Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Free Guide to Writing Family Stories

Getting started is the hardest part of any project, but especially when writing our own family stories. You might like to look at a sneak peek of a book I am writing to help kids (and adults) write stories. It's FREE on my website at and called Granny's Guide to Fun & Fabulous Family Stories for Kids from 8 to 98. I'd love to know if you find it helpful.

One idea to recall memories is to talk with someone, like your sister, about some favorite event from your life. Then you can write a few lines or a page about what happened, what you felt, what you think now, etc. If you have a tape recorder to use, that makes it even easier to capture a story.

Good luck on starting your stories and remember to have fun doing it!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Start Writing Your Family Stories

• Why write down your family stories
Sometimes we hear a story from someone like a grandparent. We think we will always remember it. Too bad it doesn’t work out that way. If we can’t hear or read the story once in a while, we will most likely forget the details of it. When you write down a story from your life, you capture it for people to read later. Just imagine how great it will feel for you years from now when one of your own kids reads a story you wrote! You can give future generations a piece of yourself by sharing what you learned about your family member.

• Getting started
Okay, so how do you start writing stories about your Friends and Family (FAF)? The neat thing is that you can look at all the FAF people in your life. Then start with one special person. When you ask someone a bunch of questions and write down their answers, that is called an interview. The person who answers your questions is called the subject of the interview.

You can interview anyone - a friend, family member, neighbor or teacher. If you select someone who is important in your life, there is a double benefit. You’ll learn who they really are and they’ll appreciate your interest. Just look at all the people around you and pick one person to start with. You’ll be amazed at what you can learn about somebody by asking a few questions.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Harvest in the Heartland - Part 3

She climbs into the cab of the tractor to begin the long trek to town. She plods along the road with the valuable cargo, keeping a steady speed of around twenty miles an hour. She stays close to the right shoulder of the road as much as possible while carefully avoiding errant mailboxes and telephone poles. A few impatient city slickers honk and glare, or flip her the ” international sign of disrespect” because they are not familiar with the rhythms of farm life. But, fortunately, that is the exception. They don’t understand the need to continually move tractors, wagons and equipment from one field to another, from fields to town or between farmsteads and fields. Townspeople and other farmers share an easy camaraderie embodied in a toot or a beep in friendly recognition, or especially the universal country wave: keeping both hands toward the top of the steering wheel, they raise just the fingers of one hand in salute to the oncoming driver. It is second nature to always be prepared for this sociable gesture when traveling on open roads, regardless of whether or not they actually know the oncoming person.

Farmers need to have the patience of Job, the confidence of an egomaniac and the resilience of a coiled spring, as well as an eternal optimism that they will have a good year next year. Unfortunately, Mother Nature is their arch enemy. The grain growing season begins in early spring with planting. They pray for gentle spring rains and warm weather so the seeds can germinate; too much rain and they may rot in the ground, too little and the newly emerged plants will wither and die. My Mother used to walk out into the field on a regular basis, first to dig up a few newly planted seeds to see if they were sprouting yet, then checking again every few days to marvel at the miracle of new life.

The summer presents weather challenges as well. High temperatures are necessary for corn and soybeans to reach their maximum maturity, but drought conditions and extreme heat will stunt or destroy the crops. Some crop yields can be so dreadfully low that farmers have been known to plow under their fields rather than waste more money on harvesting.

Floods can happen any time of year to wipe out a crop. If it occurs early enough in the spring, and if the water dissipates quickly enough, then the farmer may be able to plant another variety of beans or corn that will mature in a shortened season; unfortunately, these alternate crops will yield significantly less and it is very expensive to replant each field.

As the seasons progress, the farmers closely watch the development of each crop. They keep a sharp eye out for any anomalies in growth, hoping to catch any problems early enough to find a resolution before an entire crop is ruined. Some of the culprits are insects and diseases, such as corn bores that break the stalk off near the ground or rust that blights the crop. Unfortunately, there are no remedies for everything, or they may be cost prohibitive. Once a crop reaches full height, tractors and ground machinery can no longer be used to apply insecticides or treatments, so there will be additional expense to bring in airplanes or helicopters to make the applications.

