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Each year, Women’s History Month highlights amazing, adventurous, iconoclastic women. And, each year, I think of my great-aunt Rena.

Feisty and independent, Irene “Rena” Harrison was born on August 12, 1900 in Usal, California. Her parents were, technically, Finnish immigrants. I say “technically,” because I and all of my cousins were brought up to believe we were Swedish. The truth, however, is my great-grandparents emigrated from a Swedish village in Finland.

Rena was the second child to be born in the new country. She was also the first daughter, growing up during a time when society’s expectations of women were negligible. She ignored society, and pursued a variety of traditionally male-oriented interests.

She taught herself how to drive and build a house (including electrical and plumbing). In fact, she built several houses and an apartment complex. She was a hunter and tracker. When a baby sibling died, she made the headstone.

With her crooked smile, Rena was quite a character and everyone loved her. Well, except her ex-fiancé, who she dumped a few days before their wedding. She said she wasn’t going to have any man tell her what to do. He later became the town drunk.

During World War I, while men were fighting overseas, she filled in job gaps, such as working at a grape packing plant. She also helped make bandages during the deadly 1918 Flu Epidemic, which ultimately killed more people than the war. During World War II, she was a ranch foreman, worked in a cookhouse, and a Ford garage.

Rena had a green Model T, “Tin Lizzie.” The car was always packed with a shovel, toilet paper, blanket and water, because you had to be “ready for anything.”

In the 1920s, she and friend Elna hitchhiked from Fort Bragg to Eureka, sleeping alongside the road on their bedrolls. It took them three days.

Rena could drink with the best of them. After an evening of imbibing bootleg whiskey, she put both legs in one leg of her pajamas, and went to bed. In the morning, she thought she was paralyzed on one side of her body.

She enjoyed living alone. Other women might have been frightened, but not Rena. One night, when a man knocked on her door, she thought he was going to attack her. Instead of hiding, however, she grabbed a piece of wood by the stove, and went running after him yelling, “Stop, you son-of-a-bitch! I’ll kill you!”

At carnivals, she’d play Skin Games; games of chance and skill. One was called Nail Driving. A block of wood had a good-sized nail just started. If you pounded it in with either one or two shots, you’d win a prize. The women working the booth said, “Give the lady three tries,” not knowing Rena was the best carpenter in the family, with very strong arms. Pow! The nail was gone in one. She’d take home the biggest stuffed animal. When the carnival workers changed shifts, she’d go back and do it again.

Rena never married or had children, but she babysat just about everyone in the family. One day, while taking care of a couple of rowdy nephews, her patience ended. Putting hands on her hips, she said, “If you don’t behave, you’re going to hell. Do you know what hell is?” They both shook their heads, mouths open. “It’s 15 feet high full of shit!” They didn’t give her trouble after that.

She’d work at carpentry during the day, and embroider at night. She’d cuss like a sailor, and smoked cigars. She’d help you tie your shoelaces, then build a fireplace.

When they filmed “The Russians Are Coming,” the movie producers were charmed by Rena’s quirkiness. They asked her if she could drive a wagon in the film, warning the town of an “invasion” by Russians. She wasn’t interested, though. She told them she had “better things to do than be in a damn movie.” The part went to actor Ben Blue.

As she grew older, received surgeries on her throat and back, and had to live with a nephew and his wife, she never lost her independent spirit. She would get in her car and just take off.

Rena had a crush on a bartender named Charlie. When she was 84 years old, the night she died, even though she was in a coma, she said, “Set ‘em up, again, Charlie.”

Per her request, instead of a funeral, there was a party. She would have been pleased to know that, in her honor, two of her nieces smoked a cigar.

Rena set an example for the girls in the family that anything was possible, and to not compromise our dreams. She was my superhero.


Why write your memoir? Why help someone write their life story? I wanted to share this eloquent passage from Diane Setterfield’s “The Thirteenth Tale.”

“People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic.”

You never know what interesting, and often entertaining, stories you’ll turn up when you start asking questions. This long Twitter thread is a prime example.


Nicole Cliffe

My dad thought HIS dad was dead until I was a year old. Then he found him in the Toronto phone book.

My mom was doing my family tree and started asking where he was buried and what he died of.

“Huh, dunno. Mom just said he was dead.”

“Doesn’t your mom lie about everything, all the time?”


(opens phone book for Canada’s most populous city: boom, there he is)

“Mom, why did you tell us Dad was dead?” “Well, I hadn’t heard from him in a while, and divorce is such an unpleasant topic.”

So, my dad calls his dad and is like “uh, are you the Ralph Cliffe who was married to Horrible Mother?” (He was.)

So, my dad went to visit him and then we went to visit him and we always brought him a carton of DuMauriers and he bought us Mint Aeros.

Later I was like “Dad, you know your dad didn’t think YOU were dead, didn’t that bug you?”

And he said “listen, no human being who had the ability to get away from my mother would have passed it up. I have no hard feelings.”

The real fun coda to this story (there are two, you’re being so patient!) came a year or so later, when my mom found a wedding pic.

A wedding pic of my dad’s mom, not to my dad’s dad, not to her new husband. An older one. “Who’s that?” she asked her.

Turns out she had married a British soldier during WW2, decided she hated England, got on a troop ship and came home. Never divorced him.

(Divorce being unpleasant.) So she just took that one as a mulligan. He wrote her a lot of letters, she ignored them.

So, she was bigamously married to my dad’s dad, and then later to her new husband.

Now, her new husband was a lot of fun, and a great grandpa to my brother and me. Buncha weird tattoos, missing a thumb.

He was Latvian. We would sit on his lap and play with his thumb stump and watch WWII movies.

But in the late 1980s he started to get really squirrelly and paranoid. Which, in retrospect, was because of the Deschênes Commission.

(Canada had started looking more firmly at the war records of German soldiers who slid on into Canada in the fifties.)

But then he died and no one wanted more Unpleasantness, so there you go.

Anyway, she was one of the worst moms of all time and definitely the worst wife and she and I hung out 24/7 and she let me smoke.

And we watched Young and the Restless together and Biography on A&E and I often miss her. And my dad somehow turned out great.

Thank you for listening to my Canadian family saga, in which avoiding Unpleasantness led to bigamy and marrying Nazis and abandonment.

OH, I forgot the best part! On my dad’s dad’s deathbed, he said “Bill, I have secrets!” and my dad was like “Jesus, Dad, let’s not.”

“Your sister? Not mine. You remember [some guy]?”

So, a few months later, my dad said “hey, sis, do you remember [some guy]?”

And she said, “oh, yeah! He took me to the circus once, randomly.”

And THAT is definitely the end of this story.

I do not feel bad airing the family laundry like this, because that woman may have hated Unpleasantness, but she fucking LOVED Drama.

The only thing you really miss out on by hearing this story via Twitter is me saying “the Mounties are after me!” in a thick Latvian accent.

When I interview elders about their life stories for family histories, I always ask them to describe their grandparents and parents. “Describe their personalities.” “What did they look like?” Although photographs may offer a visual reference, the impressions made on us provide further insight.

An interesting article,”How your life story is told by your hands,” stirred some personal memories.

My paternal grandmother always said her hands were her best feature, and even though she grew up in the country and raised three boys, she made a point of protecting and taking care of her hands.

My maternal grandfather was a sailor in the 1920s, using his hands swabbing the deck and working on the engines. After leaving the Navy, he worked in a lumber mill, and while pushing a piece of lumber through a circular saw, his hand slipped, and a finger was cut off. When my brothers and I were children, he made up a different story each time we asked about the missing finger.

My mother’s hands reflected gardening, sewing, and drawing. They were strong, and supportive. You knew she would catch you if you fell, literally and figuratively.

What do you “see” when you think of loved ones’ hands?

An integral part of memoirs is sharing your memories of local, national, and international events; whether you were personally there, or you were a witness as the events unfolded. Fourteen years ago, on September 11, 2001, the Twin Towers were attacked by suicide pilots, and the loss of lives, and resulting impact on survivors and rescuers was, and continues to be, devastating. Make a list of your personal memories of that day, and the days that followed, to allow your descendants an understanding of how their ancestors were affected. Here is my list:

  • The catch in Peter Jennings’ voice as he asked the reporter to repeat the incomprehensible news that the second tower had also been hit.
  • News that another plane had crashed into the Pentagon.
  • The passengers of a fourth plane, Flight 93, learning of the events from loved ones calling on cell phones, took down their hijackers to prevent additional loss of life.
  • People imprisoned in the upper floors, surrounded by walls of fire, choosing to jump to their deaths. A video of firefighters with lowered heads in the Tower’s ash-filled lobby, as the thuds of bodies could be heard as they hit the ground.
  • My cousin’s husband in California unable to focus on anything, fearful for his childhood friend who worked in one of the towers. (He later received news that his friend was okay, having walked down several flights of stairs in the dark, with a terrified woman behind him clasping his pant belt loop.)
  • Covered in ash, and stumbling through debris, random strangers handing their car keys to people who needed to get home to their families.
  • Jon Stewart, with shaky voice, tearfully sharing with The Daily Show viewers that because the Twin Towers had fallen, he now had a clear view of the Statue of Liberty; freedom for all. He was chastised for showing emotion on television.
  • The free concert in New York City given in gratitude for the firefighters, including The Who and Paul McCartney, whose father had been a firefighter.

