The Life I Didn’t Realize I Lived

The Life I Didn’t Realize I Lived

A Memoir by Doreen M. Frick

Instead of dirt and poison,
we have rather chosen to fill our hives with honey and wax;
hus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things,
which are sweetness and light.    –
Jonathan Swift

Stories are meant to be told. I thought everybody knew that. Believing that to be true, I placed an ad in my local paper to encourage anyone to come to my seminar at the local library, “to learn how to write their stories.”

I probably should have qualified that.

Of course the day I picked for this seminar was Martin Luther King Jr. Day and therefore the library was closed, but catching that mistake, I changed my ad and the date, and even made a little notecard to stand on the library’s check-out desk in case some folks don’t get a newspaper and miss the opportunity to sit in.

And then the day came and so did the ice storm and it was me and the nice library lady keeping the doors open (and scooping snow, as they like to call it out here in Nebraska) and waiting for the turnout which never turned out. I stayed an hour, and still no brave souls, but I said to myself, well this is Nebraska, they are used to bad weather in winter, someone will come, albeit late, I’d better stay at least another thirty minutes.

I made a cup of coffee (you can do that at my library), and sat and read a book at the little table I’d set up with syllabuses and pens and books I’d taken off shelves that tell other Nebraskan’s stories, feeling a little forlorn, but not lonely. After all, I wouldn’t have gone out on a day like this if I hadn’t been the one with the bright idea.

Finally at 3:30 I called it a day, thanked the lovely library lady for her company, and rescheduled on the little stand-up note at her desk for the following month. Surely late February would be better timing for this sort of thing. I’d have to catch these farmers’ wives before life got even busier for them.

I knew I still had some time to play with but, sure enough, February came and the weather almost rolled in before our 2:00 start to spoil my plans. Before it did, I had some takers who blew in ahead of the storm with their own pens, tablets and ideas, eager to hear what this new lady in town had to say.

And not only grown-ups, but a family of homeschooled kids showed up too, a little late, but prepared for a lesson. And we all know homeschoolers know how to work.

Fortunately for me, I was prepared for them too. I hadn’t specified ages or even sex in my ad, hoping a few men would come to lend perspective to my “class,” so I was more than happy we had two “men-in-the-making” housed in the bodies of lanky teens sitting at their own table near the video and dvd section awaiting instruction.

I checked my purse and smiled. I remembered the prizes. Lollipops. And then I put on my thinking cap and began improvising.

While the ladies looked through their “syllabuses,” (and calling them that is really a stretch, but I like big words), I asked their permission to get the “kids” started on their project before continuing our discussion. The ladies were forgiving of the late arrivals and anxious to read what I’d brought in those colorful flowered-print folders so it was a nice reprieve for us both. I admit I was a little nervous about this experiment. Not being a “group-person” it was a big stretch for me to attempt such an impromptu project, but I know what I like to do, and just assumed others would too. I’m passionate now about it. I love to write stories about my life.

For the kids I had a little hint on how to approach this because their mom briefed me on their interests. This one likes sports, this one likes historical fiction, and so the boys were easy. The sports nut got to research the local football team back in the late 1930’s and write an article about their four consecutive unbeaten seasons. Turns out he writes for the local paper so it was good research for him. What he didn’t know until he was done was that I knew someone on that team. Well, not know know, but know of. My husband’s relative played here back then and was pictured with the team.

What I didn’t tell the sixteen-year-old writer was that after this football player left Nebraska to go to work for the CCC in Wyoming, {the Depression still a part of history at this point} he caught Rocky Mountain Spotted fever and died. Each time I think of nineteen-year-old Bob, I think, Thank Goodness before Bob left this earth he had that wonderful experience of an epic football season. Bob, the relation we never knew existed remains forever young to me, forever that goofy teenager in the team photo I discovered not five months earlier while researching my husband’s genealogy.

I look at my “class” and smile. Yeah, this is gonna work.

