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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.”

The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Mark Twain

Although he died a century ago, he continues to be quoted and his books continue to be read by each generation.  He has so many fans that Hal Holbrook has been successfully performing his Tony Award winning one-man show, “Mark Twain Tonight,” every year since 1954. 

And, yet, the publishing and retail industries were stunned to learn that Mr. Twain’s autobiography would sell more than the originally printed 50,000 copies.  I shook my head in bewilderment.   Have they been living in an alternate reality?

I experience the same head shaking moment when people tell me their life stories aren’t interesting.  No one else has lived them.  That, in and of itself, makes them interesting.  Additionally, reading the biography of a celebrity is never as interesting as reading biographies of family members, because you’re related to them.

“You will never know how much enjoyment you have lost until you get to dictating your autobiography.”

Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain

Have you begun dictating your autobiography?  Why not?

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Children should be seen and not heard.”

Children definitely did not have a voice. The April 1874 case of Mary Ellen Wilson illustrates this point:

A charity worker was alerted to the severe abuse eight year old Mary Ellen was suffering in the home of her “stepmother.” The charity worker could not have Mary Ellen removed from the home, as there was no existing legal means to do so. The only alternative left to the charity worker was to have Mary Ellen’s stepmother prosecuted for abuse under existing laws prohibiting cruelty to animals. In effect, Mary Ellen had to be classified as an animal before any existing legislation could be used to protect her from the abuse she was suffering at the hands of her stepmother. As a result, the first child abuse case in New York City was prosecuted under cruelty to animal laws. It would appear that animals were deemed worthy of protection in nineteenth century society, yet children were not. This situation was remedied in December 1874 with the establishment of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.”

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, homeless and orphaned children on the east coast were “placed out” to families across the country and into Canada. Many were immigrant families and could neither speak or write English. Some were treated like slaves, being forced to work in factories and on farms. Historically, the practice was commonplace, going back to ancient Jewish and early Christian cultures. English practiced it routinely. Following World War II, approximately 2,000 British war orphans were shipped to the United States and Canada.

Several organizations were actually involved in the “placing out” of children. In addition to New York, Boston was a source of the “orphan train” as well. The majority of the children were sent to the west, many were also sent to New England, the south, and the eastern seaboard.

Considering recent legal immigration events, it is interesting to note that no children were placed in Arizona.

In 1853, Charles Loring Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society, which placed out over 150,000 children and young adults over a 75 year span , transporting them via train from the east coast to predominately Midwest destinations. The overriding focus of the CAS was to remove large numbers of children from the city. Many of the children who participated in the program were not orphans, but had living family members.

While many applaud the efforts of placing these children in loving and supportive homes, critics claim that although the program was promoted as a humanitarian effort, it was, in reality, an employment service for cheap labor. Farmers did, in fact, use the CAS as a labor source and, in many instances, children were placed in abusive situations.

The last “orphan train” ran in 1929, when focus had, finally, segued into the care and protection of children.

Is there a member of your family who was a rider of the orphan train?

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Rene Manes was a female version of the neighborhood bully.  She was taller than most of us girls, had long blonde hair, pale skin, and was intimidating as hell.  A bit of a loner, she kept to herself, except to abuse any poor sap who unwittingly crossed her path.

One summer day, she approached a few of us who were playing marbles, and asked if she could join the game.  Stunned, we just looked at her.  Rene Manes not only wanted to play with us, but she actually asked permission.  Speechless, all we could manage were slow, short nods.

In our school, “steely boulders” were considered the most valuable marble, followed by agates, then purees.  Cat-eyes were at the bottom.  In this particular game, I won my first steely boulder.  I was simultaneously ecstatic and terrified, because the marble, naturally, belonged to Rene.  She immediately denied my victory.  A bit loony in my joy at having finally won the coveted steely boulder, I actually stood up to her.  This resulted in an intensely heated debate, and ended when she shoved me on the ground.  The skin of my knee scraped off, I limped home, crying, as blood dripped down my shin.

A couple of days later, my family and my aunt and uncle’s family took a trip to Disneyland.  After checking into the hotel room, my mother discovered my knee wound had become infected.  As she scraped the puss off, I cried and screamed.  My cousin (three years younger than I) watched the painful, grisly procedure through the hotel window, crying and screaming in harmony with me, until her mother carried her off to their room.  The scar on my knee remains to this day, a subtle reminder that standing up to a strong personality does not always have a happy ending.

That fall, I had one more encounter with Her.

In my front yard, stood a tall sycamore tree, with a long, fairly straight, horizontal branch.  It was about half-a-foot out of my reach, but I could jump up, grab it, pull myself up, drape a leg over it, and swing around it like I did on the monkey bars on the playground.

One afternoon, standing under said branch, I assumed the squatting position to segue into the jump.  Rene happened to be walking down the street.  I pretended I didn’t see her.  Midway through my vertical leap, with deliberation and malice aforethought, she yelled my name, knowing that, in a knee-jerk reaction, I would automatically turn my head in response, lose momentum, and plummet to the ground.  I landed on my arm, and watched her continue walking with a smile, as tears rolled down my face.

