Friday, October 29, 2010

Preaching to the Choir

Mommy's Piggy Tales Week 4
Age 7, 2nd Grade

The whole first year of school, I sat in rapt attention listening to the dulcet tones of our school’s children’s choir. They sang at High Mass each Sunday, while I ate my heart out because I was too young to join. It wasn’t fair!

Imagine here that I am stomping my little feet (clad in Mary Jane shoes) in protest.

Although no one in my family had more than rudimentary skills with any musical instruments, we did enjoy singing. In fact, I remember from an early age how my sisters and I sang in two- and three-part harmonies. Perhaps we saw ourselves as the next Lennon Sisters from the old Lawrence Welk Show (1955 to 1968) – you know, Dianne, Peggy, Kathy & Janet. Personally, I identified most closely with Janet, who was less than a year older than me.

Having three older sisters participating in choir meant they often practiced singing at home, everything from pop songs to nursery rounds to hymnals. Sometimes they even let me sing along with them, but of course the Latin verses in some of the songs were much too difficult for me to learn. Regardless, I loved the experience and the closeness with my sisses.

On Sundays, our family arrived at Church early so the girls had plenty of time to get settled into the choir loft, which was in the front of the Church to the side of the main altar. A full set of risers elevated the choir so that everyone could “keep their eyes on” the choir director, who was a nun. An open divider, rather like a wrought iron trellis, separated the choral group from the rest of the congregation.

I recall one particular Sunday when I was again complaining about not being allowed to join the choir yet. After all, I knew the songs as well as they did; in fact, even better. Anyway, during Mass that day, my next-older sister made a point of walking nonchalantly along the trellis, looking directly at me and sticking her tongue! Naturally, I yelped out a “Mo-o-om,” in protest, but of course by then my adversary had moved on and I was shushed.

Again, I am stomping my little feet in frustration.

The big day finally arrived for me! Starting second grade, I was now old enough to join the children’s choir. It was a joyous experience for me. There was only thing that could have made it better: I dreamed of wearing a long, flowing robe like the ones I saw on television.

As it turned out, I never had the chance to wear any robes in all the different choral groups I belonged to. In fact, in college, I joined one chorus in part because of the gorgeous red robes they traditionally wore. My bad luck was that year they decided to break from tradition and go with street clothes instead.

You know what’s coming here: me stomping my little feet with no beautiful robe to flutter in the wind.

Over the years, our choir group became quite proficient with complex vocal arrangements, Latin pronunciations included. I loved the ethereal feeling of being part of a much higher calling, especially when I got to stand on the highest tier of the risers. We just had to be very careful not to topple off backwards. Fortunately, that only happened to me once, during the most sacred part of the Mass, naturally.

When it came time in the Mass for the Homily or sermon, half of the choir stepped down off the risers and quietly walked into the adjacent hallway to sit on the stair steps. It was drafty in the hall, so we all secretly prayed the priest would not be long-winded with his sermon that day.

I adored the choir leader and reveled in the knowledge that she combined our young voices to create such beautiful music. Even better, I recall the thrill of being recognized for having a good voice. I know, we were supposed to be modest about our talents, but sometimes you just have to savor that recognition.

Here is me, stomping my big feet and clapping my hands in appreciation of all the hard-working choir directors in our world. Kudos to all of them!

For ideas on how to start writing your own family stories, 1) sign up for my Newsletter at and 2) check my website for upcoming free teleclasses held each month.

As a Personal Historian, my goal is to help people save their heritage before it is lost forever. What is your favorite story?

Friday, October 22, 2010

How Will Your Grandchildren Remember You?

This is from a guest post I did on Simple Marriage. I hope you enjoy it.

How much do you remember about your ancestors, especially your grandparents? How much do you think your own grandchildren will remember about you?

I started thinking about this the other day, on the first anniversary of my mother-in-law’s death. She was a lovely lady, but there are many things I wish I had asked her about before she passed. Now the opportunity is gone. Because I don’t want people to lose all their memories of loved ones, I became a Personal Historian.

The most common excuses I hear from clients who haven’t saved any stories are
1) I don’t know how to start and
2) I don’t have anything to say.