But back to my ladies. I was worried when they first came in because I think they thought I was going to tell them how to write a book and get it published. Their eager early questions were on that vein, and I was honest. A book isn’t really the goal. Writing is. If all you want to do, or all you have time to do (one was a young career woman with kids still at home) is to jot down on the calendar a notation that today you did thus and so, then that’s your start. All you need at this point in your life is a place to start. Something to jog your memory for a future when you’re not so busy. When this is your joy, not your chore.

I pulled out my own folder with a list of ideas and spoke about each one, inviting questions. The first thing I had tucked in there was an old recipe card my Mom had typed up when my sister came home from college for Christmas. I began to tell the story and it went something like this:

I was moving and gathering up my kitchen, boxing up pots and pans and silverware, rethinking the extras I’ve accumulated through the years, downsizing to the absolutes, dropping off the not-so-necessaries to the food pantry. They can find a good home for everything. I know because my husband helps out there every Monday.

In the process of winnowing out my cabinets, I ran across an old recipe book I’d rescued from a mud puddle, dried out in the sunshine and treasured when I realized it held old country instructions on dishes I’d never made time to make. Once it was fully dried, albeit a bit curled, I tucked a few of my mom’s hand-written recipes inside, including one my sister found after our mother passed away. It was a 3×5 card with a simple apple crumble dessert, a sweet remembering of a younger mom.

My sister, being the youngest in a big family was the independent one, always on the go, the one who moved out even during high school to attend one in Canada. Mom was equally as busy back then, running a family business, traveling with my dad, helping me out with my babies. My sister never let on that she ached for a deeper relationship with our mom. Once Mom’s life slowed down so that she could actually spend time with her kids, there were no kids left at home to do this with.

One Christmas when my sister was home for break, Mom brought out her recipe cards and was ready to spend time teaching her how to cook, but by this time, my sister told me she was too busy with friends she wanted to catch up with, shopping malls and youth group meetings and skiing trips. There never seemed to be enough time for her to spend time with Mom. She recalled the early January morning heading out for the Philadelphia airport when Mom gave her the recipe cards to take with her.

Fast forward twenty-five years, and Mom is sitting in my sister’s house watching her cook. Mom has Alzheimer’s and sits quietly while my sister fixes her a cup of tea just the way Mom drinks it (with sugar and milk) and makes the apple crumble dessert as together they spend the afternoon they were never able to when the conversation was just not ready to happen. Only now it was my sister who kept the conversation going, drawing out my mother’s memories, hearing her younger self. Mom thought of herself as a teenager, and keeping that in mind, my sister stayed in her comfort level and learned more about Mom. And in this tender moment, my sister began the healing of her heart.

For many more afternoons my sister would cook and clean and sit with a cup of tea and be like the older sister to the woman who sat in the chair and drank it all in. After our mom left this world for a better one, the treasure of those old recipe cards were a sweet reminder of the grace of a kitchen, a cup of tea, and a slice of apple crumble. Not everyone gets the chance to speak the words someone so desperately needs to hear, but when that moment is given us, it’s a grace, and a truth, and a slice of heaven.

I finished the story and looked up and saw tears in eyes, and knew we’d connected. If these ladies thought we were going to go step-by-logical-step into this seminar, they were pleasantly surprised to be taken on a roundabout route to telling a story. If all they ever do is go home and sort through some old recipe cards and let the memories return, I will have done my job.

The power of story has never been lost on me. Once when I was about ten I was going to the deli with my dad and he told me the story about The Boy Who Cried Wolf. I thought it was original with him, he told it like it was. Did I ever lie after that? Probably not. Had I lied and that was why he told me that tale? I don’t remember. I only remember how terrific it felt to be told a story that made so much sense.

Jesus must have been a master storyteller. People sat for hours and hours to listen to him. I get antsy if the preacher goes on for more than twenty minutes. But let him start his sermon with a story, like Tolstoy’s “Family Happiness” where the young bride who cheats on her older husband wails, “Why did you give me a freedom for which I was unfit?” and I’m brought into the big picture with all my heart, mind, soul. And whatever parts there are left.

