The following introduction and first chapter are from Jerrie's current
work-in-progress Just Above the Bone.
We are nobody without a story.
Ask the panhandler I passed this morning. He held up a sign that read:
“Viet Nam Vet. Clean. Sober. Going home. Need bus fare.” Whether or not
any of that was true, he’d staged his story with a clean shirt and a
backpack leaning against one leg.
Experts at auction houses will tell you that often the only difference
between an antique and junk is “provenance,” a fancy word for the same
information the panhandler had on his sign—a story, a history. Besides
hoping I’d contribute to his cause, the panhandler was making sure I
didn’t mistake him for junk. He’d fought and struggled and lived to tell
the tale. Now he was going home, if I could spare a little change. As I
searched my pocket, I wondered about my story. What five lines would I
put on a piece of cardboard if I wanted someone to help me go home?
“Where’s home?” is a common enough question, a conversation starter that
I imagine others answering with ease.
“Bone, Idaho,” I say and then wait for the follow-up.
Problem is, I never know how much to explain.
Bone is a place so small it doesn’t appear on most maps, but my family
lived large in that small place. Four generations of us grew up on the
same high country ranch that my mother still owns and that we still
describe as “just above Bone,” meaning several miles higher into the
hills than the town of that name. My generation was the quickest to
leave. I was nineteen when I set out to find life elsewhere. Of course,
leaving was an illusion. I still live "just above bone.”
We all do.
Like it or not, we are imprinted with the place we come from. The
stories that we hear in childhood attach themselves so completely it’s
almost as though we experienced the events ourselves. Those family
stories are our “bone,” our home, our touchstone. All journeys begin
there—an obvious observation until we admit that “home” is, and always
has been, more storied than real.
“Where’s home?” is not a question of geography. It’s about story. The
questioner wants to know where the story began. Have our paths crossed?
Do we know people in common? We’re nobody—strangers—until we exchange
“Safe trip,” I told the panhandler, and our eyes met.
Besides giving us a starting place, families often give us a starting
script. We stand, fight, or walk away, so to speak, based on some notion
of what the people in our family do, and few of us ever question why. I
know that because not too long ago, I was startled to discover how much
my life had been scripted by the story my family always tells. On second
thought, I realize I should have known, or at least sensed, the power of
that story. In the great, grand scheme of things, stories are how we
make sense of the world—everything else is just information—and, in that
sense, family stories hold a special place. They are the ones that stay
with us, the ones we hate or take to heart—sometimes too much to heart.
We expect our lives to turn out like the stories we’ve heard.
In any case, my newfound realization was enough to make me wonder why I
hadn’t paid more attention. Then, of course, I had to wonder what else
I’d missed. Those were questions made large by the fact that I thought
I’d been living my life—my way. After all, I reasoned, I’d never been
involved in the family business, and, in my adult life, I’d never lived
closer to Bone than a thousand miles.
When I left, I really left.
Or had I?
Conventional wisdom has it that you can’t go home again. However, I
began to wonder what about the “home” we carry with us. What were the
chances of revisiting that?
Make no mistake, from the beginning, I knew that stirring the family
bones was not a Sunday afternoon activity. Everything that applies to
sleeping dogs applies equally to sleeping ghosts. This was not an
undertaking for the naïve or the faint of heart. I told myself that I
would need to be clean, sober, and a little crazy for this trip.
How would I begin?
Years ago, when I thought my job included teaching humility, I used to
ask the students in my freshman composition classes to write an essay
describing “happiness.” No one ever successfully completed that
assignment. I didn’t expect success. It was a set-up that allowed me to
expose the hazards of writing in cliché. Of course, while my students
stumbled over cliches (a small matter) I routinely missed the deeper
issue of why so many of us find it so difficult to describe the thing we
all say we want.