So how do you get started saving your family stories?

1 – One Story at a Time

The hardest part of almost any project is getting started. My mom and I used to enjoy wallpapering rooms together. Whenever we had finished hanging the very first sheet of wallpaper, she always stepped back, took a close look and said, “There. Now we’re halfway done.” Naturally, we were nowhere near being halfway done. But we had done a great deal of prep work before getting even that far, so it really did feel like we had accomplished something significant. After that, the rest of the job was easy!

So how do you start writing your family stories? The easiest way is to scribble down a few sentences about something that you remember from an earlier time. It doesn’t have to be anything long and tedious. The important thing is to have fun and get something down on paper. No writer expects her first words to be the final version and neither should you. Take a few minutes to recall a memory and jot down a handful of details. Now you are “halfway done.”

2 - How do you eat an elephant?

Did you ever hear the riddle about how you eat an elephant? Simple. You eat it one bite at a time! Pretty much like you’d eat a slice of chocolate pie, right? Writing a story for a biography or an autobiography is the same way—you just start with one idea at a time. Don’t worry about how everything is going to fit together at the end. Take one small piece and build it up bite by bite.

By the same token, any journey begins with one small step. Take that step today and soon you will be on the road to gathering family stories about the important people in your life.

3 – Every Person Has a Story to Tell

Let me repeat that: Every person has a story to tell. To find it (whether it’s yours or someone else’s) all you have to do is ask the right questions. By writing down that story, you create a priceless gift.
• One gift you’ll be giving to current and future generations is a piece of your heritage, which is all your family stories, customs and traditions combined.
• Another gift is a piece of yourself by taking the time and making the effort to keep precious stories from being lost.
• A third gift is for yourself! Learning more about your friends and family gives you a chance to better know and appreciate who you are. That may be the most precious gift of all.

4 - Where Can You Find Inspiration?

One of my favorite movies is The Bucket List with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Both men are terminally ill and pair up to complete a list of things they want to accomplish before they “kick the bucket,” hence the name of the movie. It is sweet, sad, poignant, and funny all at the same time. They go sky diving, see the Great Wall of China, and rediscover the importance of family.

There is a 2004 country music song by Tim McGraw that has a similar theme: it is called Live Like You Were Dying. In the song, when a man is given the fatal diagnosis that he has less than a year to live, he decides to make the most of it. Yes, he accomplishes many of the tasks on his own Bucket List, but more importantly, he also becomes a better husband, son, and friend.

It may seem somewhat morbid to think about our limited time on earth, but it is a fact of life. The question to consider is, “What can we do about it?”

We can do several things about it and in the process, we leave a legacy for our children, grandchildren, and loved ones so they have a good chance to know who we are and to remember who we were.

• Start saving and talking about family stories (both your own and those of people who matter to you) with your friends and family. You’ll be surprised how one story triggers other memories. When that happens, savor it.
• Help children get to really know their grandparents and other elders as real people, not just old people. One simple way to do that is to teach them a few old games, like checkers or hide the button.
• Start teaching kids while they are young about what is important to you. Who influenced you growing up? What were their Personal Values and what did you learn from them? This is your chance to be a role model for the next generations and have a positive influence on their lives.

Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow
Yesterday is history,
Tomorrow is a mystery,
Today is a gift,
That’s why they call it
the 'present'

- Eleanor Roosevelt

What will you do with the gift of today? What legacy will you leave for your loved ones?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

First Grade Fears and Tears

After World War II ended, Dad was no longer needed to build LST boats. Well-trained in his craft as a welder, he started working in the Maintenance Department at the new A. O. Smith factory about 40 miles away. I didn’t realize until many years later how forward-thinking the design engineers were.

In 1946, “The company constructed a 400,000 square foot residential water heater plant in Kankakee, Illinois. Life Magazine proclaimed it ‘the most modern water heater factory in the world.’”

About five years later, Smith’s had an open house for all the families, just so everyone could see the ultra-modern facility. OSHA would have had a conniption fit if they saw the plant tours that included me and other young children. We stood beside the huge noisy blast furnace that melted frit onto steel to make the patented glass-lined water heaters. Did that impress me at just four or five years of age? Of course not! I happened to be much more excited about the little bottles of orange drink than I was about the technology.

