Her voice came softly through the darkness from the other twin bed, “Mia, tell me a story about when you were little.” We both knew what that meant. Tell me a story about when our whole family lived together on the farm. Night after night. “Tell me another one. Just one more.” And before long I would hear her breathing get slow and regular, we’d both drift off and soon we’d be lost in dreamland.
My little sister was 5 and I was 13 when this ritual began. We had moved off the farm and our big brothers had moved out, one went off to college and the other enlisted in the Army. Now it was just the five of us living in a three-bedroom ranch home in the suburbs.
I was the oldest girl so I initially got my own room while my two younger sisters had to share a room. Solveig was only 5 years old and Holly was just 18 months younger than me.
I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) respond to our mother’s threats that if I didn’t keep my room picked up, the single room with the double bed would be awarded to Holly and I would be banished to bunk in with the baby. Holly had proven that she would keep her room clean because, after all, her clothes, her hair, and especially her room were always perfectly in order. I was a little less, okay a lot less, buttoned down. My room always seemed to look like burglars had just fled the scene interrupted while searching for the secret microfiche; bed never made, clothes and books everywhere, dirty clothes mixed up with fresh laundry waiting for hangers.
Our mom had gone into debt shopping at Sears Roebuck picking out the perfect bedspread and curtains for us. I am sure it made her crazy that my room was always such a mess.
In my mind, I was 13 and expressing myself. After all, 7th graders should be able to do whatever they want, right?
One day I came home to find that all my earthly belongings were piled up in Solveig’s room. And there was Holly, decorating MY room, arranging everything just right, sorting her clothes by body part and season, placing the hangers 2 fingers apart in the closet. Well, that might be a teensy bit exaggerated. But still.
Just like that, I had a new roomie. They thought I would be punished by losing my room or at least show a little remorse. But Solveig and I ended up looking forward to this little bedtime ritual after a busy day at the lake or running the neighborhood. The sun would set and our room became dark and quiet; the perfect backdrop for painting an intriguing, sometimes funny, sometimes adventurous, always historical story about when I was little. It was a regular touchstone we could always count on since bedtime in our house was always 9 o’clock; it didn’t matter old you were, 9 o’clock was bedtime.
“Mia, Tell me a story about when you were little.”
“Well, there was the time I climbed up a tree, opened an umbrella, and jumped. Because we had just seen Mary Poppins at the movies. Needless to say, I broke the brand-new umbrella that I had just purchased with my own birthday money.
I told her that our teenage cousin Linda would come and live with us during the summer because she loved the farm life better than life in the city. And how she would tell us scary stories and we’d take turns scratching each other’s backs before bed. That she bought a horse and named him Fred and that we had a flat tire on a country road while we were out shopping for him.
I told her about Holly falling off the top of a Butler grain storage bin and breaking her arm and that the doctors didn’t set it right and that’s why her arm looks like a boomerang when she tries to straighten it. But it doesn’t hurt.
How about the time I found a frozen dead squirrel on a bright cold winter morning, feeling sorry for it, smuggling it into the house, and hiding it under my bed? But just for a few days until my mom began to investigate the suspicious odor coming from my room. [Do I need to tell you she was not pleased?]
There was the story about the time we swam the Hanson kids’ Shetland Ponies across a stream and discovered an abandoned house in the woods. There was a stuffed porcupine inside of all things! We only had the nerve to stay around a few minutes after we broke in. I think I might have been about 10 years old.
There was one story involving Holly, a wooden swing seat, copious amounts of blood, and me hiding in the haymow until nightfall. Spoiler alerts: Her nose was not broken. And she survived.
We giggled when I told her about one night during harvest season when we looked out our bedroom window to see our dad, our brothers, and our hired man all taking a shower on the back step under a garden hose hung over the screen door. Yikes! What a sight!
Oh and then there was the time I cut Holly’s beautiful shoulder-length curls (down to the scalp in places) in a game of who can amass a bigger pile of hair, about how I cheated and cut off ALL my curls in order to win the game. Holly maintained her cuteness but I looked like a boy for way too many months. Mom was furious and once we looked in the mirror we were so embarrassed we wouldn’t let our Mom take our picture. My Dad had been out hunting so they tricked us into holding the dead geese for the camera so they could get a photo of just how big those geese were. [How old was I when I learned that those giant birds were swans and not geese? I was today years old!]
I told her about the time I was snooping around in my 14-year-old brother’s bedroom because I smelled juicy fruit gum, when suddenly the wardrobe tipped over on top of me, pinning me between the wardrobe and the bed. Mom heard the crash and rushed in to see me trapped underneath. She also saw all the stuff from the top shelf that had spilled out onto the bed. She spied a pack of cigarettes and stormed out to the barn to give Dicky hell, leaving me pinned under the huge piece of furniture! I guess I was ok.
