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The Mundane Details of Our Life Stories

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. 

(It’s not too late to order your copy of this special Mother’s Day edition or get a subscription for someone you love.) 


EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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19 Responses

  1. Stella says:

    Emily, this is so beautiful. I love the words and how you painted these precious times in your life. I’m a storyteller, just like my father. I tend to embellish things because I know it will entertain more. My father does too. Especially when I was a child. I remember being scared about something in my room as a kid (I had a very active imagination and believed something was living under my bed). I crawled out of bed and went and curled up on the couch where my dad was reading a book. I was expecting comfort. Instead, he pulled me into his arms as we looked out at the bare branched trees in the front yard–dark and spooky. He told me such a scary tale about those trees that it seemed like my bed was a much safer place to be and I ran back to bed. He was a smart one.

  2. Corktree says:

    I really love the little bits of stories you tell here Emily. It helps me to appreciate all the driving we do to visit family. 🙂

    It’s hard to say what from the current day to day I will remember as worth telling, but I do think I’ve been more conscious of the small things that will be memorable down the road and cultivating the moments that may become stories. Which, in thinking of the future, has actually helped me to be more present with my children.

  3. Caroline says:

    Emily, this is so wonderful. Just beautifully written. And for me it comes back to what Claudia Bushman is always talking about. We need to write our stories. We need to write the stories of our family members before they die and their stories are gone forever. To do so is to give shape and meaning to the lives of the next generations that will come and see the confluences between their lives and ours.

  4. spunky says:

    I love this, Emily, thank you!

    BUT (oh, I hate this about myself!)… what about those of us who don’t have children? I absolutely see the value of my grandmothers stories—I long to know of their thoughts and actions in centuries past. But my family line looks like it will end with me. So- what is the point? I struggle with this because we are admonished to keep a journal and keep records, but what is the point without posterity? I still see the value for others—I went to Olveston house in Dunedin, New Zealand and loved it. (http://www.olveston.co.nz/home) The house was built by rich Jewish migrants who imported the best made items from Asia and Europe for their everyday use. When the family line died out, the house and everything in it was bequest to the city- it is now a historic museum, and I loved everything about it. But I not rich. I am not influential. I own nothing that could be auctioned outside of ebay (if that!). Without posterity, my journals reflect nothing but a silly, often frustrated, unconnected girl who amounted to nothing of relevance or significance.

    I am not saying this to gain the well-intended, “but you are important!” consolations from anyone, I am saying this as a matter of practicality. The journals that I have stopped writing would -at best- be shoved in with a thousand other histories in the church history library but would be rarely viewed because I have no posterity. I have no influential calling (such as the childless Eliza R. Snow) and I have no money (such as the Theomin family of the Olveston house). No posterity will connect with me because I worked really hard to make an awesome coconut-brownie recipe*. However, the sister I visit teach might mention me in her journal because she ate one of those really yummy brownies. But that is where it ends. She isn’t going to record anything about my life to share with her children, because I mean nothing to them.

    I love the idea of others recoding their histories, but I cannot for the life of me comprehend why I should waste my time doing the same. Some family lines die out and eventuate to nothing. I am okay with that. As a historian, I see the value of what you are saying, but I also know that it doesn’t apply to everyone. So am I allowed on the bandwagon without practicing what I preach? 🙂

    *This is why I decided to stop keeping a journal: I went through my 2008 journal and found an overwhelming theme of brownie recipe attempts with accompanying notes. 2007 was the year of fudge. I laughed out loud and thought how ridiculous this record was. But then I sort of felt ashamed at the uselessness of it, so I threw most of it away. I did get one dang good recipe, but nothing personal or otherwise recordable of importance.

    • Starfoxy says:

      I was once in a fast and testimony meeting where an elderly woman stood and bore her testimony about journaling. She described how her first husband had died years ago, and how distraught she had been. Then she described finding a journal he had kept for her- a book full of memories, thoughts and stories that he wanted her (not his great grandchildren) to have. His death wasn’t expected, he had no way of knowing that he wasn’t going to outlive his wife, but he wrote the journal anyways.

      She didn’t describe exactly what was in it, but hearing her story made me rethink the traditional idea that journal writing is for the benefit of our distant progeny. It made me think that possibly the greatest benefits of journaling will go to the people who lived with you and knew you, but just happen to slightly outlive you. People like parents, siblings, friends, and, yes, spouses or kids.

      So, I see your point about about how for those without kids there may be little/no interest in your historical records. Yet, if/when my siblings or friends die I would be touched beyond words to find that they had written a letter of memories for me to have after their death, let alone a whole journal.

    • Alisa says:

      I cannot write a journal for anyone but myself. For many years I was ashamed and embarrassed of who I was because of self- esteem issues. it made me write only very selected parts of my life. I hid my struggles and I overemphasized my faith. I ended up not writing much because it was so inauthentic as a worried over what my posterity would think of me and how thy would judge me.

      Now I write for fun. I write for myself, so I can go back and laugh. I write for therapy. I write to record special events I will want to remember. I do not think about who will read it besides me. I write for me alone.

      Errors brought to you by iPad.

      • spunky says:

        Thanks, Starfoxy and Alisa- Those are the best answers anyone has ever given me for keeping a journal. I really needed to hear your words. Thank you. Don’t be surprised if one day you inherit a 2007 year-of-fudge journal or a 2008 year-of-brownies journal 🙂

    • Moniker Challenged says:

      I would love your coconut brownie and fudge recipes to preserve for the posterity I don’t have. Do I have to buy them on ebay?

      PS- Not a journal keeper either. Unless you count the live journal of ’02-’03.

