I am blessed to be the daughter of a writer. I’d like to think that the stories my mom tells of our family are all the more interesting because of her talent. We all seem funnier in our childhood antics, like my brother getting his stomach pumped three times in one year for eating medication, too many vitamins, and deodorant. And, other stories become all the more poignant upon my mom’s retelling, like when she cleaned the house with her three young daughters trailing behind her as she sang, “Onward Christian Soldiers” over and over again so they wouldn’t see her crying about the news of one daughter’s recently-diagnosed disabilities.
Lately, though, I’ve become more interested in the stories about people’s daily lives, the ordinary things we do over and over again—our Saturday morning routines, the restaurants we love to go to. I’m finding that in these mundane details of our life stories I learn things about myself and others that I don’t see in the grand life events that are retold at family gatherings and compromise what I usually think of as “official” family history.
As I grew up, my mom would often tell me of the drives she took each spring from Provo, Utah down to Phoenix, Arizona to see her grandparents in her parents’ Rambler. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Rambler, but from my mom’s descriptions, they are ugly, beat-up cars (I always imagine her’s being brown) that don’t have room for 6 kids and their parents to sit comfortably, much less to do so for 12 hours without air conditioning in the middle of the desert.
I suppose the car ride was so miserable that in order to get through the ordeal, my grandpa refused to let anyone take a bathroom break. My mom remembers the six kids sitting in the back, sans seatbelts, taking turns sitting upside down, their feet against the back of the seat, believing it created more room. And, then, as she tells the story, her whole face changes when she arrives at the part where the welcome smell of orange blossoms tells her they finally reached her grandmother’s home.
I shared this story with my father-in-law, Starr, on our last drive together to Ephraim, Utah. He talked about the long car-rides he took growing up, his mom deciding that he should be a human windshield wiper during one bad rainstorm when the windshield wipers broke, and how narrow and awful those roads were in the early and mid-20th century.
Then, Starr showed me how to find the single-lane road built on the Navajo Indian Reservation in the early 1900’s, and I realized that just as my mom and I drive that Reservation highway every year, so did my great-grandmother.
She would have begun that yearly journey in 1928 as she and her husband travelled from their home in Phoenix to see family in Ephraim and Scipio, Utah. Starr told me how the upper speed limit was 35 MPH and that people had to pull over when someone came from the opposite direction. The idea of their young family making this bumpy slow ride makes me wonder how on earth they managed to do it without so much as a radio, much less the portable DVD player I’ve come to rely on.
I get a little sad that I that I don’t have her stories of this drive, but I cherish this glimpse into a very different way of travelling all the more because I almost missed out on these little tidbits into my family history and Starr’s. Starr died 2 weeks after that trip. What other life details have I lost from his life and other family members?
I realize that I need to tell the story of that drive I so often take—how, as kids, my siblings and I could hardly wait to get to the McDonald’s in Page for the one Happy Meal we got each year, or how today, my husband and I gratefully stop at the Flagstaff Target to buy bribes for our children.
At first glance, I decide I am the soft one—as generations of my family make this drive, I am the one with the best roads, the nicest accommodations. But, I also see in these seemingly mundane stories more than simple anecdotes. I see the value that each of us places on spending time with both our nuclear families on that very long drive and our larger far away extended families.
And, I wonder what other mundane details of life connect us and can teach us about ourselves…
What family stories of everyday life do you cherish or hope to pass on?
The latest issue of Exponent II features Amanda Demos Larsen’s delightful picture, “Afraid to Look” (also pictured above in this post) and has two stories about the connection of seemingly ordinary attributes that the writers share with their mothers and female ancestors. Margaret Olsen Hemming’s essay, “Never Alone,” looks at the importance of education for the women in her family, and Kylie Nielson Turley’s humorous essay, “Mean Mom,” describes the traits the women in her family share in raising children.