One of the things I greatly enjoy about flying is to see the patchwork quilt patterns of the farm fields from the air. It is interesting to differentiate between corn, soybeans, hay and wheat. When fields are plowed or disked, the machinery leaves distinctive patterns in the soil. If large green “crop circles” appear, they are most likely the result of water that is delivered via a center-pivot irrigation system. The center of the irrigated area is a stationary point around which the arms of the spigots rotate. Hopefully that explains these huge circular areas, as opposed to the more fanciful concept of visiting alien beings.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Fall Trilogy - Soup, School & Sentimentality

Today we are starting to get much cooler weather in Illinois, where it has been unseasonably warm this month. When I went outside for a walk, I had to turn around to get a warmer jacket.

I've always loved Fall, from soup simmering on the stove, to beginning a new semester at school, to brilliant colors all around. On my last post, I shared my favorite recipe for Ham & Bean Soup, which is wonderful with fresh-baked cornbread.

Several times a year, I take some classes of interest, with the last twelve months or so geared toward writing. In the hopes that some day my writing will begin to pay off, last week I took a class at the local community college on Record Keeping for Small Businesses. I was a bit disappointed that it was actually a condensation of Accounting 101, but there was time at the end of the class to ask pertinent questions. As always, I learned something new and useful at the same time.

So the third part of my Fall trilogy relates to the beautiful Fall foliage. On my walk today, I couldn't resist gathering some of the most perfect and brilliant specimens. From childhood memories, I plan to press the leaves and send some to my two grandkids in South Carolina. Of course, they have deciduous trees down there, but that's not the same as Grandma's own trees.

This simple pastime made me think about my Mom pressing flowers. Late in life, she started to spread out into new arts & crafts, which included making her own stationery. Using plain white notecards, she arranged tiny blossoms, leaves and stems to create miniature pictures of serenity.

Mom has been gone for almost seven years, but I recently enjoyed a sentimental moment of nostalgia when I opened one of her books that still had a blossom pressed carefully between the pages. I took that as a sweet reminder to stop and smell the roses. Or in this case, to stop and enjoy the brilliance of Fall. And I am!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

ABC's of Soup

Traditionally, soups are ideal for large families because they can be easily stretched for drop-in guests by adding more broth or water. They also keep well and reheat nicely for latecomers. Mom always used her largest cooking pot for soups. It was such a treat to come home from school on a cold windy day to smell soup cooking on the stove. Soup also allows the cook to combine any leftover meat or vegetables into the latest batch of soup to create a wonderful variation on the original. Years later, cold winter days continue to evoke yearnings for hearty hot soup.


A meal of bean soup & corn bread makes an easy, hearty dinner that our whole family enjoyed. Mom added Fennel Seed to the soup to help offset the "side effects" of the beans. It took me years of practice to finally create a soup that is fairly reminiscent of Mom's version.

1 pound Navy Beans
1 Onion, diced
1 Cup Celery, sliced
1 can diced Tomatoes
1 meaty Ham Bone
8 oz. diced Ham
4 Cups Tomato Juice
Salt & Pepper to taste
3 whole Bay Leaves
1 teaspoon Fennel Seeds, optional
Cornbread prepared from scratch or a packaged mix, optional

Rinse and sort dry beans, removing any shriveled beans or foreign matter. Soak beans overnight in large pot, OR heat to boiling in large pot, remove from heat and let set for 1 hour.

Drain water from beans.

Add all remaining ingredients and fresh water to cover all.

Heat just to boil, then reduce heat. Cover & simmer soup for about 1 1/2 hours, stirring occassionally, until beans are tender. Add more water or juice as needed. Do not boil, or beans will burst.

Remove Bay Leaves before serving. Serve with hot cornbread or saltine crackers.

If no Ham Bone is available, add a teaspoon of Liquid Smoke and more diced Ham.
Omit Tomatoes & use water instead of Tomato Juice.
Omit Celery.

8 Servings

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Harvest in the Heartland - Part 2

Finally, the unloading is complete and the behemoth turns back toward the field, belches a black cloud of smoke-filled diesel fumes and begins its next slow, circuitous route through the field, dragging the ominous constant rumbling with it. The sudden silence and stillness are eerie. It will be several minutes before the startled crows, starlings, doves and other small animals resume their chatter and go about their business scavenging seeds from the newly barren field. She watches the huge machine creep away to the opposite end of the field. She grabs the thermos and gulps down tepid water, trying to clear her throat, waiting for the ringing in her ears to subside. She licks her parched lips, the taste and gritty texture of residue around her mouth making her cringe when she feels the grit settle onto her teeth.