Family stories are similar in that we seldom examine them. Seldom push
beyond the surface. Never mind that we talk in stories all the time—over
dinner, at work, on the phone, with friends, with strangers. We seem to
regard stories as “just stories,” the way we seem to think happiness is
just happiness. We’ll know it when we find it.
Of course, family stories get shrugged off, not only because they’re
“just stories,” but because they’re the “same old stories.” We think we
know them until we ask: Why that story? Why that story told that way?
It’s an exercise I recommend, no matter what you think your story is.
It’ll change your life.
In my case, besides going back to Bone, an obvious destination, I
traveled from the deserts of Arizona to the islands of Denmark. Along
the way, I met a climbing snake, tried my hand at making “dump cake,”
and learned why every girl needs a horse.
Everywhere I went I made the same request. “Tell me the family stories.”
Sometimes, it was assumed that I wanted a copy of the family genealogy.
That wasn’t it. Nobody remembers names and dates without writing them
down. I wanted the stories, true or not, that we can’t forget. I wanted
to understand the hold those stories have on us because what we decide
those stories mean often determines what we decide our own lives mean. In short, I went looking for my family’s version of familial wisdom. I
returned with stories—more and more and MORE stories. Hard questions, I
discovered, don’t have answers. They have stories.
In the following essays, I share my findings—the stories—and some
thoughts on the stories we live.
Chapter 1 — The Story
In my family, we tell one story more than any other—the story of my
Great Grandmother Sophia and the railroad she held hostage for the sake
of love. When we tell this story, we like to emphasize that we’re not
talking about stopping one or two trains. Our ancestor brought an entire
railroad to a standstill.
Perhaps, I should explain that my family has a hundred years of history
in the American West. We own some of the sage-scented land made
legendary by Hollywood movies and, before that, in dime novels. We’ve
lived too long under a sky so wide it can still make you think there are
no limits. For that, and other reasons, we tell ourselves that we never
do anything halfway.
Of course, there are several versions of “the story,” and every reason
to believe it’s gotten better over time. Stories usually do.
Nevertheless, it seems to be based on a real incident. By that, I mean
the facts that can be checked, seem to check out.
Of course, that’s not what really matters. True or false, our story is
OUR STORY, and like most families, we secretly believe that our history
reflects our character. Beyond common chromosomes, we think we share a
stubborn, never-give-up determination that we credit for having gotten
us through good times and bad. In short, we think we know who we are
because of “the story.”
Here’s how I like to tell it:
Out West, when people, like my family, still worried about outlaws,
Indians, grasshoppers, and dust storms, my Great Grandmother Sophia got
a job working for the railroad. She was fourteen years old, at the time,
and small. She weighed less than a hundred pounds. Size matters, because
working for the railroad was no easy “town job.”
She began as a cook’s helper and later became a cook—part of a crew of
men and women who were laying railroad tracks, through canyons and
across wide-open prairies, connecting some of the last far-flung
outposts of the American frontier. The year was 1879.
The job consisted of fixing dinner at night and breakfast the next
morning in one place. Then, while the men were laying track, the women
would load their tent kitchen onto mules and move—four, five, six miles
down the roadbed—the distance the men were expected to get that day. At
each stop, they unloaded their mules, set up camp, and had dinner ready
by the time the men caught up with them. This was hard, backbreaking
work, done six and a half days a week, in good weather and bad.
That, of course, is one of the places where we sometimes get hung up on
the stories of frontier women—all that hard work—all the drudgery, dirt,
and bitter loneliness. However, that’s not how my family tells “the
story.” That’s not how Sophia told it herself.
I knew my great grandmother, and I remember her talking about her
“railroad days” with a sense of pride. She liked being outdoors, and she
liked the idea that she had been part of something larger than herself,
which was how she viewed her contribution to bringing the railroad to
places it had never been before. What’s more, she was proud that she’d
“earned her own way” from a young age, and proud that she could
cook—really cook. In fact, the thing I remember most about her is her
kitchen, and how it was always filled with the aroma of her breads and
stews. She was famed for her pie.
