I was raised in a family that cherishes its elders. Perhaps this is why I love older people and their stories. My paternal grandmother died in 1997 at the age of 101. My great-grandma lived into her 90s. Several great-aunts lived to their late 90s and past the century mark.
I grew up knowing that older people deserve respect and attention. I understood (in a way that many people apparently do not) that older people were not, in fact, always old. Indeed, they were once young. And middle-aged. And they had many stories to tell.
My mother's parents, who were of German descent, came to America through Ellis Island in 1921. From them I came to understand the immigrant experience in America, the difficulties assimilating, the longing at times for a home faraway. From what they'd been through, I saw what it was like to be poor, to hope for more, to work in sweatshops, on farms, or mopping the floors of the rich until your fingers bled. And I realized how lucky I was to be American-born and have a head start.
Through my father's bloodline, I am a thirteenth generation American. His ancestors include a Dutch woman who arrived in America via shipwreck, a female Lenni-Lenape Indian born circa 1700, and a band of brothers who fought against the British during the Revolutionary War. These were some tough people. From what I've been able to learn they, too, were poor although their quality of life was probably quite good. In the early part of the 1900s, they started leaving the farm life. My grandfather went to Cornell, Class of 1922, and eventually became a very successful businessman who served on FDR's National War Labor Board, which essentially kept the country going economically during World War Two.
Stories surround us everywhere we look. As a child, I recall playing in a converted ice house near my paternal grandparents' cottage in Lake George, N.Y. The ice house had long been turned into a garage, guest room, and storage area, and it seemed to have become a repository of family memorabilia. There were cannon balls and bullet fragments from the Civil War, ancient wedding rings of gold as thin as thread, and photographs of serious and somewhat scary-looking people, but I understood that these were my people - long dead, yes - but mine. Whoever they had been, they had saved these items for me. And so I had a comfort level with history and the past that is probably unusual.
One of the challenges of my childhood - which in retrospect turned out to be a blessing - was that we moved several times. My mother was a homemaker and my father, an electrical engineer and marketing executive, a profession which involved relocating every five or six years. The experience of living in Columbia, South Carolina from age 6 to 12 was pivotal for me. By living in the Deep South during my formative years, I acquired an ability with language and storytelling that is uniquely Southern.
These are the qualities, experiences and values that I bring to the table each time I interview someone and, later, when I sit at my writing desk, hoping to capture their story for posterity.
I suppose it's no coincidence that when I tried my hand at fiction, my mind would turn to the past for inspiration. In fact, it is often pointed out by reviewers and readers that the narrator in my debut novel, Miss Dreamsville, is an older woman - 80 year old Dora Witherspoon - who has a story from her youth that she is ready to share. "I want young'uns to know about my time and place, the people I knew, and a world that's all but gone," Dora says.
Whether I am writing fiction or nonfiction, these are the stories I feel compelled to write. How else can we learn if not by sharing our stories? Reading, writing, and storytelling are acts of love, not the physical kind, but love for humanity, and with any luck, they just might save us.
Copyright 2014 by Amy Hill Hearth
May be quoted or reproduced for educational purposes.