Farming can be an excellent life, but it also very challenging. No one gets into it or stays in it for the money. Farmers do it to be self-employed, to be independent, to live in open spaces and to enjoy watching things grow. There is a joke about a farmer who wins $10 million in the Lottery. “Oh, good,” he says. “Now I can afford to farm another year.” Not exactly true, but it makes you chuckle at the absurdity.

The harvest season is fraught with risks. When it is tinder dry, there is a huge threat of fire: harvest machines can clog up with stalks, leaves and debris until they overheat and catch fire, while a carelessly thrown match or cigarette can ignite an entire field. Even a bolt of lightning can start a blaze. It is incredibly difficult to fight an inferno when there are no fire hydrants - local volunteer Fire Departments from surrounding communities respond, bringing water with them in their pumper trucks.

One autumn night a few years ago, I was heading home from a town about eighty miles away, driving through the country. I noticed a warm red glow in the distance and thought to myself, “What a glorious sunset we’re going to have tonight.” My stomach lurched when I realized that the radiance was coming from the east. As I drove closer, it became apparent that the source was from a corn field that was aflame. Lord willing, I will never see such a fearsome sight again. Flames shot into the air, surrounded by huge clouds of billowing smoke. The farmer was scrambling ineffectually to create a fire break, while the lone fire truck did its best to slow down the marching blaze. Continuing on towards home, I met several more pumpers arriving. They did not save much of that particular 160 acre field, but they were able to keep it from spreading to the surrounding fields and homes.

Harvest years that are too wet present their own perils: harvest machines, tractors and wagons become mired in the mud, often sunk up to their axles. Even heavy tow trucks can become stuck deep, in which case the largest tow trucks or cranes must be used to pull them out. One year, Wisconsin had a dreadfully wet fall and after fruitless attempts to harvest the corn, many farmers left the crops in the field until the ground froze solid; regrettably, the hard freeze transformed the corn stalks into rods of steel that punctured the tires. The cost of replacing a set of tires on a combine is prohibitive: each of them can run upward from $1500, which would negate most of the profit. The result was that many farmers took a huge loss that year when they had to wait until spring to harvest what little corn was left. Wind, rain, snow and ice all took their bites, along with the wild deer and raccoons that feasted all winter.

What do YOU remember from growing up? Please let me know in Comments.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Harvest in the Heartland - Part 1

The behemoth rolls through the tawny gold field, devouring everything in its ponderous path, spewing out an enormous horizontal whirlwind of chaff, dirt and stalks behind it. Slowly, inexorably it consumes dozens of rows at a time, cutting a swath through stems bursting with soybean pods. In one fell swoop, the machine separates the precious beans from pods and stems, storing them temporarily in its enormous belly.

She stands beside the tractor, waiting for the monster to disgorge its contents into the first grain wagon. The noise is deafening, even though she blocks her ears as best she can. As much as she hates the noise, the grit is even worse. The handkerchief tied across her mouth and nose does essentially nothing to keep the fine grit from permeating her mouth, her nostrils, her throat, her lungs, and even her ears. By the end of the long day, she will feel as if the grit has invaded clear to her eye sockets through every pore of her body. The combination of taste, smell and grubbiness of the grit lingers for days after the harvest is completed, in spite of long, hot showers. She tries to hold back the inevitable coughing fit, at least until the monster moves past her to the second wagon. Sometimes she succeeds, but barely.

I was raised on a fifty-acre farm just outside a small town in central Illinois (the Prairie State). Dad worked long hours as a welder in a factory, plus he farmed corn or beans in his “spare” time. We were within ten miles of a community of about 30,000 and some sixty miles from Chicago, in the middle of the grain heartland and in my mind it was the perfect place to raise a large family. We had the best of both worlds: a wholesome country lifestyle with a strong sense of community and all the urban benefits of good schools and plenty of cultural activities to keep seven kids challenged and out of trouble.

In spite of all the dirt, grime and grunge involved in the harvest, I always loved the Fall season: kids returning to school, cheering for the home team at football games, “leaf peeping” as the trees miraculously transform from boring greens to glorious autumn colors, and watching the harvest progress from field to field, restoring the wide open spaces to the land I love. Once the harvest is complete, we’ll be able to once again enjoy an unobstructed view from horizon to horizon, some ten miles or more in each direction. This is God’s Country and, for me, the best place on Earth to live.