At this point, “the story” is in danger of falling into cliché. Many of
us have memories of grandmothers and cooking and old-style kitchens
filled with wonderful aromas. It’s a memory that has come to mean
“grandmother.” We forget that to the women of my great grandmother’s
generation being able to cook was considered an asset. The women of her
generation found regular employment cooking in logging camps, mining
camps, and railroad camps. They cooked for threshing crews, haying
crews, sheepshearing crews—you name it. Only recently has there been a
belated recognition that the women who were cooking for these crews were
as essential to the economy of that time as the cowboys, miners, and
lumberjacks that they were feeding.
And the work was just as dangerous.
In fact, on railroad crews, the cooks were actually the ones who were
exposed to the greatest danger. They had the food, and they were often
out ahead of the men at a time when marauding Indians were marauding
mainly because they were hungry.
Besides that, the job had its own hazards. Sophia knew a girl, her age,
who was crippled when one of the mules fell on her and another who was
blinded when one of the stoves exploded. Those tragedies were felt
keenly, because the women working on these crews often formed extremely
close friendships in as much as they were constantly “watching out for
each other.” That, of course, is a polite euphemism for that fact that
one occupational danger was from the men on those same crews “who might
not be gentlemen” or “might forget themselves” while working in remote
places. Then there were more general hazards—sudden storms that could
lead to exposure and pneumonia or bad water that sometimes caused whole
camps to come down with typhoid fever. The list goes on and on . . ..
However, none of that matched the raw, unregulated competition between
rival railroads that sometimes led to two companies simultaneously
laying track through the same narrow canyon. The company that finished
first got paid. The other got nothing. In that race, both company’s
crews were often guarded by armed men, who hardly needed an excuse to
start shooting. What’s more, since everyone knew that crews worked best
on full stomachs, kidnapping the competition’s cooks was considered fair
game, if not “fair sport,” another euphemism of that day.
The summer that I remember Sophia best was the summer when she was in
her nineties and I was nine. It’s an indication of her character that,
even as a child, I had no difficulty connecting the old woman I knew
with the young girl I kept hearing about. At ninety-plus years of age,
she was still spry and quite feisty enough to make me believe she was
capable of handling anything.
According to “the story,” Sophia worked at her job several years as
various stretches of railroad were added across what is now northern
Utah, southern Idaho, western Montana, eastern Oregon, and parts of
Wyoming. She was still young, nineteen years old, when she fell in love
with one of the men who were laying track—a foreman on one of the crews.
Seemingly they had a lot in common. They were both first generation
Americans, children of Danish immigrants who’d crossed the prairie in
covered wagons to settle frontier towns in the high desert of the Great
Basin. His name was George Nielsen, and, when he proposed marriage, she
agreed that she would become “Mrs. Nielsen”—the name she would be called
most of her life. However, she attached one condition. Before they could
set a wedding date, she had to collect her back pay.
The railroad company she was working for was having financial
difficulties. As a result, everyone working for that particular company
was owed considerable back pay. She was owed more than a year’s worth.
What to do about that situation became the young couple’s first
disagreement. George doubted that Sophia would ever collect all that was
due her. Most of the so-called “skilled men,” like himself, would
eventually settle for less than what they were owed. That was simply how
it was. As a lowly cook, she’d be lucky to get anything. He wanted her
to forget the money and come away with him. Together they would make-do
on hard work.
Sophia had great respect for hard work—she’d certainly done her
share—but she was of the opinion that getting ahead took more than “pure
hard work.” She’d been poor all her life. She was not going to start her
married life with just the clothes on her back. On that point, she was
adamant. She would marry George when she got her back pay and not one
Word of the young couple’s impasse spread up and down the railroad
lines. In the five years that she’d worked with various crews, a great
many railroad workers had met and come to like Sophia. More to the
point, they knew she had a mind of her own. In fact, most of the men
were not betting on George being able to change her mind. Soon the story
of the young lovers and their stand-off changed to sympathy for George’s
plight. Then sympathy changed to action.