      • spunky says:

        Moniker Challenged—the fudge recipe has a long complicated list of how too (well, maybe not, but I can’t be bothered to type it. 🙂 But I will gift you the brownie recipe. If I ever see this in a cookbook, my journal will be unsed in evidence to prove I was the original maker 😉 You would really think I had something better to do in 2008…

        Spunky’s 2008 Brownies

        ½ cup ground organic oatmeal (put in a blender and grind to a powder that equals ½ cup)
        ½ cup organic coconut flour
        ½ cup plain flour
        1/8 cup Whole wheat (whole meal) flour
        ¾ tsp salt
        1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa (I use half organic cocoa, and half Nestle or Cadbury Bourneville cocoa)
        2/3 caster sugar (white fine-grain sugar)
        1/3 cup light brown sugar
        1 Tablespoon full-cream powdered (dry) milk
        1/3 cup milk chocolate chips
        1/3 cup dark chocolate chips
        1/3 cup white chocolate chips
        1 Tablespoon of your favourite chocolate chips (milk, dark or white)
        2 teaspoons vanilla
        2/3 cup oil (Macadamia oil or Grape seed oil work best- olive oil is too strong, don’t use it. Melted butter works in a pinch.)
        3 eggs

        Prepare 8”11 pan with cooking spray.

        Bake at 350 F for 35-45 minutes on middle rack in oven, depending on oven (i.e. fan-forced cooks faster). Check edges are coming away from the sides and look crispy, but not burning. Need to cool before slicing because it is VERY moist and rich. Warning: children fight over the last 5 slices.

      • spunky says:

        I know it is a complicated recipe– just lay out a bunch of re-sealable bags and do one scoop of each of the dry ingredients at a time, then you have the mixes all set for the emergency want to make really awesome homemade brownies but don’t have the time to do all the fussy ingredients list thing.

  5. X2 Dora says:

    One of the books I loved most in YW was Will I Ever Forget This Day,> which is an edited compilation of Carol Lynn Pearsons’ journals through her college days, interspersed with journalling how-to’s from the editor. It’s from reading this book that I gained my appreciation of personal history. I’m a very sporadic journaller, but that I do it at all is due to Pearson, and the works of LM Montgomery and LM Alcott.

    One episode I remember particularly. Pearson would write “Pictures taken with a mental brownie (a brand of camera, I believe).” It went something like this … Reached in bag for nasal inhaler. Took off cap and inserted. Was lipstick!

  6. Jessawhy says:

    Great post, Em.

    I love how you’ve put such a nice spin on what is otherwise a terrifying event- road trips with young children.

    In the face of what may be a roadtrip to Michigan and back this summer, I’m glad to see that there is a noble way to think about our journey.

    Also, I’m sorry for your loss. I know that it’s still hard that Starr is gone and I hope that memories like these continue to comfort you.

  7. IdahoG-ma says:

    I can testify that Ramblers were, indeed, ugly. Ours was pea green.

  8. EmilyCC says:

    Thanks for your kind comments, everyone! (I was worried that maybe mundane=boring when I wrote this post.)

    And, Spunky, I think you make excellent points here. I don’t know if this makes a difference, but I’m not a journal keeper, so when I was writing this, I was thinking primarily of telling stories to friends and family. (You must hear our fellow blogger, Heather’s sacrament meeting stories–hilarious!)

    I think you’re right, though. While my sister spends a lot of time with my kids and I try to include her in the stories I share (as she will most likely not have children of her own), I am afraid this idea is skewed more towards people who have children. Thanks for bringing up this important discussion!

    Jess, can you tell we currently have 3! drives to Utah planned this summer? I’m doing everything I can to make the idea more palatable 🙂

  9. nat kelly says:

    I love this. There is something really memorable about being “on the road” with others. The earliest English-language novels often read as travel logs. We spend so much of our time and planning and research and technology on how to get from point A to point B. And those times just really, really stick with us. I think you’re exactly right that they provide meaningful glimpses into the reality of our daily lives.

  10. Aimee says:

    Beautiful post, my dear! I love these images of you and your families on the back roads of the desert and Utah mountains. You have done your history justice!

  11. Whoa-man says:

    I agree! I think some of the most emotionally reminiscent moments are all the things we wouldn’t remember to write in a journal, tell our kids, or talk about in an oral history. There is really really a need to record mundane stories. I love the idea of your mom cleaning the house and crying but hiding it by singing. I have memories of my mom taking “showers” and hearing her cry and cry over a family death but how I wouldn’t say anything and she didn’t and how we both pretended that it didn’t happen. It is so interesting to talk about it now, but I’ve never thought to write it down.

    Thank you for the inspiration!

  12. Ziff says:

    Thanks for this post, Emily. I’m an on-and-off journal writer, but going along with what you said, I’ve been surprised how much I’ve enjoyed reading back and remembering mundane details of life I recorded in my own journals. (Like Alisa, I have a hard time thinking of keeping a journal for anyone but myself.) The big events are nice, but the small day-to-day ones remind me better of how my life felt at the time I was writing.

    Tangentially, I’m reminded of two books I really enjoyed that are compilations of people’s (sometimes mundane) stories. One is I Thought My Father Was God and it takes stories from NPR’s National Story Project. The other is Listening Is an Act of Love and it takes stories from the StoryCorps project (which I believe is ongoing). Great stuff in both of them. Striking stuff, but also lots of fascinating mundane tidbits of people’s lives.

  13. Rachel says:

    I love this.

    My family used to take long road trips in our very ugly, beige station wagon, from Oregon to southern California and Utah, respectively. We would usually pass the time by listening to Weird Al or singing old songs my dad had taught us. I loved sitting in the very back, rear facing seat and trying to get truck drivers to honk their horns, but usually had to sit in the very front, because I got so car sick. One time I threw up on all of my clothes, and had to wear my oldest brother’s tshirt as a dress. He went shirtless the rest of the trip.

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