After my father made the round trip drive to and from work for several years, my parents decided to move our family closer to his work. So soon after the war, it was impossible to find the four-bedroom house they wanted for their growing brood. The solution was to order and assemble a structure from a precut lumber kit, rather like putting children’s building blocks together from a diagram. That was the summer of my sixth year.

The house was a 1½ story Cape Cod style with twin gables, two bedrooms upstairs, two bedrooms downstairs, and a full basement. Somewhere along the line, we had seen tightrope walkers on television. Being quite a tomboy at the time, I thought I could walk across the floor joists in one of the upper bedrooms.

Walking along the floor joists from one side of the room to the other turned out to be not only fun, it was easy, too! I just had to spread my arms wide to balance myself a little bit, especially at the turn against the far wall. When I hollered for my older sister to come watch me, she wanted to do it as well.

She started walking along the floor joists, getting more wobbly with each step. Yelling at her to keep her arms stretched out wide, I was horrified to watch her fall between the joists. Luckily, she caught herself with her arms straddling two joists. Unluckily, the workmen had just that day put the finishing coat of plaster onto the ceiling in the bedroom below.

When Mom, Dad, and everyone came running to see what our screaming was all about, there was my sister dangling from the ceiling below. More correctly, there were her legs dangling from the ceiling below. In a matter of minutes, two burly men raced upstairs and pulled my sister to safety. I don’t remember the details of the aftermath, but I never did that trick again.

When September came that year, school bells started ringing. I had never gone to preschool or kindergarten, so I didn’t really know much about what to expect. All I knew was that I had brand new black-and-white saddle shoes and a red plaid metal lunchbox with my name on it.

On the designated day, I dressed in my red plaid dress with a white pinafore attached. Hmmm, I see a pattern here! I never realized what a preference I’ve always had for red plaid! In fact, when I went to Scotland earlier this year to conduct writing workshops for schools, I was drawn immediately to the Royal Stewart plaid, which is (you guessed it) a red plaid!

Sadly, the shoes, dress and lunchbox were the best parts of that day. Mom held my hand as we walked into the huge classroom, filled with complete strangers. Since we had moved into the new house just shortly before the start of school, I didn’t know a single soul. Not only that, my teacher towered above me, with a crucifix hanging down right at my eye level. I’m not sure I had ever seen a nun before, certainly never one up so close.

Mom got me settled at a desk with my name on it, gently pried my hand from around her fingers and walked away! I started to cry, but she walked further away. I cried harder and she walked out the door. That wasn’t what mothers were supposed to do! I felt abandoned and just knew I would never find my way home again.

After such an inauspicious beginning, I quickly learned to love school. I loved getting new clothes, new shoes, new books, new subjects, and new teachers, even nuns. Most of all, I loved learning new things.

To this day, each Fall I welcome the opportunity to plan my own curriculum for the next year. Whether it’s learning Transcendental Meditation, writing a book, becoming a Personal Historian, or discovering, there is always something new to learn. Maybe continually learning something new is my way of feeling young, like when I was six years old.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Family Makes a House a Home

MPT#2: Preschool-Kindergarten Years

Although I was born on a farm in central Illinois, Dad didn’t farm there for long. The meager proceeds from rented farmland proved too minimal financially to support a growing family, with four young daughters under the age of six. Around that time, the US government needed skilled civilian workers to build LST (Landing Ship Tank) boats for WWII. When they offered a training program in welding, my father was among the first group of eager volunteers.

LST 325

Along with a new job came good pay and a steady income; my parents bought what seemed like a mansion in a tiny nearby town with a population of a few hundred people. That became the first home I remember.

The two-story house was yellow, with a huge white wrap-around porch on three sides, and a distinctive round turret in the southeast corner. There were two massive parlors (such a charming old-fashioned name for a room) in the front of the house, with gigantic wooden doors that magically slid apart to hide inside the walls. An attic occupied the topmost floor and served as our playground for make-believe on rainy days.