The strike started when the men in the camp, where Sophia was working,
quit early one day for her sake. Once started, the strike spread
quickly. Next day, it had jumped to two more camps. Three days later, it
had involved several more camps. Men, who were laying track in three
directions, simply put down their tools and refused to go on—not because
they hoped to get their own pay—but because they wanted to see Sophia
married in style.
The railroad bosses had another idea. They fired her. Without an easy
alternative, they must have thought that she’d give up, get married, and
move on with her new husband. If so, they were wrong.
The same betting men, who weren’t putting any money on George, weren’t
putting any money on the railroad bosses either. Sophia stood her
ground, the men refused to return to work, and the strike continued to
spread. Because the railroad bosses got stubborn, the strike went on
much longer than anyone might have imagined in a situation where no one
got paid unless they laid track fast and finished first. However, in the
end, it was the railroad bosses who gave in. They paid Sophia, and she
started married life in style. It is said that her wedding included an
orchestra that played all night and guests who danced even longer “when
they had to whistle their own tune to keep celebrating.”
Sophia and George’s back wages, combined with her savings, were enough
for her and her husband to eventually buy one hundred and sixty acres in
southeastern Idaho. Those acres were the beginning of a sheep and cattle
ranch that would include tens of thousands of acres by the time she
died—by the time I knew her.
Unfortunately, she’s been gone a long time. My Grandma Melba, whom I
affectionately call “Auntie Mame in Boots,” ran the ranch after her. Now
my mother is responsible for the largest remaining piece, which is still
several thousand acres large. Meanwhile, I live in a Colorado suburb
where the wide sky and mountain backdrop are often obscured by Denver’s
smog. Being stuck in traffic might tempt me to forget my heritage if it
weren’t for that story. It hangs over my life thicker than smog—a fact
that was recently brought to my attention.
I was teaching a creative writing seminar. One of my students was
working on an autobiographical novel about three generations of
women—mothers and daughters—who seemed to do nothing but increase each
other’s misery. It was a well-written, if melancholy, book, but I didn’t
understand the source of all that misery. Because I suspected that
subsequent readers might feel a similar discomfort, I asked the question
I get around to asking most of my students sooner or later: “Why do you
want to write THIS story?”
It’s a deceptively simple question that I usually have to ask several
times, before getting down to the core. Stories don’t happen. We choose
them and WHY we choose a certain story can make all the difference in
HOW we tell it. The “how” was the problem. I wanted my student to offer
her readers a ray of hope, some reason to keep reading.
This is the exceptional student. She knows why.
“I wanted to write this book when I realized that all the women in my
family have married men we don’t love,” she told me. “I mean, God forbid
that one of us should actually break the cycle.”
I was startled to hear that, not because she was so clear-eyed about her
central narrative, not because of the expressed bitterness (that was in
her book), and certainly not because I didn’t believe her. Families run
these kinds of patterns all the time. I was startled because I’d
recognized some similarities between the generations of her family and
my own. Actually, I thought the similarities were nearly universal.
Except for the particulars, she could have been writing about almost any
set of mothers and daughters, mine included, with one exception. I can’t
imagine the women in my family settling for less than love, not because
we have perfect outcomes, but because we tell love stories.
Melba, my grandmother—the one I call “Auntie Mame in Boots”—met Sophia’s
youngest son at a summer dance. She was sixteen, an orphan living with
her older sister, and desperately in need of a rescue. He was riding a
white horse. If that sounds like a fairytale, all I can say is that some
of the other details are not quite so princely.
All that next fall and winter, she watched for him and went out to greet
him whenever he rode past her place on his way to pick up a wagon load
of beet pulp, a by-product of processing sugar beets that is fed to
livestock in winter. Unfortunately it is a notoriously fragrant
by-product. Melba teased him about courting her while “smelling worse
than vinegar.” In turn, he accused her of liking his horses better than
she liked him. By that time, Sophia and her family had prospered. They
were known as “The White Horse Nielsens” because even their wagon horses
were light-colored grays, notably well-bred.
