Blog Series, Part One–Tell Your Story, because Your Life Matters

Why You Should Tell Your Story

    I just spent a couple of days with my younger sister, who lives some distance away. It was special to be reminded of happy times when we and our children were young. Later, life brought heartbreak and difficult days to both of us but now, we can laugh again. We’ve lived some stories that deserve to be told.

        My sister raised her family before going back to college and becoming a businesswoman. She lost two of her three adult children. Byron died in his early twenties in a plane crash, along with four other pilots on their way to fight wildfires in California. Cancer took Tami’s life. She left behind a husband and pre-teen daughter. Then my sister’s marriage imploded.
        In spite of multiple griefs and her own battle with cancer, she carried on with her artistic and expert gardening pursuits and is active in the community. Now she is rebuilding her life with a good and caring man. She has a lot to teach others about bravery in the face of heartache.
        Her stories matter. What she did, said, thought, and felt changed her own small corner of the world. Her life has meaning and consequences, and so does yours.

        Each of us makes a difference to someone, somewhere. By telling your own stories, you can continue to affect people’s lives long after you are gone. So, tell your story because your life matters.

    In the next few posts on Sun Breaks, I’ll offer more reasons why you should tell your stories. I’ll also include some “how-to’s.” Stay tuned.

Can you imagine a story behind this picture?

The Visitors

In the fields where their cattle now graze, North Dakota relatives still find circles of rock that mark where Native Americans pitched their tepees and smaller circles of blackened stones where their campfires once blazed. The Indians that left them are long gone, but when Grandpa Tom and Grandma Ethel came to their homestead near Williston in the early 1900s, some First Americans still lived on the prairie. The buffalo herds that had sustained them were dead. They scratched out an existence any way they could.
Thomas and Ethel’s third child, my Aunt Alma, told this story: “One Sunday morning when my parents were having breakfast on the homestead, the door opened and in walked three Indians. The leader, seeing my sister and brother, went to their crib and gravely shook hands with them. Then, turning to my father, he asked, “Your papoose?” When my father assured him they were, he said, “Heap fine papoose.”

Then he came to the purpose of his visit. My uncle had shot and skinned a bobcat, then thrown the carcass out back of the barn. The visitors wanted it. My father gave them permission to take it but asked, “What do you want with that thing, anyway?”

“Him eat! Good!” said the old Indian. And as quietly as they had come, they left, taking the carcass with them.”

Grandma and the Prairie Fire

A steam-powered threshing machine at work on the prairie

My father’s sister, Alma, told this story, one her mother often repeated to her. Alma was third in a family of seven siblings. In the early 1900s, her parents, Thomas and Ethel Rawlins, migrated from Illinois to North Dakota. Traveling by train with their livestock and meager household goods to the broad, rolling grasslands near Williston, they staked a claim to a homestead.

Thomas purchased one of the new-fangled threshing machines on credit. The salesman had persuaded him that he could make good money by hiring out his machine and labor to neighboring homesteaders. But that meant he had to stay away from home during harvest time, leaving Ethel alone with two small children on the vast, empty prairie.

One day in late fall, Ethel spied smoke rising from beyond the horizon. It was a prairie fire, dreaded by all homesteaders! Their two-room tar-paper shack could never survive the flames. There was no place to go, no way to get help. As the column of smoke grew bigger and closer, her eyes fell on the square of bare dirt left when she and Thomas had moved the barn to a new location just weeks ago. It was her only hope. She hauled buckets of water from the well, filled containers, and with the help of four-year-old Freddie, lugged them to the square of dirt. She piled the quilts from the beds next to the water, thinking she would soak them and wrap herself and the children in them for protection from the flames. Then she snatched baby Amy from her cradle, ready to take her and Freddie to the only place of possible safety. Oh, and the cow! She had to try to save the cow, too.

As Ethel hurried outside with the children, she glanced again at the oncoming smoke. Was that a horse and rider, racing ahead of the fire? Yes. It was Thomas! Seeing the fire, he’d borrowed a horse and come to save his family.

Telling Freddie to stay with his baby sister, Ethel ran to help. Neighbors appeared. Everyone was so busy fighting the fire, no one noticed the sky until snow began to fall, heavy, wet flakes that filled the air. The flames sputtered and died down. In a matter of minutes the prairie fire flickered out. Ethel later told her daughter, my aunt Alma, that this was the only time in her life she’d loved a snow.

"The Old Man’s Draft"

Thomas Manford Rawlins in about 1942

    Cousin Jackie, our family genealogist, recently sent a document that rocked me back on my heels. It was a copy of a 1942 registration card for my then 63-year-old grandfather, Thomas Manford Rawlins. It brought back memories of poorly-understood events and conversations from that time in my life.

    In the spring of 1942, I had been in my 1st grade classroom when the mailman brought my father an envelope from the U.S. Selective Service. It was an official summons from the draft board to serve in the United States army. My younger sister, still at home, remembers our mother weeping in despair. Our parents had five small children to support, the youngest only a few months old. How would Mom manage by herself if her husband had to go to war?

    Fortunately for all of us, Dad found work as a logger about that time and received an “essential worker” deferment. But Grandpa? His shaky signature on the card indicates that he was already sick and unable to work. Was America so desperate for fighting men that they actually drafted senior citizens?

    Not really. This was the fourth of a total of seven draft registrations initiated by the Selective Service during World War II. Known unofficially as the “Old Man’s Draft,” it was meant to provide the government with a pool of men aged 45-65 who could help out on the home front by taking the place of young men who’d been drafted to fight.