The kitchen was cozy and warm, with a built-in breakfast nook. It had a wooden table and benches on each side, with a scrolled design across the back. My designated seat was a red step-stool at the end, but I always tried to quickly scoot into the far corner and snuggle into a comfortable position. I felt so much more grown up there, rather than having to sit on the “baby chair.”

I loved to listen to fairy tales at that age. Looking out the turret window like Rapunzel, I dreamed of lowering my long braided hair to some knight in shining armor. On other days, my sisters and I sat out on the porch, making dozens of dolls from colorful hollyhocks. Just in case you never made dolls like that, we used toothpicks to hold two buds and a full flower for each doll; with more blooms, we made a beautiful layered skirt, rather like Chiquita Banana’s costume. Unfortunately, not many homes today grow hollyhocks, so this simple pastime is fading away.

Hollyhock doll

Continuing the fairy tale theme, my best friend lived a few blocks away in a big, white house surrounded by a huge black wrought-iron fence. Approaching the house, I always held tightly to my mother’s hand and looked for trolls and ogres around every corner. Apparently, I was listening to too many stories at that impressionable age. Many years later, I drove past that house and was completely surprised to discover that the fence I remembered as being monstrous was actually only about three feet tall.

Kitty-corner from our house was a landmark building that was eventually placed on the National Register of Historic Places: the beautiful St. Mary’s Catholic Church. It was also called the Cathedral of the Cornfields, or the Prairie Cathedral. It is amazingly elaborate, especially considering the size of the town in the middle of farm fields. The original builders must have done some serious sales and marketing to convince the community to erect such an impressive structure.

Cathedral of the Cornfields

One Sunday morning while we were all getting dressed for Mass at the Cathedral, we heard someone chuckling outside, followed by another and another until they were laughing out loud. Curious, Mom stepped outside and saw what was going on. My younger brother Pete was standing on the porch, smiling and waving at all the people on their way to church – bare-buck-naked! At just over a year old, he had developed an aversion to wearing clothes. Any chance he had, he was likely to tear everything off, then stand there and giggle.

Picture of Elizabeth at age 4

Even though we only lived in that house for a few years, it is the one that I think of as “home.” Perhaps it is because I have such vivid memories there, or because it was such a carefree time in my life, but I think that place will always be home to me.

What are your fondest memories of home? I’d love to hear about them.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Harvest Season

Harvest at the Splear Farm 2010

The fall season has always been my favorite: 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, in spite of all the dirt, grime and grunge involved in the harvest.

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 lived ten miles from a community of about 30,000 and some sixty miles from Chicago, in the middle of the grain heartland.

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.

When I was a teenager and brought dinner out to Dad in the field during harvest, I was struck by all the physical sensations that assaulted me. During this time of year, when I watch the huge combines run through the fields, those memories are especially vivid in my mind. Here is a more fanciful version of what I remember experiencing as a kid:

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.

I stand beside the tractor, waiting for the monster to disgorge its contents into the first grain wagon. The noise is deafening, even though I try to block my ears. As bad as the noise is, the grit is even worse. The handkerchief tied across my mouth and nose does essentially nothing to keep the fine grit from permeating my mouth, my nostrils, my throat, my lungs, and even my ears.

By the end of the long day, I will feel as if the grit has invaded clear to my eye sockets through every pore of my 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. I struggle to hold back the inevitable coughing fit, at least until the monster moves past me to the second wagon. Sometimes I even succeed, but barely.

Today, almost 50 years later, there is still a lot of grit, dirt, and chaff thrown out from the combine, but most machines now have enclosed cabs that are climate-controlled. While a side benefit is the comfort of the driver, more importantly it protects the sensitive GPS and other electronic equipment typically installed to monitor crops.

As advanced as farming technology has become, unfortunate accidents continue to happen. Late one autumn evening, I was heading home from a town about eighty miles away, driving through the country. Noticing a warm red glow in the distance, I thought to myself, “What a glorious sunset we’ll have tonight.” My stomach lurched when I realized the radiance was coming from the east. As I drove closer, it became apparent that the source was from a corn field that was on fire.

Lord willing, I will never see such a fearsome sight again. Flames shot into the air, surrounded by huge clouds of acrid, billowing smoke. The farmer scrambled ineffectively to create a fire break with a field cultivator, while the lone fire truck did its best to slow down the marching blaze. Continuing on toward home, I met several more pumper trucks 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.

