A Time to Write

“The road to ‘you know where’ is paved with good intentions,” my brother-in-law used to say. Oh, how I wish my life’s intentions were a reality!

Had all my good intentions materialized, my house would always be sparkling clean, and every meal nutritious, tasty, served artistically and on time. I would arrive early for meetings having read every lesson ahead of time. My knowledge of the gospel would be superb, because I would have studied the scriptures daily with my husband, our children, and on my own. Imagine the wealth of understanding I would have gained from more than 50 years of reading every word in every church magazine! Of course I would have kept a daily journal without fail, have my personal history up to date, the family photos organized and preserved, complete with identification and mounted in archival-quality albums.  And the research on all my ancestors back to the year 1500 would all be complete. Not one soul would be missed.

So just how does one do everything? As far as family history is concerned, most people I talk to say, “After my children are grown I will have more time.” Or, “When I retire I’ll work on genealogy.” Then they quote Ecclesiastes and declare that their ‘season’ for family history is somewhere in the distant future.

To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

And moreover I saw under the sun the place of judgment, that wickedness was there; and the place of righteousness, that iniquity was there.

I said in mine heart, God shall judge the righteous and the wicked; for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work.”  (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, 16, 17)

Or in other words, there is a time to get an education, a time to serve a mission, a time to marry and raise children, a time to work, a time to play, a time to serve.  But what about family history? Does it have a season?

After high school graduation, I found myself living in Salt Lake City convenient to the Family History Library then in the basement of the old Montgomery Ward building. I spent some time copying pedigree charts and family group sheets from enormous binders. The more I copied, the more I realized there was to copy, and I began to see that family history was not a project to be completed quickly.

Before I had time to really “get into” genealogy, I moved to Provo to attend college at Brigham Young University.  It was there I met my future husband. We married at the end of the year, and then came the big move “back East” to St. Paul, Minnesota for graduate school–far from Utah, far from the Family History Library, far from BYU, and far, far from any relative.

Undaunted, I delved into family history projects from time to time while the children were small. I could type, so I helped my aunts prepare family journals, letters, and stories for publication, including Aunt Minnie’s life’s work on our Le Fevre family.  “The time will come,” I told myself, “when I can do real research.” Once all the children were in school, I found myself volunteering in the local Family History Center every Thursday. I loved it, all the while becoming more and more excited about the possibilities for research opportunities without actually having to be in Utah.  I determined to be ready when my ‘season’ came.  As time permitted I took correspondence courses in genealogy from BYU, and, as part of one course, prepared a 400-page history of a great-grandfather.

Hopes for doing my own family history research waned when my husband’s work took us to Spain. My ‘season’ for family history was once more postponed, so I busied myself with trying to learn Spanish and help set up a family history center in Zaragoza.  Mysteriously, as soon as the center was up and running, my husband’s work in Spain terminated abruptly, and we found ourselves on our way back home–to Utah, a genealogist’s heaven. It had finally come! This would be my ‘season.’ Much to my dismay, instead of being able to immerse myself in research, for the first time in my married life, it became necessary for me to work full-time, and even though my church service has since revolved around family history callings, little progress has been made researching my own family. What precious time I have had for genealogy has been spent learning and re-learning new genealogy software programs and getting to know the Internet.

Now here I am in the autumn of my life–the so-called golden years. Although I know I have an immortal spirit, there is already evidence that my physical body is failing. It takes more effort and more time just to exist.  Not only does everything take longer, but time also goes faster. I know you don’t believe me, but my mother, at the age of 80, told me so. There was a time I could dress in a flash, but that was before elastic support hose and when I could still reach my feet to tie my shoes. Cooking takes longer too now that I have to cook low-fat, low-cholesterol, low-salt, and low-sugar. The list goes on.  Failing memory becomes another problem of old age.  Memories of the past are crystal clear, while recent memory is fleeting, making it difficult to remember not only what has been done or planned, but what I am now doing.

Suddenly I am struck with the thought that I may not live forever!  I never used to think about that when I was younger. Old age seemed so far in the future. Depending on how long I live, I calculate I may have as many as fifteen or as few as five years to do a lifetime of research, if all goes well, and if my eyesight holds out. I’m counting on that promise in Ecclesiastes: “A time for every purpose and for every work.” That would have to include family history, don’t you think? If it does, then I wonder when my season will come. Or did I miss it??  