What do YOU remember from growing up? Please let me know in Comments.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Never Too Poor to Help Others

When I was growing up on a small farm in the 50's, I didn't realize how tight money was. Even with six brothers and sisters, we always had enough to eat from the food raised in our gardens, along with a few chickens and a cow or two. Our clothes were almost always either hand-me-downs or sewn at home. It wasn't until college that it became apparent that we had no money to spare.

But the important lesson for me was that Mom never hesitated to share whatever we had. If a friend, neighbor or relative needed something, she was always there to help. Whether it was a casserole dish, some fresh-baked bread, or a few extra hands to help with cleaning the house after a death, Mom gave of herself to help people in need.

What a wonderful world we'd have, if everyone responded in such a basic way to help others. Please think about what YOU can do for poverty today on Blog Action Day.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Precious Memories on a Precious Day

Every day is an opportunity to capture memories with our loved ones. Whether we use photographs, recordings or written personal histories, we are preserving our heritage for future generations.

Today we celebrated the 90th birthdays of both my Mother-In-Law and Father-In-Law. He never tires of telling everyone that she is four days older than him. They are lovely people who until now have lived on the farm "homeplace" for over sixty years, in spite of declining health. They have finally agreed (in principal, at least) that it is almost time to move to an assisted living facility.

My husband & I took them to a concert today to hear the Glen Miller Orchestra. They both enjoyed it, especially my Mother-In-Law. It was sweet to see her tapping her foot in time to the music, even if she can't remember what town she is in or who we are. I was glad to see her enjoying the snappy music, even if tomorrow she may not recall having been there.

So we make the most of the good days when we can carry on a conversation and we get through the days the best we can when we cannot. Either way, each day is precious when we make precious memories.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Do the ill & the elderly make us feel mortal?

Barbara Sher posted this as a comment to my previous post: "I have a question about interviewing elderly people. I wonder if some of us avoid the people we love when they grow older because it's painful to realize we'll lose them one day. Someone I know told me he was often short with his mother and didn't realize why until one day it hit him that he was angry and hurt that she was getting old and would leave him. He said he was embarrassed about having such a childish feeling, but the realization made him stop being angry at her, so he was glad it happened.

"Have you ever heard of or felt anything like this?"

That is an excellent question & I am glad your friend recognized the reason for his behavior. In fact, I see that happening right now with my husband and his Mother. She is 90 and some days she does not know who he is. That bothers him so much that he almost doesn't want to see her.

I see the same thing happen with people who are seriously ill. Family & friends may be reluctant to go see them, either because they don't know what to say, or because they want to "remember them as they were." In addition, circumstances like that tend to remind us of our own mortality - if it can happen to them, it can happen to us.

Those reasons are understandable, but unfortunately, that tends to leave our loved ones alone when they need us the most. When we do go to see them, it is important to carry on as normal a conversation as possible. Sometimes it helps to bring along favorite photos or memorabilia as a nudge for reminiscing. Especially with the elderly, they may have better recall of events from many years ago than they will of last week.

Recently, a friend of mine died from cancer. Although it was a bittersweet experience, I was able to spend considerable time interviewing her to capture her life story before she passed away. Her dying wish was to leave a written legacy for her adopted daughter.

I was honored to help make her wish come true.

For more about the experience with my friend, please see this blog post:

Capture Life Stories NOW

My dear friend, Karen, suffers from a blood clotting disorder that has caused several strokes. At a very young age (30’s?), she worked diligently to successfully overcome the effects of two strokes. Unfortunately, she has now had another one and is just beginning the rehabilitation to get her life back.

Karen has such a wonderful, positive attitude that she can and will (literally) walk again, that I have no doubt she will succeed. She has tickets to see Tina Turner in concert toward the end of October, so she set her first therapy goal – to walk into the concert, even if it is with the help of crutches, a cane or even a walker.

Karen’s precarious situation has reinforced for me one extremely important fact. We never know when life can strike a blow to all of our carefully laid out plans. In fact, there is an old joke that asks, “How do you make God laugh?” The answer is, “Tell Him you have plans.”

Our elderly population is especially vulnerable to life’s little side trips and that is why it is so important to capture their stories before it is too late. I use a small inexpensive digital recorder (Sony ICD-P520) to capture conversations with friends and family.

Tomorrow, we will celebrate the 90th birthdays of both my Mother-In-Law and Father-In-Law. And you can bet I’ll have my trusty little recorder at the ready for any reminiscing they do. Life is too short to miss out on sharing these gems with the rest of the family.