I’m moved.

Granted not all folks want to be moved. They want to tell their story from start to finish. I was born here, I went to school here. I married this person. I went to this church. Great. I told the lady who was a fact-checker, great. Write the facts, because they need to be tracked. can’t do it all. But – and here’s where her eyes sprung to life – if you want to backtrack and do some remembering along the way, that’s good too.

Suddenly she was all ears. She told me she once filled a mason jar with little pieces of paper, each one carrying a memory she’d made with her best friend. Now in her seventies, that jar is a precious reminder of things her friend had long-ago forgotten. I made a mental note. That would make a great Christmas idea. A big story isn’t always necessary, just a line or two. And who can’t write a line?

My mother-in-law confesses she cannot write letters. Oh she means to, but she can never think of anything to say when she sits down to do it. She’d much rather sit down and speak to the person directly. So when we chat on the phone, we imagine we’re drinking coffee from her melamine cups – those old and very loved cups colored a robin’s egg blue – and we’re sharing a tomato and onion sandwich on toast. Salted, and with mayo. And the sun is pouring in on all her African violets sitting like purring kittens on the plant shelf by the window. All the imagery flashes before my eyes when she answers the phone.

I can write the stories, all she has to do is fill in the laughter.

When I was a young mother, far far from home, I read. The most moving stories were the old pioneer journals, the ones the women wrote of hardship and making do and losing and yearning and missing loved ones left behind on the trail. Of courage. Of bravery. Of lonesome. They filled in a missing piece of my life, the part that knew life was happening, but didn’t know how to process it. The feelings were so strong, sometimes I couldn’t get through, past, or above them, to function. But then the books made their way into my heart, and I realized I wasn’t the only woman out there who felt things, who cried, who worried. And who was brave.

Diaries. Journals. Stories. Whatever they called them, those women put life down into their own words and somehow those words got to me a hundred years later. Maybe they never realized their lives were important or special or worth telling, but I say each life has something to say. Even if it’s never written down, it’s giving off a perfume, an incense, a message, a connection. Somewhere someone is changed by your life. And you are changed, helped, moved, or encouraged by theirs.

Did the ladies remember smells from their youth? Walking into the Post Office, the floors had just been cleaned with Pine-Sol and immediately I was back in my mom’s kitchen. {A smell that makes you very tender towards the past. Dodie Smith speaks of smells and sights and sounds in her novel, I Capture the Castle}. Do you see a tablecloth, or a curtain, or a bedspread (for me it’s lavender chenille) and instantly you see your childhood kitchen, or your parents’ bedroom? Does a song remind you of your dad singing (for me, it’s Goodnight Irene)? Let the stories return. I assure you, they will. Then write them.

What if you have no children or grandchildren to give your memory stories to? That was one woman’s dilemma. She had a notebook full of ancestries and birth and death dates, but her sadness was, Who would want it? We all encourage her. Write it. You’ll see. Give it to someone, pass it on. If you want so much to write it, someone will want so much to read it.

One lady said her granddaughter was asking her how cakes were made before box mixes came out. She told her to come by and she’d show her. The bright and curious child brought her iPhone to the house and while Grandma sifted flour and mixed eggs and vanilla and sugars, it was all recorded on the young girl’s phone. There’s no one way to record a family story. Catch the young ones while they’re interested. That’s how it all began with me.

While my mom cleaned the kitchen floor with that wonderful pine-scented golden liquid she’d recount the stories of her childhood. A sickly child she was, and scrawny, her worried mother would show up at recess with a thermos of hot chocolate in winter, a thermos of chocolate milk on milder days.

One year, fearing her child had contracted the dreaded Scarlet Fever, the doctor quarantined their house. My mom was kept in bed and her dad had to move out and live with relatives so he could go to work and not pass along the disease to his fellow factory-workers. Turns out she probably did not have it, but that wasn’t the only time her dad had to move out. Mental illness took hold and he spent time in an institution.