The Heaterola

I’ve been thinking about writing my personal history.  This is not just wishful thinking; I have had this on my to do list now for about 20 years! How can I begin to squeeze my whole life onto a few pages my posterity will treasure? This is definitely not an easy task. In fact, it is overwhelming to think about it.

I just hope no one laughs at the way I write. I am not a gifted writer, and what I put on paper will probably sound just like me. I guess that’s what I’m afraid of.

My friend tells me to write about common, ordinary, everyday things, including as much detail as possible.  She says that’s what makes writing interesting, and she’s probably right.

A prominent fixture in my childhood home was the Heaterola heat stove in the front room, a.k.a, the living room.  That’s where the family gathered in the evenings, probably because that room was warm. When Dad came in from doing chores, the first thing he did, before even taking off his coat, was back up to the Heaterola to get warm. Then he would sit in his favorite chair and read the newspaper, or listen to Gabriel Heater give the news.

We had this big radio, about the size of a chest of drawers, which we would gather around and listen to the Lux Radio Theater, Fibber McGee and Molly, and Inner Sanctum. The lucky ones got to sit on the floor next to the radio speaker.

Each fall Dad would buy red delicious apples and store them in a large barrel in the chicken coop and cover them with gunny sacks (burlap bags) to keep them from freezing. Most people like fresh, crisp apples, but Dad preferred them ripe and mealy, probably because he did not have good teeth, and soft apples were easier to eat.

Frequently, one of us kids was sent to the chicken coop to get a bowlful of apples. If you were one of the younger children and the apples were getting low in the barrel, this meant almost standing on your head as you hung over the edge of the barrel to reach the apples.

Mom washed the apples, and then Dad would peel them with his pocket knife. He could peel a whole apple without breaking the peeling! Then we’d vie for the peeling, pick it up and fling it backwards over our shoulders. When it landed on the floor, if it looked like a letter, that was supposed to be the initial of the person we would marry.

Keeping the house warm in the winter was a full-time job.  The first task in the morning was to start the fire. There was this crank on the side of the stove which was pushed back and forth to shake the grate, so the ashes would fall into the pan below. To start the fire, you’d wad up a few pieces of newspaper, lay it on the grate, add splinters of kindling wood, several small pieces of coal, then strike a match to the paper, shut the door, cross your fingers, and hope it burned.

We children had the job of keeping the coal bucket filled. The poker, which hung on the back of the stove, was used to stir up the fire before adding more coal to make it burn faster and warm the house more quickly. In the evening the fire was allowed to die down and the damper closed way down, so the fire would burn more slowly. Large pieces of coal were put in the fire box to make it last as long as possible, hopefully ‘til morning.

Before bedtime, we’d open the hall door and the transom window above it to warm the upstairs bedrooms. It was cold up there by morning, so the favorite place to dress was behind the Heaterola.

I can relate well to this verse my mother used to recite:

When Father Shook the Stove

by Edgar A. Guest

Twas not so many years ago, say twenty-two or three,
When zero weather or below held many a thrill for me.
Then in my icy room I slept a youngster’s sweet repose,
And always on my form I kept my flannel underclothes.

Then I was roused by sudden shock though still to sleep I strove,
I knew that it was seven o’clock when Father shook the stove.
I never heard him quit his bed or his alarm clock ring;
I never heard his gentle tread, or his attempts to sing.

The sun that found my window pane on me was wholly lost,
Though many a sunbeam tried in vain to penetrate the frost.
To human voice I never stirred, but deeper down I dove
Beneath the covers, when I heard my father shake the stove.

Today it all comes back to me and I can hear it still;
He seemed to take a special glee in shaking with a will.
He flung the noisy dampers back, then rattled steel on steel
Until the force of his attack the building seemed to feel.

Though I’d a youngster’s heavy eyes all sleep from them he drove;
It seemed to me the dead must rise when Father shook the stove.
Now radiators thump and pound and every room is warm,
And modern men new ways have found to shield us from the storm.

The window panes are seldom glossed the way they used to be;
The pictures left by old Jack Frost our children never see.
And now that he has gone to rest in God’s great slumber grove,
I often think those days were best when Father shook the stove.

