Herstories & How-tos: Janet, Nelly and Naomi

I wish I could be cool enough to say that Halloween is my favorite holiday, but if I’m REAL honest with myself, Thanksgiving wins, hands down, every time. Despite it’s complicated and troublesome origin stories (best depicted through modern cinema), Thanksgiving wins for me, because of what it means today. Today, it’s a holiday, free from the pressures of gift giving, where one’s only obligation is to cook and eat with what you define as ‘family.’ In the case of my family, this also means lots of sitting around and, eventually, tall-tale-telling.

One of the (many) revelations I’ve had as an adult is realizing that what we call ‘History’ and what we call ‘Life’, aren’t two separate buckets, into which some old timey dudes with long beards cleanly sort discreet Moments from some bygone era. Life is history. “History” is nothing (and everything) but stories heard and remembered and passed on. As conscious human beings we have the gift to live and to listen to one another. So today, rather than share a story about some badass lady who lived a world away, I want to take a moment to share a few stories from some of the remarkable women I’ve had the privileged to know personally:

Janet

  • Janet Carrie née Lynch née Simendinger was my paternal grandmother. Born in 1928, in Winchester Massachusetts, by the time I met her, she was barely 5 ft tall with a voice marinated in years of smoking and half a life lived around Boston. She got tongue-tied calling out grandkids’ names and often simply referred to us as “little shits.” To those on the outside, she looked like a small, delicate elderly lady, with a tasteful pouf of white hair, classy jewelry and muted sweater sets. She was all of that. She was also a survivor of two husbands, the mother (and undisputed BOSS) of five sons and though she had a lot of health problems, including breast cancer and pancreatic cancer (!), she brushed them all off like the tough bird she was. She was also brutally honest in a way that was completely motivated by love. “Your hair looks like crap.” was said, not because she wanted you to feel bad about your hair, but so you had a chance to un-crap it before going out in public. From her, I’d like to think I inherited not just my small bones, but also a love of beer and pizza, the capacity to be swear a blue streak and a commitment to truth. The last words she said to me, when I visited her was “Well, thanks for coming. I love you, now get the hell out.”

Nelly

  • Nelly Studebaker (Or “Nelly Jean” as we all called her) was the perfect example of the family we choose. In 5th grade, when we moved to Indiana from the town in which my parents were born and raised, Nelly Jean, our new next door neighbor, was one of the first people we met and almost immediately we called her family. Nelly was retired from guidance counseling, which really just meant that she now gave guidance from her living room, rather than a school desk. Like Janet, Nelly was one of those sweet-looking elderly ladies who had a real gift for expletives. She got a tattoo at 70, and at 80 would mow her lawn in her favorite tube top. She was a shameless flirt who knew how to work a system. One day, my dad came home to find Nelly struggling to haul ladder out of the garage with the stated purpose of “Oh, Handsome, just cleaning out the gutters.” Given that Nelly had recently suffered a broken hip and was a bit unsteady, my dad grumblingly pulled out our ladder, shooed her away and proceeded to clean the gutters for her. Later, when my mom asked, “Nelly, what the hell were you thinking- you know you shouldn’t be up on a ladder?” Nelly giggled, “Well SHIT honey, I wasn’t going to get up there! I just knew if I said I was, he’d jump up to help without me asking.” If I am lucky enough to grow old, I want to do it like Nelly.

Naomi

  • My husband’s grandmother Naomi (pronounced “nay-oh-mah” and don’t you forget it) lived just shy of 100 years and raised hell for most of them. She wasn’t afraid of the hard work that came from being a the wife of a farmer. Of the many wonderful photographs we have of Naomi, my favorite is of her as a younger woman, standing tall (at 4′ 10″) and smiling proudly as she holds at arms-length a dead raccoon nearly as long as she is. She was honest and she was a trickster. She handed us our asses in games of ‘greedy,’ and hid under her bed from the staff in the assisted living home. (They only found her because she was giggling to herself). Though I didn’t get to know Naomi long, as a person, and in her presence in the lives of her family, she made a big impression. A woman who also loved thrift, and plants and coffee, she and I got along fine (when she wasn’t scolding me about my tattoos).

In keeping with the tradition of Herstories and How-to’s, I’ve chosen to share and celebrate three women who are no longer with us to share stories. While writing, I kept thinking- I wish I had taken more time and asked more questions while I could. This month, I encourage you to take a moment and listen to the women in your family. Thanksgiving break is the perfect time to begin your career as an herstorian. What better time for conversation than sitting around in a post-pie coma, or crammed in a vehicle traveling across the country? Because every person and every family is different, I can’t tell you how to talk with your family, but I can give you a few tips to help make sure your weekend’s full of history, rather than hysteria.

How to Begin Recording History in Your Own Terms:

  1. Define Family however the heck you want. Don’t have a positive relationship with your biological mom, grandma, sister, etc? No problem. What about the women you do want to spend time with- maybe a neighbor, best friend or the barista at your favorite coffee shop? Like Edna Buchanan (and Grey’s Anatomy) say, “Friends are the family we chose for ourselves.”
  2. Set aside time and space that’s appropriate. For some people in some families, the thought of sitting down to a formal interview in a quiet, private space with a family member to talk about REAL LIFE sounds mortifying. For others, it might be just what they need to feel comfortable. Whether your person of historical interest belong in the first camp, the second or somewhere in the middle, be sure to consider where and when might be more comfortable for them and you. Not sure? Just ask!
  3. Speaking of asking, ask for permission to begin and leave “outs,” specially if you’re taking notes and especiallyespecially if you decide to share this history with other. It may feel silly and overly formal, but it’s the polite and kind thing to do. Even if initially the person agrees, be sure to check-in again at the end- conversations are slippery and can quickly go to unexpected and intensely personal places. And don’t forget about yourself! Even as the initiator of this project, if you start to wander into territory, you’re not comfortable with, feel empowered to change your mind and bring the conversation to a close. Here are a few possible conversation starters and enders:
    1. Hey aunt B, I’m doing a project about personal histories. Would you mind telling me about what it was like growing up with Mom as a little sister? Or about that time you fought a bear in the Rockies?
    2. …It seems like this is a tough thing to talk about. Do you want to take a break?
    3. …I’m feeling uncomfortable. Let’s take a break and see if J needs help in the kitchen.
    4. …This was wonderful- I had no idea that you spent time as a professional yak hair braider in the 70s! Are you comfortable with me sharing this story with others?
  4. Record the conversation in some way. Even if you don’t plan on publicly sharing, take a moment after your conversation to write, type or sketch afterwards. Try to capture what you talked about, and also your own thoughts about it. While right now you might think “Why would I need to record a 20 min. phone call with my grandmother in which she dithered on about nothing?,” later, when she’s not here to dither, or you have even less time to listen, you’ll appreciate having some kind of artifact from this time.
  5. Share the stories you collect. Maybe you post the stories you hear in the comments below (please do!)? Maybe you publish them on your own blog? Maybe you just mention them in passing to a coworker on Monday. Whatever you do, don’t keep them to your self (unless, of course, the story-teller has requested that you do). History is full of stories about real women that never get told. Let’s change that starting now.

Happy Thanksgiving! May yours be as stuffed with Her-stories as a squash is stuffed with quinoa and tempeh sausage!*

*(vegetarian thanksgiving analogies are weird.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *