Thursday, August 8, 2013

Augusta, Day 3: Family Stories and Listening

Today has been full of so many memories and impressions that will linger for a long time.

It started at breakfast. I have been sitting with the Road Scholars a good bit at meal times because they are so interesting and full of stories. This morning, something got them started on the topic of refrigeration. There are many people in this group approaching or past 8 decades and they remember things that most of consider having happened far in the past.

Take refrigerators. Many of them grew up without refrigerators or freezers and can recall when these became part of their family's kitchens. Some remembered cutting ice out of ponds and rivers and packing it with sawdust in concrete buildings to use for summer cooling. Iceboxes were a shared memory, some of wood, others of metal. Others remembered that after World War II large freezers were available in small towns and people could rent freezer space for storage of their meat, instead of having to salt and cure it in smokehouses. One man said his parents had one of those old-time refrigerators with the coils on top and used it for 45 years. What fridge will last that long today?

The ice man also visited; one lady said she was staying with her grandmother one summer. Her grandmother had a milk cow and promised that when the iceman came they would make ice cream. It was so hot every day, and all she could think about was the wonderful taste of ice cream, the coolness of it sliding down her throat. Finally the day came and the ice cream was made. But the cow had been in some bitter-flavored weeds and the ice cream was inedible. The disappointment on her face was as fresh today as it must have been all those years ago.

That conversation led to one about a ragman. One man said that not only did the iceman come, but the ragman was also a regular visitor at their farmhouse. He would buy anything from old pipes to rusty pans to old clothing--anything that could be resold to the war effort (this was during World War II). This man said that his grandfather had died so his grandmother was living with them for a while. Well, it seems the ragman got sweet on his grandmother and hung around their home for hours on his visits. They might not have minded so much but the ragman seldom if ever bathed and smelled pretty bad. He had a beard to his waist and was very short and round, and the grandmother wasn't too thrilled with his intentions. I did not know about ragmen so this conversation certainly gave me something to look into.

The refrigeration conversation led to another discussion, this one about winter funerals. One man said that in his area (South Dakota) bodies were simply wrapped and buried in snowbanks until the weather warmed up. Another said that someone in his family was a gravedigger and that in winter he used charges of dynamite to break up the frozen ground so the graves could be dug. I had to wonder about how that might disturb occupants of neighboring graves!

Which leads once again to the importance of listening. To be a good storyteller, one must be a good listener. It's not important to be someone who likes to talk--that's not it at all. Stories are found by listening, not by talking. In our class I talked about listening, and also about using prompts to find a story. For example, an apron, a teacup or a small metal toy might prompt memories of a specific person or event. A class member who is nearing 80 noted that, "At my age, everything reminds me of a story about something in my life." True words, there. The elders of our families and communities have much to tell us if we will just take the time to listen.

Tonight I was listening again, this time to the concert by the students here in the vocal (singing) classes. The range of songs was astounding, from opera to yodeling to folk songs, ballads,and Billie Holliday, from comic songs to touching songs to a Russian love song (sung in Russian). It was a magical evening and I just sat back and gloried in the music surrounding me. I suspect many of the singers have stories I would like to hear, and if time allows I hope to catch them and hear their tales. If not, I have the memory of their beautiful voices rising the the little round chapel on a dark, rainy, West Virginia night.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


Quinn said...

Tying in a bit with your dream story from yesterday, one of my favorite questions to ask older folks who grew up on farms is if they recall a favorite or particular workhorse. The names and stories that flow out, as fresh as if that "one" horse just walked out of the barn!

Sue said...

Fascinating stuff. So interesting to imagine living in those times.

The music sounds great, too.


Granny Sue said...

Quinn, that's a great idea! I will remember that. We heard so many great stories--everything reminds them of something that happened in their lives.

Granny Sue said...

Sue, that's what I think. I drop an idea and they start with the stories. Then I shut up and listen, maybe asking a question or two. One thing is clear to me: these people have worked hard in their lives, and do not regret it.

Mimi Foxmorton said...

Though I *am* your prodigal goat borrower, I so love to visit here early of a morn. My dearest wish is that I one day get to experience your storytelling in person! You make the old ways come to life for me!

And I need to add a No Dynamite rule to our cemetery programs......? lol

Have a wonderful weekend!
The Goat Borrower

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