Yes, it’s time I got busy and started I writing something. I guess anything at all would be better than nothing. Our children aren’t particularly interested in family history right now, but I know about the time I die they will wish they had listened to me. I really don’t feel any older now than I did 20 years ago, yet when I think about it, I know my days are numbered, and I had better write something before I lose my senses.

The Family Photo Album

I hope I live long enough to get my photographs in albums. This has been an ongoing project through the years but somehow never quite finished.  At one time I started albums for each child and attempted to place copies of all the “good” pictures therein. The children loved to look at their books, and this was a good activity, but it required constant monitoring to preserve the photos from the ravages of little fingers. “Is this me?” they would ask as they pointed to each baby picture. These albums were quickly outgrown and became much too expensive and time consuming to maintain. “I’ll finish these when I have more time,” I rationalized, “and give them their albums when they get married.”

Only our first six children had photo albums; the younger three only knew manila envelopes. That was the makeshift method to sort out and store the photos until we could get them properly placed. More than once I tried arranging the contents of these envelopes in chronological order. Some progress was made, but usually I had too much “help” from those who wanted to just enjoy looking at the pictures. Once again the photos went back into envelopes and on the closet shelf.

I wonder if teachers know how much stress they cause by asking students to bring a baby picture of themselves for this or that activity. Finding the “right” picture always meant sorting through every picture in the envelope. There is also the problem of protecting the photo from damage during its trip to school and, hopefully back. Too often this resulted in a blank spot in the album where a picture once was. I don’t think teachers will change in the future, but if I had it to do again, I think I would have copies made of those babies to use as loaners.

I found school pictures to be the biggest challenge.  They come around with regularity, thanks to the person who created this tradition, and also multiply by children and years. Add to this the issues of hand-me-down clothes and similar genes, and a problem of identity arises. “Is this Brian, or Mark in Brian’s old shirt?” More than once we had pictures of the same child in the same favorite outfit for two years running.  “Was this Ann’s fifth grade picture, or her fourth?”  One summer Jennifer and I tackled the school picture problem once and for all. We set up a folding banquet table in an upstairs bedroom and laid them out, children on the Y axis and years on X. Careful scrutiny of 30 years of school pictures ultimately revealed correct years and children. That was a productive summer resulting in every photo being placed neatly in albums!

The cycle continues, however, and now in the autumn of my life I feel a pressing need to get my life in order–including the photos. They really need to be taken out of the sticky albums and mounted on acid-free paper, under acid-free plastic sheets, and properly labeled. That’s my current project.

I began by purchasing several three-ring binders, a ream of heavy, black, acid-free paper, and began punching holes. That was my first mistake. Now we need a new paper punch. Hindsight would suggest one have a copy center drill the holes. Next, I bought three boxes of photo corners and began pasting. It seemed I had barely begun when they were all gone. So, I went back to the store and bought ten more boxes. If that doesn’t do it, I will have to put corners on my Christmas wish list.

Computer file folder labels were used for the labels. I had labeled perhaps 8 or 10 pages of photos when Kristen said, “I didn’t know Howard’s middle name is spelled R-e-i-d.” “It’s not,” I replied. “Well, that is what it says here.” Sure enough there it was, typed with my own fingers! “Oops! This is not right. This is Jennifer in the cupboard, not me. Just remember Jennifer in the cupboard, Kristen in the fireplace.”

I admonish you not to procrastinate properly organizing, labeling, and storing your precious family photographs, an essential part of your family history.  I plan to use my albums to help construct the journal I never kept. I think this year at Christmastime I will gather the children around the kitchen table, bring out the albums, turn on the tape recorder, and sit back and listen.  The contents of the family album can have a profound effect on later generations and help answer the gnawing questions of “Who are we?” and “Where do we come from?”

I remember how much fun it was as a child to look at my mother’s albums. They were stored in her cedar chest under lock and key, and carried with them a nostalgic cedar fragrance. I hope our children and grandchildren will remember our family albums and the people whose likenesses they contain with similar fondness.

January 2015.  Time marches on, and since 1992 when the above article was written, computers have entered our lives, complicating even more the photograph preservation problem, with scanned and digitized multiple copies of photos in multiple formats, shared with multiple children and grandchildren.  Cameras on hand-held devices have increased the sheer numbers of photos in existence, most of which are stored on multiple devices and multiple nebulous clouds.  I wonder how many of these precious memories will survive this generation?  Perhaps we should sort the keepers from the sillies and post them in Memories on FamilySearch.