    On April 27 1942, the official registration day for the Fourth Draft, long lines formed outside local draft board offices around the country . Many men waiting to register voiced their regrets that they were too old to fight. Feeling that this was one way they could serve their country, they registered willingly.

    I don’t know how Grandpa felt about it. And I don’t know if any of the men who registered for the “Old Men’s Draft” were actually called to serve. But it was a measure of our country’s spirit that everyone, young and old, felt a sense of being in the war effort together, whether we fought, collected scrap metal, planted victory gardens, or saved for war bonds.

    Some were drafted. Many volunteered. But almost everyone had a part in winning the war, including America’s “old men.”

Grandpa’s draft card. Reverse side holds physical description. His eyes were blue, like mine.

An American Story Begins

   Along with most families in America, ours can tell stories of journeys, bits and pieces of history that help us understand how we got where we are today. We share  our own New-World beginnings with many people who trace their ancestries back to the courageous settlers who came to America on the Mayflower.

    When Priscilla Mullins boarded the Mayflower in 1620, she was 17 years old. It was already September, and for two months the passengers endured stale air and discomfort in makeshift quarters between decks as the ship tossed in stormy seas. In one storm, a main beam cracked and the ship began to leak, but the beam was repaired with an iron spike brought from the Netherlands. They pounded caulking into the cracks. When the ship was blown off course, it landed on the rocky shores of Massachusetts, far from their intended destination in Virginia. Priscilla’s parents and brother died during that first terrible winter in the New World, leaving her the only survivor of her family in America.

    Captain Miles Standish, the newly widowed military advisor of the colony, wished to marry her. He sent his friend John Alden to plead his cause. John, not one of the fifty members of the Pilgrim band, was a ship-carpenter by trade. He’d been hired as a cooper, or barrel maker, for the Mayflower, which usually docked at Southhampton, England. Either because of a desire for adventure, or because he already had his eye on Priscilla, he came along on the voyage and became one of the founders of the colony and the seventh signer of the Mayflower Compact. According to a famous poem by descendant Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, when he tendered Captain Standish’s proposal of marriage to Priscilla, she replied, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?”

    So he spoke for himself, Priscilla said yes, and they became the parents of ten children who survived to adulthood. Of all the pilgrim families, they have the most descendants.

    Our branch of the Rawlins family traces its ancestry to John and Priscilla Alden through their second child. Elizabeth, born in Plymouth in 1625, was the first white girl born in New England.

    Elizabeth was described by someone who knew her as “dignified, a woman of great character and fine presence, very tall and handsome.” In 1644, she married William Pabodie in Duxbury, Massachusetts, and became the mother of thirteen living children. William, who held the office of town clerk after fire had destroyed the town’s records, carefully recorded his own marriage and the births and marriages of his children.

    Later, around 1684, William bought property that would become part of Little Compton, Rhode Island. He and Elizabeth and several of their children and grandchildren moved there. Both he and Elizabeth died in little Compton, Elizabeth at the ripe age of 94. At the time of her death she had 82 grandchildren and 556 great-grandchildren.

I can’t help but wonder how she remembered all those names!

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Travel, Then and Now

Our modern “covered wagon from the backseat
Barbara and granddaughter Stephanie

    We just completed a sixteen-hundred-mile road trip to and from a family wedding in Canada. Along with cousins Bill and Barbara, we rented a brand-new van for the trip. It came with electric doors and windows, comfortable seating for all seven of us, opera-house-quality music, individually-controlled air conditioning, and room for all our luggage, thanks to Cousin Barbara’s expertise at stacking and packing.

    We zipped along through Canada’s Rocky Mountains on smooth, 90 kilometer-per-hour highways lined with high wire fences to keep the wildlife off the road. The government provided frequent rest stops along the way. At night we lodged in motels with all the comforts of home. We were never far from the next restaurant. Bill had his powerful cell phone. I carried my laptop and made use of motel internet in the evenings. I kept in touch with family and could even send them photos taken that day if I wished.

    Our ancestors found no broad superhighways, motels, or restaurants when they followed the expanding frontiers of the new world to the west coast where many of our family members now reside. Canadian cousin Vicki, the bride’s mother, shares my interest in family history.  We’ve found stories of our Mayflower ancestors and other pre-Revolution forebears who came to make new lives in the American colonies. Their descendants made their way westward by foot, horseback, ox and wagon. They rafted down the rivers. By the 1800s, my great-grandparents and their family had reached Illinois. When the railroads opened up the midwest, some of them loaded their furniture and cattle on railroad cars and migrated to North Dakota. (At the same time, my mother’s parents were immigrating from Germany, to make their way to North Dakota via Minnesota.)

    When the Great Depression combined with dust storms to make farming impossible for them, my parents fled to Washington by train. Dad’s parents and his siblings, including Cousin Vicki’s mother Mary, joined other midwest refugees heading for the West Coast by car. We can only imagine the rigors of that trip, with everyone jammed into an old Model T, my pregnant aunt Amy riding with her husband atop the load of belongings in a trailer.

    Now we see our Canadian cousins nearly every year. But when our first ancestors came to America, they did not expect to see their loved ones ever again. When parents bade farewell to their children setting off on the Oregon Trail, most of them knew it was a permanent goodbye. Even in 1936, when Mom and Dad came to Washington, they gave up frequent contact with their families. In their long lifetimes, my parents returned to North Dakota to visit only four or five times.

    Though I wept when my own daughter married and moved to Arizona, it’s possible to email or phone her every day. She can hop a plane to come home if she gets homesick. She even vacations in Europe.

    We can be thankful for the courage of our ancestors. While seeking better lives for their families, they helped to build a nation. The story of their travails is an heritage for their descendants.