Evidently he was not the only one to notice that Melba had an eye for a
good horse. The neighbors had begun to talk. In their minds, there was
also some question as to whether she loved the man or his horses more.
Within the family, however, there has never been a question. Any woman
who couldn’t love both wouldn’t be considered worthy of the family name.
In fact, we usually tell this story with a sense of mockery, as if
pitying those poor neighbors, who didn’t seem to understand that any
woman in her right mind would always choose both.
Supposedly my father proposed to my mother in the fourth grade, and
there was never anyone else for either of them. We have a picture in the
family photo album of the two of them and their fourth grade class.
Nothing out of the ordinary, it’s a school picture—three rows of 1930s
schoolchildren lined up on the steps of their schoolhouse. Everyone is
looking at the camera except my dad. He has taken a step back and cast a
sideways glance at my mother, who’s standing next to him. It’s such a
fun, sweet picture, you want to believe the story of their fourth-grade
love. However, on second thought, the picture is too perfect. You have
to wonder which came first, the story or the photo?
With that in mind, I asked my aunts, one by one, if my mother or my
father had ever been interested in anyone else. They claim not. So, what
can I say? Either the story is true, or the story has been repeated so
many times, it has replaced memory.
Stories are that powerful.
However, I got nowhere explaining this to my student. She insisted that
she was telling her story “the way it was.” Any modification would “be a
lie.” As our conversation continued, I realized she and her family took
pride in the belief that they lived on a bedrock of reality. No
fairytales for them. By implication, my student was suggesting that my
history was mostly fairytale.
Here’s the sad part of my parent’s story.
My father served in World War II. Besides having his feet frozen in the
Battle of the Bulge, he was one of the first paratroopers to jump into
Germany, across the Rhine River. I’m told that the survivors of that
jump, few in number, talked about whether any of them would get out
alive. In a sense, none did. It is the unanimous opinion of the family
that my father “never got over the war.” To make a long story short, my
mother married a young man who was different from the one she fell in
love with, when they were both ten years old. Sophia’s love story didn’t
end like a fairytale either. She was a widow longer than she was
married. In both cases, however, those are not the stories that we
choose to tell most often.
In my family we have stories that we call, “Oh Dear Me’s.” As a child, I
was allowed to tell an “Oh Dear Me,” once, as a way to rant against the
unfairness of the world, but I was never encouraged to repeat one. The
family attitude was that nothing would be accomplished by such a
re-telling, except to wallow in self-pity.
I know another family that handles hard times by referring to them as
memories. “We’ve just made a memory,” they’ll say in the face of some
new setback. It’s their way of creating an emotional safety net.
According to their scheme of things, you have no way to lose. No matter
what happens, you’re always richer in memories.
Once when I had an occasion to spend several weeks in Ireland, I watched
a mother and her young daughter stop frequently at the graveyard across
the street from where I was staying. Turns out they were visiting the
grave of the child’s sister, her twin. The mother seemed to think it was
important for the living child to share her “memories,” almost daily,
with the stillborn sister. When I heard that story, I couldn’t help
wondering how deeply the living child would be affected by that ritual.
Would she feel the burden of living for two? Or would she come to think
that she was luckier than most because she had an unseen sister to share
her life? Either way, she would not escape the story of her birth.
None of us do.
We can run, so to speak, but we can’t hide. We can embrace, reject, rise
above, or change the way we tell our family stories, but we can’t avoid
them. To deny the effect those stories have on us is foolhardy. Most
often, unless we make a conscious choice, these stories become our tape
“We are the White Horse Nielsens.”
“We don’t tell Oh dear me’s.”
“WE STOP TRAINS.”