My grandparents were so cool. As a child, I knew they were the parents of my parents, but I couldn’t connect those dots. They were older people who made me feel special, and introduced me to different perspectives.

This poem resonates with me, so I wanted to share it with you.

My Grandparents’ Generation

They are taking so many things with them:
their sewing machines and fine china,

their ability to fold a newspaper
with one hand and swat a fly.

They are taking their rotary telephones,
and fat televisions, and knitting needles,

their cast iron frying pans, and Tupperware.
They are packing away the picnics

and perambulators, the wagons
and church socials. They are wrapped in

lipstick and big band music, dressed
in recipes. Buried with them: bathtubs

with feet, front porches, dogs without leashes.
These are the people who raised me

and now I am left behind in
a world without paper letters,

a place where the phone
has grown as eager as a weed.

I am going to miss their attics,
their ordinary coffee, their chicken

fried in lard. I would give anything
to be ten again, up late with them

in that cottage by the river, buying
Marvin Gardens and passing go,

collecting two hundred dollars.

The thing about death is that you can’t remember what a person sounded like. You forget all the little things that you once knew. The sound they made when they opened up the front door, the way they walked, the way they laughed.”

Anderson Cooper


The other day, I watched something online so hilarious my left eye closed as I laughed, and I thought of my mother. Her left eye would also close during deep laughter. She passed away over 30 years ago, and while I will obviously never forget her, sometimes these smaller aspects of her fade away. Fortunately, my family has old home movies, and every few years, we’ll get together for a home movie night and I can once again see my mother’s bright smile and gestures that belonged to her alone. Back then, sound wasn’t an option, but her personality shines through nevertheless.

If you were lucky enough to have someone in the family who filmed holidays and other events, those films can be converted onto DVD’s, so you can “revisit” those favorite (and not so favorite) relatives who have passed on or have aged a few decades. Consider sharing these DVD’s as holiday presents this year.

Don’t forget about the future! Videos taken of family events with your camera, smartphone, Pad, Notebook, etc., can be compiled and shared with the family globally.

You also have an opportunity to sit down with your favorite people, and film a one-on-one conversation about his or her life — how obstacles were tackled, funny anecdotes, lessons learned, his or her favorite people, etc.

If a family gathering approaches where a few “old timers” will be present, consider filming them as a group, asking them to share stories about when they were kids. The different personalities will be revealed, and their interaction will provide another layer of insight into your family dynamics.

As this popular vintage photograph montage demonstrates, personalities exist behind formal portraits, so even if you’re taking a formal or quasi-formal group photograph, be sure to take a couple of candid shots of the group being themselves.


That’s a keeper.

You Are A Classic


I covered a news story for a local paper about a pop-up Cupcake Show. Held at a local library, participants created paintings on-the-spot of photographs of cupcakes supplied by the organizer. The event also included a cupcake potluck, a painting demonstration and music. The paintings were on display for only a few hours and then removed.

Diverse pop-ups are growing in popularity, not only with individuals organizing them, but also businesses and non-profits, such as museums, restaurants and boutiques. Like a potluck, the event is dependent upon the community contributing to the event.

From a personal history standpoint, consider creating/hosting Pop-up Storytelling events in your community. Fairs, festivals and farmers markets are popular venues.

– Buy cheap picture frames of various sizes at garage sales or thrift stores to “frame” the contributors’ storied objects.

– Put notices in the newspaper, Craigslist and other media inviting the community to participate in the pop-up by (1) bringing an item that has a story and (2) a story label to accompany it, explaining that it will only be on display for a few hours and they will take it home at the end of the event.

– On the day of the pop-up, at your selected venue spot, place the empty frames (glass removed) on fold-up tables covered with neutral colored cloths. As participants/contributors arrive, place their items into the empty frames with the story label placed just outside of its frame. (Be sure to obtain contact information in the event contributors fail to retrieve the items, for whatever reason.)

Host a monthly Pop-up Storytelling with a different theme each month and gain a following!

My grandparents joyfully announced to me one day they were giving me two items before they made the move to an assisted living facility – a silver-plated coffee set and a Singer sewing machine table. I was strapped for cash at the time, so they happily advised I could sell them for a lot of money.

“Thank you for thinking me,” I smiled. “Unfortunately, there is a crack on the pot and, Grampie, you nailed a shelf onto the table. They aren’t worth anything.”

