Saving your family’s words of wisdom

I touched on this topic a couple years back, but it bears repeating, especially for those working on a memoir. For many of us, there are precious words of wisdom tucked away in our memories. Odd and typically quirky, these folksy lines played a subtle yet important role in our childhoods. We ignore them all too often today, because they haven’t been run through a Madison Avenue filter, nor are they used by the relentlessly Mid-western broadcast voices we hear every day.

If we’re lucky, we won’t have much trouble digging them up to share with our own progeny. BUT, we have to commit ourselves to doing so. Memoir writers, on the other hand, have additional opportunities. They can work these gems into their personal histories and leave these verbal riches for posterity.

“Wish in one hand, spit in the other. See which fills up first.”

Gramma02I’m channeling the wisdom of the diminutive Anna Gunderson Hasdal, the only one of my grand quartet to survive past my third birthday. Doubtless the other three could have provided similar proverbs if they’d only had the chance, and I ache for the memories of them I’ll never have.

Happily, Anna lived a long and bountiful life, and I have many great memories of her. Standing all of 4 foot 10 in her sensible, sturdy, little shoes, Anna left Norway at 18 and sailed to America. She shuffled through Ellis Island at the beginning of the 20th century and made her way to Chicago where she sought her fortune as a housekeeper. She met and married yet another ex-pat Norwegian, and they had four children, one of whom was my late mother.

“Gramma” was a no-nonsense gal, and I dearly wish she could share her wisdom with me and my writing classes today. She could teach me so, so much about a world which no longer exists–the one she grew up in. What she learned about that world, however, still applies to this one.

“What you don’t have in your head, you have in your feet.”

This one annoyed me greatly as a child, because I heard it so often. I hated it because it was true; it’s still true today: forget the car keys? Walk back and get ’em; forget my class notes? Go back and get ’em. Forget the grocery list? Thankfully, parts of my memory still work, and I know I can survive without everything on the missing list. I’ve gotten quite a kick out of using the phrase on my own kids — and with any luck, they’ll use it on theirs, too. We’ll see.

“I have more time than money.”Gramma01

It was true for Anna, and it’s still true for me and my bride. Better still, it requires no explanation.

“We don’t count the food.”

Anna wasn’t the only one to dole out familial wisdom. The above line was one of my dad’s favorite expressions. The third of five boys in his family, they shared a house with their parents plus various aunts and uncles all through the Depression. There’s no doubt in my mind a limited budget demanded that all food be scrupulously accounted for. As an adult, Dad no longer had such concerns, and that provides everything I need to understand.

Anna Mpls 59“Chickens don’t praise their own soup.”

I seriously doubt my grandmother ever said this, but I can easily imagine her doing it, and I can almost hear that faint Scandinavian lilt in her voice, which was every bit as small and charming as she was. Best of all, this one takes a moment or two to absorb. And, seriously, shouldn’t advice be something one has to think about to appreciate? Otherwise it’s not much more than, “Be careful, or you’ll shoot yer eye out!” Okay, got it. Moving on now, sans BB gun. And self respect. Here’s another my great dame would surely have endorsed:

“Don’t talk unless you can improve the silence.”

If only our elected representatives put this to use! In lieu of that, we must do what we can, and this is prime stuff for a memoir. It’ll go in mine, for sure, one way or another. Which brings me back to the beginning–spend the time it takes to dig up the sayings which got traction in your family.

“Cook ’em; don’t Shermanize ’em!”

This one I remember quite vividly; it was a favorite of my late father-in-law. Long ago, when I dated his youngest daughter, he would dispatch us to the backyard barbecue grill on Saturday nights with that one grand injunction. Saturday night was steak night, and you didn’t want to mess with that man’s favorite meal. Fortunately, we didn’t screw it up too often. Otherwise, I’m not sure I’d have had his blessing when I asked for permission to marry his sweet baby girl.

Please, do your best to capitalize on these things. They may help to keep alive the memories of loved ones long gone. Though the sayings may have been corny, or ungrammatical, or phrased with a degree of color rarely seen today, your memoir will benefit from them. And so will your readers.

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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10 Responses to Saving your family’s words of wisdom

  1. dorisreidy says:

    My Momisms: “Least said, soonest mended.” “Many hands make light work.” “There’s no fool like an old fool.” (That last one has new and terrible meaning as I age!)

  2. An-l says:

    Josh, This was fantastic. It reminded me, of a list of these good ‘ole sayings our family made, at one our family get-gatherings a few years ago. Brent remembered so many things his grandpa Bell said, and could make them sound just like his grandpa was saying them. For months we called and shared a new one when it popped in our mind. Too bad I didn’t get to read this great blog earlier–I realized several places I could have used one of them in my memoir. Your text book is going to be great. .

    • joshlangston says:

      Thanks for those kind words. I suspect most folks who’ve finished a memoir can think of things they forgot to include. Hopefully my textbook will help people remember a lot that might otherwise be overlooked. These old family proverbs are a good example. (The book should be ready before too much longer!)

  3. Susanne says:

    This is my favourite: “Wish in one hand, spit in the other. See which fills up first.” It seems obvious when you first read it and then you start thinking, hmm, what? I love the idea of using old family expressions as a way into memoir, too. Those old folksy aphorisms were important, are still important, like family parables.

  4. Karen Boyce says:

    Josh, you did a great job with this topic – and you wouldn’t believe how often I say, “What you don’t have in your head you have in your feet,” because it happens all the time around here! And in memoir I think these well-worn sayings really perk up the narrative. Thanks again for showing us how to use them in our own memoir writing.

  5. Jennifer Thomas says:

    Josh, you forgot one of my favorite quotes from Gramma. When I have company and they want to clean up before a party is over I say “I can clean up by myself, but I can’t visit by myself”. Good work on the blog. Cousin Jenny

  6. pcartist says:

    Sorry so late, but congrats on Ga writers finally recognized your fine talents. Your books of fiction are great, but your ways of delivering material, as it pertains to writing, was superb. Your wit, charm, experience and knowledge imparted in such a way, that even us dimwits, some of us were dimwits, we’re able to understand.

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