“Yeah, right, and how many trains have you stopped lately?” my student
asked when I got to this part of my argument.
For me to dismiss her story as an elaborate “Oh, dear me,” makes as much
sense as thinking I have the family formula for stopping the world. In
fact, you can argue that her narrative has an advantage over mine. In
our culture, when a woman marries the man of her dreams, she’s supposed
to live happily ever after.
My parents had one perfect moment. Right after he returned from the war,
my father took my mother to the local Saturday night dance. He was still
in his uniform. She was flushed with the happiness of having him home.
When he took her in his arms and they started to dance, everyone else
stepped back and let them have the floor. And then, when the dance was
over, everyone applauded.
Moments like that are rare.
The women in my student’s family have never had to deal with the
disappointment that inevitably follows a moment like that. Because they
tell their stories differently, because they emphasize that they DON’T
marry for love, they never have to wonder what happened to the fairytale
ending. They know what’s making them unhappy.
We’re all looking for escapes. If we meet the right man, or write a
best-selling novel, or win the lottery, then everything will be fine, we
tell ourselves. In truth, we mount one obstacle only to discover
another. We land the perfect job, only to discover that the real
challenge is doing the job. We marry the person we love, only to find
that staying in love requires a whole new set of skills. There are no
fixes. The Apocalypse is an allegory. Life goes on.
Which is why we need our family stories.
Collectively, they are the guide for going on. A good guide does not
create the illusion of a problem-free road ahead. Rather, it should
offer the generations that follow a hint at the skills that have served
before. More than a hint, a hand up, a way of empowering the individual
while not requiring that he or she go it alone.
A hundred years ago, there was a legendary “tie yourself down” stretch
of railroad along Beaver Canyon, one of the places my great grandmother
worked. The road was so rough, a crew was stationed there with the sole
purpose of cleaning up the box cars that weren’t tied down and therefore
tipped over and smashed on the rocks below. “Tie yourself down,” meaning
prepare for a rough ride, is a phrase I whispered to give myself
courage, long before I knew the term probably originated with my
family’s railroad background.
Most of us have no idea how deep the stories go. Most of the time we
never question our family’s way of describing the world. “Tie yourself
down,” we say and go on like that’s the only way. I happen to have grown
up in a place where the scenery is an ocean of emptiness, an unrelenting
sameness of sagebrush and Indian grass. That’s a landscape you have to
learn to love. The same can be said of my family.
Of all families.
And all their stories.
In the end, where we come from—a ranch in Idaho or a village in
Italy—may matter less than how we choose to explain ourselves.
Universally, families use stories to explain the important things, like
why we do certain things, who we think we are, and what we expect from
life and each other. Even my student came around to the idea that her
family had created an unusually strong, if unhappy, bond between the
generations of their mothers and daughters partly because their central
narrative didn’t allow anyone else in.
For whatever reason, my family made a different choice. To hold a family
together, we believe that you need a good love story. Therefore, when my
husband and I talk about ourselves, we tell the “Porche story.”
My husband-to-be courted me in a brand-new Porche 912. I didn’t know
much about cars at the time, still don’t. My excuse is growing up on
that ranch in Idaho. On a ranch, you drive the kind of vehicles that
handle dirt roads and lots of dust. Old pickup trucks, mainly. Of
course, I appreciated the new car shininess and the new car smell, but I
had no idea that a Porche was more than just another German-made car. I
thought it was just a flattened version of a Volkswagon.
That is, until that fall when I went back to college. The first weekend,
when he drove up in front of my apartment, my roommates’ mouths dropped.
“He drives a Porche?” they asked in near unison. I nodded, too
embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know I was supposed to be impressed.
Now, when I tell the story, I always add that whatever it was that
impressed me, it wasn’t his car.
That story, of course, is NOT the sum of our relationship. It’s more.
Over the years, that story has deepened and distilled until there are
times when “Honey, you don’t need a Porche” is enough said.
Boulder, Colorado, USA