Solveig loved me telling about the time Holly and I took the Greyhound Bus all by ourselves four hours from Evansville to Minneapolis to see The Beatles. We were 11 and 9 years old. Tickets were $4.50 each. Girls screamed so loud no one could hear a note. But oh, what a memory.
I loved to tell her in great detail the story about discovering sweet soft warm newborn puppies under the granary on a cool dewy morning. Sparky was the best mamma dog. And smart, too! She once herded the cows back into the pasture all by herself after the gate had been left open by mistake. Or something like that.
I think one of her favorites might have been the time I was stampeded by a herd of pigs when I was about her age. I was so little and scared. My brother, Hans, felt so bad he fashioned a whip out of a stick and some braided twine so I could defend myself should I ever see a herd of swine coming after me again!
She loved to hear about the time our brother Dick led his colt into the house and up the stairs and into his room to take a nap. We wondered why exactly he ever would have thought that might have been a good idea.
I told her about the time our Dad crashed his crop-dusting plane and broke his back and his nose, about how scared we were when the neighbors came to tell us, about how he was in a plaster cast from his neck to his hips when he finally came home from the hospital, but even so, he took the winter to build a brick fireplace and bookshelves in our living room. [We didn’t find out for another 40 years that our mom had illegally been in that plane with him. She had broken her tailbone but couldn’t go to the hospital or tell anyone for fear that he would lose his pilot’s license. 60 years later I feel that was either true love or kinda crazy.]
I told her about the cold November day in 1963 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, that I was in Mrs. Lundstrom’s 4th-grade class, what the classroom looked like, who was sitting behind me, the look on our teacher’s face when the news came over the scratchy intercom, and how quiet everyone was as we walked out to the buses. Our mom was sitting at the kitchen table with red puffy eyes when we got home that day.
I told her about the day the baby of the family came home from the hospital, a little towhead named Solveig, about how she was born with a raspberry birthmark on the tip of her nose. We figured she got it when our mother, just a few days before her due date, opened the porch screen door on a hot windy day in May and holding tight to the door latch, was thrown by a gust of wind off the steps, across the sidewalk, and way out into the yard, landing flat on her back. Just a few days later she gave birth to a healthy baby girl! With a red spot on her nose.
I don’t think my little sister ever grew weary of hearing these old stories night after night. And I never got tired of retelling them.
I moved out when I was 20; she was 12. A quick 7 years. But those years loom large for both of us, shaping, in large part, our worldview and sense of security. George Bernard Shaw once said, “A happy family is but an earlier heaven.” I am so thankful for those happy memories and how they fortified us against the world.
It occurs to me now how significant formative years are. And how they are gone in a flash. As I write this, our oldest grandson is 8 years old and has moved 5 times so far. Will all that change make him strong against what comes his way? Or mistrustful, like he can’t count on a sturdy framework.
Countless children around this globe spend those quick formative years going to bed hungry, listening to their parents scream at one another, or fleeing unimaginable dangers in their home countries, or a blue million other hostile factors. Domestic violence calls are up 40% since this Coronavirus stay-at-home order went into effect this spring. Families already held together by a thread are being stretched too thin.
What kind of stories will those children tell about when they were little? Will their memories include PTSD symptoms as they describe visits to food pantries, going without school lunches, trying to soothe their mother’s anxious brow or their dad’s short fuse, or worried about getting Grandpa sick?
Or will they vaguely remember that one-time summer vacation was super long and everybody wanted to be on the computer at the same time, but they had plenty to eat and got to spend more time with Mommy and Daddy around the house all day and weren’t bothered with soccer practice and piano lessons?
Kids grow up regardless of what’s going on around them. Good. Bad. Nurturing. Destructive. They just keep growing and absorbing. They are 5, and then 12, in a flash they are 20 and moving out. As the great philosopher John Lennon once penned, “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.”
Raising kids is hard. Growing up is hard. Maybe our best strategy is to tell and retell the stories that mean something to us. Build a fortress. Spend the time and the breath to impart a little bit of our history to someone who might need to hear it. A little sister. A child. A grandchild. A friend. A small group co-member.
Mark Twain and William Shakespeare and Anne Lamott knew the power of storytelling. Jesus spent his entire 3-year ministry on this earth using stories to get his message across and 2,000 years later those stories are still connecting ideas with hearts across the globe.
Maybe I don’t need to change the world overnight. But I can start by telling you a story about when I was little.