By: Frank McKinley
My grandmother just turned 102 years old.
She’s seen a lot of history unfold over her life. So much in fact that my aunt decided it would be great if someone started writing it down.
I wish I had thought of that myself.
She also loved coffee. I remember sharing meals with her, drinking coffee, and listening to her tell me about how things were when she was younger. But most of the time, she preferred to listen to me.
She was so unselfish, so giving. When she cooked, we all dug in and gathered around her table. Not once did I ever leave hungry. We laughed. We told stories. My daughter even celebrated her first birthday at that table, smearing chocolate icing from ear to ear.
How Life Looked in 1917
Our elders have stories to tell if we’ll just listen. For men, work was harder than it is now.
● Many worked in factories for 55 hours or more every week.
● Work was dangerous, with 6 out of every 100 dying from accidents.
● Time clocks had just been invented.
Women generally didn’t work outside the home. If they did, they were teachers. Why? Because they’d work for less money than men, and male principals found them less resistant to their leadership.
If you were older and weren’t working, there was no social security to support you. If you were poor, you felt alone, forgotten, and often died of hunger, sickness, and depression.
People’s diets were a lot different. Most people ate a lot of lard and cold cereal. Corn Flakes and Shredded Wheat got their start in those days. And what’s worse is your food budget was roughly a third of your total income.
With World War I, coffee came freely to the U.S., but it wasn’t so easy to come by in Europe. Soldiers drank instant coffee because it offered an instant energy boost and boosted morale. Demand for instant coffee increased in kitchens across the nation.
These stats may bore or fascinate you, but there’s one thing you can’t deny – they definitely paint a picture of what life was like.
So Much Happens In 100 years
My grandmother was born just before World War I ended.
But the wars were far from over. Her husband served as a Navy engineer in World War II, her son was an Army medic in Vietnam during the 1960s, and one of her grandsons fought with the Air Force in the Persian Gulf War.
I could tell you those stories, but I’d have to kill you.
Everyone in her family, children, and even some grandchildren were born in Savannah. People didn’t move from town to town as often years ago. There was no internet to make anyone famous from his bedroom. You made deals face to face and sometimes over the phone. Long-distance calls were expensive, so you made sure that you made the time count.
You also watched the clock because money was hard to come by.
Woodrow Wilson had just started his presidency when my grandmother was born. After that came social security, the FBI, the Depression, and the repeal of Prohibition, Alaska, and Hawaii became part of the U.S. When she was in her forties, Martin Luther King gave his speech and lived to see his dream begin to come true.
I wish I’d asked her what she thought about all those things. But I was too busy with my own trivial pursuits to care. As older people say, youth is wasted on the young.
When I did listen, we had coffee together.
Write Their Stories Now
Don’t wait until your grandmother is in a wheelchair suffering from Alzheimer’s to start talking. Do it while she’s still active. If it’s too late, talk to her older friends if you can find them. They’ll have some pretty awesome stories to tell.
We learn from history when we write it down.
We can also see what life would be like if things were different. That can give you much to be thankful for, or it can open your eyes to opportunities you ignored before.
You don’t have to write while you’re listening. Tape the conversation if they don’t mind. Write down what you remember when you get home. Let your imagination follow as you listen. You’ll remember more when you give your full attention to your time together.
First-Hand History Adds a Human Touch
Most textbooks, including history books, are boring. I’ve kept a few over the years, but I don’t remember referring to them often. They usually collect dust in boxes in my barn. They do make good recycling objects. You get one from a library sale, let it sit unopened for a year, then donate it back to the library.
Write your own history book, and you’ll treasure it forever. It will definitely be more entertaining because you’ll care more about what you’re writing. When you write for work, it may still be fun, but that’s your job. Writing for and about families is a different responsibility – keeping family informed, entertained, and mindful of their heritage.
Life Gives Us Lessons and Stories
When Grandmother was 17, she went to a debutante’s ball. I’m not sure any of the other women in my family did this. It was a celebration with loads of finely dressed men and women, dance, and song, and there are pictures of this happy occasion to chronicle the event.
Wouldn’t it be great to be a fly on the wall at one of those?
Grandmother married when she was 19, and her husband was 26. She wanted four children. He wanted five. So they had six.
I remember my grandmother telling me that when her twins were born in 1953, the hospital gave her a washer and dryer. Babies wore cloth diapers back then. She also had three other children, so that gave her seven people with clothes to wash.
They traveled with the children to all 48 states. Later, my grandmother and grandfather would look up relatives they’d never met and arrange to spend time with them.
Writing Your Family History is a Great Way to Give Back and Pay It Forward
Write it down so you can share with your kids, your grand kids, and everyone you care about; it’s your family heritage, memories, and legacy.
My grandmother can’t share her stories with me anymore.
When she dies, we’ll make sure the pastor knows her well enough to honor her well. I’ll honor her memory with a post about her life and how it shaped mine. We’ll gather with loved ones we only see when death or marriage brings us together.
You truly die when no one cares enough to notice what you’ve left behind.
The greatest gift you can give someone is to make sure their life outlives their time in this world. You have the talent. Now use it to tell the story we all need – and want – to hear.
It’s full of sites to explore, enough charts to record your third-cousin, twice removed, and information by states for researching family history.
Another blank book, published by Quarto, is Our Family History: Record Book, Photograph Album & Family Tree
Bio: Frank McKinley