The next time you see a piece of farm equipment working in a field (or perhaps slowing you down on a country road), wave to them in appreciation of their dedication to put food on our tables. You’ll find they almost always wave back, with a smile on their grubby faces.

Do you have a favorite Fall or harvest memory? I'd love to hear it!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Never Known as Lizzie!

Mommy's Piggy Tales - MPT #1: My Birth and Namesake

Great Aunt Lizzie

When I was born on a cold, windy November day in 1947, my Great Aunt Lizzie served as the midwife for Mom. My parents and three older sisters lived on a small farm in central Illinois, outside the tiny rural town of Papineau. By the time the old country doctor arrived many hours later, so had I, squalling and bawling like a real trooper. Fortunately, it was a relatively easy delivery with no complications.

After cleaning up the tiny form, Aunt Lizzie laid me in my mother’s arms, asking, “What do you plan to name her?”

Mom looked up with a tired smile and said, “I think she looks like an Elizabeth, so we’ll name her after you.”

“Oh, no! Please don’t do that to her!”

Startled by the outburst, Mom asked, “Well, why ever not?”

Lizzie hemmed and hawed, then busied herself for a few minutes tidying up things in the bedroom. Naturally quiet and reticent, it was difficult to begin her story. Finally, she began to talk.

“Until I reached the age of eight, I was always known as Elizabeth, which is a beautiful name. But in third grade, some of the boys started teasing me and calling me Lizzie. Then they taunted me mercilessly about my infamous ‘namesake.’”

Although acquitted of the gruesome (and true) murder case of 1892, Lizzie Borden was memorialized forever in the popular rhyme:
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.

For the rest of her life, my great aunt was called Lizzie, usually followed by some reference to the legendary Lizzie. As a spinster woman, my relative had never had any marriage prospects, which she attributed to that horrible little rhyme and the mean-spirited schoolboys who drove her into a shell.

After much discussion back and forth, Aunt Lizzie finally agreed to let my mother name me Elizabeth, on the strict condition that I never, ever, be called Lizzie. So Baby Elizabeth was welcomed into the family with open arms.

All throughout my early years growing up and attending Catholic school, everyone called me Elizabeth. Or, if I was in serious (but infrequent) trouble, it was probably Elizabeth Mary.

That all changed when we moved to another town after my fifth grade. Nicknames were much more popular in public schools in the new area, so all at once I became Liz. Before long, kids tested calling me Lizzie and chanting the old rhyme. Luckily, thanks to the insight of my elders, I had enough confidence to just ignore trouble makers and walk away.

Image created in

Over the years, my names have changed in a progression. The initial Elizabeth C. became Liz (not Lizzie!) C. in sixth grade and stuck until I married in college and became Liz D. Ten years later, a divorce--with reversion to my maiden name--left me feeling like Liz C. no longer fit for me, so I adopted the name Beth C.

Happily, I met and married the love of my life in 1981, which led to another name change: Beth LaMie.

Actually, that change almost didn’t happen. The night before our wedding, my husband-to-be said, “So, this is your last night as Beth C.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked, obviously not understanding his meaning. “I wasn’t really planning to change my name.” After all, my professional contacts knew me by Beth C.

He paused, looked at me quite seriously, and quietly stated, “Take me, take my name.”

“Oh!” I said, recognizing how traditional he actually was. “I guess I’m changing my name again…but for a very good reason!”

I was in Scotland this last winter to give a workshop for the school my niece’s sons attended. It was an eye-opening experience when the 10-year-old boys started calling me Great Auntie Beth! That name took a bit to get used to, but I think Great Aunt Lizzie would have approved.

Although I was never called Lizzie, I have used enough variations on Elizabeth to confuse my friends and family. In fact, when someone phones me, my husband pretty much can tell when someone knew me by whether they ask for Elizabeth, Liz or Beth.

For my purposes, I answer to all the name variations, except Lizzie—that one I just ignore. In fact, you can call me anything but late for dinner.

Thanks to Janna at for encouraging stories of our youth!