations?
Who was your favorite teacher? Why did you like them so much?
Did you follow the rules or did you get in trouble a lot?
Did you play any sports or do after school activities?
Did your mom pack your lunch or did you buy lunch at school?
Did you have jobs or chores around your house?
What kind of car did your family have?
How much did it cost to go out for ice cream?
Were you allowed to go places by yourself or with friends? Like walk downtown or out for ice cream?
What was your very first job?
What's something that you had in your home that we don't have today? (land line phone, TV, etc.)
What were some of your holiday traditions?
How many houses have you lived in?
What did you want to be when you grew up?
How did you meet your husband/wife
Did you have a nickname growing up?