Another floor to clean and another story about the dog that followed her home and she got to keep until the owner was found. The stray dogs that became her companions during those long only-child days where she longed for a brother. Or sister. And I look back at her cleaning the floor and wonder if that’s why she had such a big family. My dad had wanted a baseball team and she did have nine pregnancies, but only five of us lived to fill that ranch house on Kent Road.

Oh, the stories were short and not-so-touchy-feely that I wouldn’t recognize my pragmatic and disciplined mother in any of them. She was a fact-person. She would have told you the birthdates and anniversaries and phone numbers of anybody you asked about, but feelings and emotions took a little longer to relate. And why did I never ask her more questions?

Fortunately, my sister-in-law did. Before any of us knew Mom would begin to lose her memory, Eileen sat down one Sunday afternoon with a sheet of questions, and then she went home and typed out word-for-word the answers Mom gave her. I brought those sheets with me to my seminar, and the ladies gobbled them up. Even the pages of questions we never got to because Mom probably had dishes or washing up to do or the phone rang or company dropped in and of course we always figured we’d get around to the rest of them some other day.

But we did not.

When I pulled out the list of questions and Mom’s answers I could “hear” her once again. Gone from us now eight years, we all long to have her back, though we truly wouldn’t wish her back, because life changed so much once Alzheimer’s changed her. And yet, looking back, I think it changed us more.

The lady at my seminar with a busy life, a full family and career decided to just jot down some notes of her memories, let her sisters do their part of the story, then ask the one with the most time and the most interest in the project to put it all together. Apparently she comes from a large family. She was pleased to be set free from the responsibility and yet she didn’t want to leave or end the session, but she had places to go and people to meet. She asked if we could meet again. A connection was made and I gave each one a porcelain tea-bag holder, bright and cheery and painted in flowers like their file folders, thanked them for coming and gave them my card to get back to me when they wrote their stories.

Just for kicks, I shared some of my favorite “Mom-isms,” the funny things my mom would say, the one-liners we kids all began to remember once she left this earth. One thing led to another and I could see that this class could go on and on because the ideas were endless. And unique to each woman’s history.

“It’s a long road that has no turning.”

“I’d rather pay the grocer than the doctor.”

“You’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”

“You’re slower than molasses in January.”
(My sister was told this many a’time)

“You sound like a herd of elephants up there.”
(My other sister’s claim to fame)

“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
(How many times did we hear this? I’ve lost count)

“God knows the end from the beginning.”
(I’m sure this is a quote from the Bible)

Before the ladies left, I encouraged them to make copies of their stories and get them bound if possible at the local newspaper. Or at an office supply store like Staples that can do coil-binding. If they needed help researching the archives of old newspapers online, the homeschoolers would be a good resource. Just ask the sports nut, he pulled up 1936-1940 football articles in less time than it took him to finish his Tootsie Pop.

When it looked like we were winding down, I read aloud the beginnings of a story I wrote for a gentleman who answered my ad back in the day – when I thought I’d like to write other people’s memoirs for them. Everybody has their own truth, and this fella was not hesitant to speak his to a total stranger. However, I advised the ladies not everybody starts their history with their first memory being of their father beating their mother.

Yes, their eyebrows raised, but then we all have stories that are probably better left alone. But it is your story, and who am I to tell you what to leave out.

When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground. – African proverb

(If I may change one word in this old adage, or, more accurately, add two,
it would be ‘or woman’) – please don’t let the stories die with you. . .

Doreen Frick lives in Nebraska and loves to write one story a day. She grew up writing letters and one day she was all grown up, living in a little cabin in the middle of the woods in Washington State without a phone or running water. That was when the stories began to grow, and thankfully, they’ve never stopped. She kept track of every sniffle, every recipe she tried, every new step her little children were making, writing them in a diary she kept and handed to that little child when she was about to be married. But before she did, she penned a memoir so she would know from whence she’d come…