To their now crestfallen faces, I added, “However, on a sentimental level, they are priceless because they belonged to you. I will always cherish them.”

My grandmother, now a little doubtful, then gestured to the bookcase my grandfather had built for her several years ago.

“A couple of people said there are certain books they would like, so I’ve written their names on the inside covers to make sure no one else takes them. Maybe there are books you could sell. Some of them are old.”

“Again,” I replied, “for non-monetary reasons, there is a book I would like to receive.”

It was the Audubon Society Book of Birds from the 1930’s, which had been given to my mother on her sixth birthday from a favorite aunt.

When I was a child, a visit to my grandparents’ home involved a four-hour drive for my family, so it was usually reserved for holidays. After the initial hugs, as my parents were unloading the car, I headed to the bookcase, grabbed the Audubon book and immediately flipped through the pages until I found the puffins illustration. I don’t know what it was about that particular bird that appealed to me so strongly, but I would stare at it for about ten minutes, put it back on the shelf and then go outside to play.

My grandmother was surprised to hear this. It was news to her.

I then advised her that my younger brothers had favorites as well. I pointed out four books on a bottom shelf.

“The boys will definitely want these, so make sure no one else stakes a claim to them.” I pulled out one of the classic novels – Prince Valiant.

“Why do you say that?”

“While I made a beeline to the Audubon book, they headed directly to these. They loved the colorful illustrations and, because they didn’t know how to read yet, their imaginations would tell them the stories.”

Completely taken aback, she stared at me, nonplussed.

“Next time they’re here,” I suggested, “ask which ones they would each like.”

During a subsequent visit, my grandmother – still looking confused – said I was right. “They definitely wanted those books. I had no idea.”

We embarked on a lengthy discussion on the importance of items associated with treasured memories. She brought out a hat box which contained a crocheted bed coverlet which had belonged to her mother and, later, a wooden kitchen tool her mother used to mash potatoes. She felt her mother was with her when she glanced or held it.

Next time your children or grandchildren visit, ask if there is anything you have that is special to them and ask them to share their memories with you. You’ll learn something about them and yourself and, in the process, create new special memories.

My grandparents have since passed. One of my brothers has a three-foot wall divider in his home. Our grandmother’s books lie on top, lovingly displayed. Sometimes, I find myself patting them as I walk by, just to say “hi.”

I love strolling through antique malls. Some may only see a building filled with old junk, but for me, it’s a fabulous opportunity for imaginative spelunking through objects’ unshared stories:

A painting purchased by a lonely housewife temporarily eased her aching heart. A book offered adventures to a young boy who yearned to leave home. A clock traveled thousands of miles from the “old country” accompanied by hopes of a prosperous land. A porcelain Victorian doll was shipped by a WWII sailor to his young niece two weeks before losing his life to a direct torpedo hit. Vinyl albums were played over and over by girlfriends at a slumber party. A mahogany table played host to dinners, holidays, discussions and challenging homework. The art of whittling was learned with a pocketknife gifted from a beloved grandfather. A ring had been carried in a pocket during picnics, movies and walks before the proposal was finally blurted out during a rainstorm. Building blocks hand-me-downs from four older siblings continued to bring joy. Martini glasses filled every Thursday night for ladies’ bridge night.

Photographs of discarded relatives periodically appear in and out of frames: Two brothers – one seated and one standing – agree to the portrait after their mother’s anguish that they are leaving home to fight the Yanks. A teenage girl standing behind a chair with a wide, white collar and hair tied back in a pony tail just learned the boy she has crush on also has a crush on her. A young daughter holds her mother’s brooch, causing the younger brother to cry until his father lets him hold his pocket watch for the family portrait. A group of second grade students in a class picture just learned of two classmates’ deaths due to diphtheria. A middle-aged woman glares, irritated, at the camera, thinking about numerous unfinished chores.

I also love driving or walking through older communities where more stories await: That beautifully landscaped home’s secret cellar witnessed brewing of illegal hooch during Prohibition, which was also sold to neighbors. A victory garden in the backyard in the next block preceded the swimming pool and spa. A battered wife hid her shame and embarrassment in the charming bungalow. The strict piano teacher on the corner produced three successful concert pianists. A president visited his old college chum in the brownstone.

That is why I enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s book, “Behind the Scenes at the Museum,” in which she provides a bird’s eye view of a family history. The reader is led back-and-forth through time through objects, places and people as informative bread crumbs gently and often humorously ultimately bring us to a complete picture. The book’s story, as with  life, is multi-layered.

Pay more attention to what surrounds you. Leave the flat plains of existence and explore the depths and heights that surround you. You won’t be bored. I promise.

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