The doctor told my mother I had a sprained arm, and that I would need to wear a sling until it healed.  At school the next day, Manes called me a “faker,” saying there was nothing wrong with my arm.  Everyone believed her, so I took it off.  When I got home, my mother was not pleased to see me sling-less.  The following morning, she watched me walk down the street to ensure I kept it on.  Of course, I took it off as I was out of her sight.  The arm managed to heal, without physical scarring.  To this day, however, when someone doesn’t believe me, I can become somewhat defensive.

Manes’ family moved the following summer, and the streets became safe once again.  As I grew in height and age, my self-confidence grew as well.  I now stand up for those who are unable to do so, and support the underdogs.  However, whenever I find myself standing next to a tall woman, those cell memories shoot up to the surface, and I have to remind myself I am no longer eight years old.

Were you bullied, or were you the bully?  How have those experiences affected you?

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Joe audrey pop virginia 1949For some people, spending time with family during the holidays does not warm the cockles of their hearts.  There are arguments, disputes, old resentments resurface, lives are judged and criticized, etc.  There is a way, however, to ease the emotional pain of the holiday season. 

Who, in your family, is sincerely cherished by all; someone who is truly respected and held in high regard?  Consider giving a tribute to him or her this holiday season.  A tribute is something the entire family can be involved in, both separately and together. 

When I am hired to put together a personal history, every single person in the family – even the ones who aren’t speaking to anyone – happily donate their time for an interview, because they want to preserve that relative’s memory.  They actually move beyond their issues with the family, and focus on the much loved relative.  When the book is complete, relatives read about the special memories others have – some unique, some shared – about the same individual, and the fondness they once had for each other rises up above the old grudges and disputes.  A healing begins to grow, working its way through each branch and leaf on the family tree.

You have the ability to create a powerful gifted family legacy for future generations.

It begins with one.

Whose life story could you preserve that would reconnect your family?

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“I don’t like that man.  I must get to know him better.”  Abraham Lincoln

In 1923, Robert Todd Lincoln (Abraham’s son) donated his father’s papers to the Library of Congress.  This year, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of President Lincoln’s birth, the Library of Congress is sharing some of those papers and personal items of the President with the country via a traveling exhibition.

We, as a country, are fortunate, indeed, that we are able to understand a former president – centuries before our time – in very personal ways due to the preservation of his writings.  His personality and thought processes are revealed in intimate ways through letters with peers, friends and his wife.  We can more fully appreciate what inner battles he faced when dealing with unfathomable adversity and conflicts, and yet continued to follow his passion in pursuing freedom for all.

He was very articulate, possessed a great writing prowess, could be very direct, had a great sense of humor, and the persuasive gift of reason (for those who were willing to listen).

On the day of his assassination, President Lincoln told his wife that he wanted to visit the Holy Land, Europe and California.  It is only fitting that California was one of the few states chosen for the Lincoln Exhibit to be viewed.  (As I reside in California, I am a little biased.)  I can’t help wonder, though, if he had lived, what impacts his visit on the West Coast might have had on its residents.

If you could go back in time, what question would you like to ask President Lincoln?

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As we move into the digital television era, I’ve been thinking about the old black-and-white TV my family had.  It had to warm up for a few minutes before coming on.  When you turned it off, the screen would slowly fade, getting smaller and smaller, until it became a tiny white dot, and then completely disappeared.  There were several glass tubes in the back that would periodically blow and would have to be replaced.

I had a skateboard which I absolutely loved, and was very adept at riding, including down our very steep driveway.  One birthday, I was given a wood burning set, which I immediately used to write my name on the skateboard, and anything else I could think of.  When I ran out of space, I looked around the yard and the street, for pieces of wood to release my creativity. Having run out of places, I realized the back of the television set was wooden and I could write something on it.  Since it was on the back, no one would know.

Until a tube burned out. 

My dad took one look at my creative drawing, and good-bye wood burning set.

What do you remember about the old television sets?

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What did your grandmother do before you knew her?

Mine was a sharp shooter.  It was news to me!  Never saw her hold a gun in my life, which is probably a good thing.  She was always yelling at us kids to get out of the house, because we were making it dirty.  If she had a gun, I wouldn’t be here writing this …

Ask a grandparent about their childhood; what they did for fun when they were little.  Share here what you find out.

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A fellow historian recently attended an aging conference in Switzerland, where she learned that, in Germany alone, there are over 10,000 residents over the age of 100.  One of them was quoted as saying, “I stopped worrying about my children when they entered rest homes.”

Who is your oldest relative?  What is his or her earliest memory that you find really interesting?

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“We are such spendthrifts with our lives,”  Mr. Newman once told a reporter.  “The trick of living is to slip on and off the planet with the least fuss you can muster.  I’m not running for sainthood. I just happen to think that in life we need to be a little like the farmer, who puts back into the soil what he takes out.”

Paul Newman

Paul Newman

Thank you, Paul, for sharing your time on the planet with us, and setting a high bar for others to aspire.

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