A Humble Story Lives On

Hettie Stein never dreamed hundreds or thousands of people would learn about her life when she hand-wrote her lifestory on forty pages of notebook paper sometime around 1975. She wrote separate, personalized copies for each of her three grandchildren, my husband being one. We have not seen either of the other two copies, but I scanned in ours, saving the images in a PDF file and also transcribing them into a Word document for easier reading by later generations.

Now the world can read about Hettie’s life on Amy Cohen’s blog, Brotmanblog: A Family Journey, beginning with Part 1 and share our delight in these accounts of a long-gone way of life in simpler times.I thank distant cousin Amy for finding our family and pulling so many resources together into a compelling story.

As you can see from the graphic below, excerpted from Hettie’s story (which I gratefully borrowed back from Amy’s blog), the writing is as primitive as a Grandma Moses canvas in both form and message. As Hettie explains in her story, she chose to leave school after eighth grade (in 1898). Her reasoning was that like other women of her day, her lot in life was to marry and raise a family, and no housewife needed more book learning than she already had, so why exert herself?

This lack of formal education shows in her writing, but that did not deter her for a moment. Thank goodness! This humble, unaffected story reflects her authentic heart, big as all outdoors, and the fact that she wrote it is the sign of a satisfying life. She never had material wealth, but what she had was enough. I have never met a kinder, more positive person. Hettie loved everyone with childlike enthusiasm, and was always up for an adventure. I feel blessed for having been part of her family.

Hettie decided one day to write these stories. She just sat down and did it, though it took her months to finish each one. She wrote each story in the form of a letter to that grandchild, warmly laced with references to memories of “your mother” and “the time you and I …”. We have not seen the volumes she wrote for her two granddaughters, but presumably they cover much of the same material, customized with slightly different words.

She wrote for my husband. She died in 1987, more than a decade before I preserved her work for the family and the world. Now it’s treasured by great- and great-great-grandchildren and will hopefully be passed down even further.

I often mention her amazing accomplishment when I’m encouraging people to write. “If Hettie could do that, anyone can. You don’t need to produce a literary masterpiece. Whatever you write is better than nothing and will be treasured by generations to come.”

Hettie wrote by hand, on the simple paper she had. She made a manila paper folder to hold the pages and fastened it all together with brads. Even without those manila covers, in only a few years, the acidic notebook paper had begun yellowing. Scanning put a halt to that process.

If by some amazing coincidence, you decide to write a legacy manuscript by hand, acid-free paper is easy to find today. More likely you’ll sit down at a keyboard and print acid-free copies. But even if you write on unfolded paper bags or the backs of envelopes, your descendants will treasure your work.

Points to ponder: If you’re trying to get traction, what obstacles prevent you from “just doing it”? Are you concerned that you writing won’t measure up and your family will laugh or sneer? How good is “good enough”? If you are well on your way toward finishing a story, ponder how satisfying that feels.


Amy said...

Thank you, Sharon, for linking to my blog. And thank you especially for preserving and sharing Hettie's story with me. How lucky you were to be able to know her in person. How I wish I had!

Sharon Lippincott said...

I sense Hettie's eyes tearing over as she sits on a cloud and looks down on all this attention. She'll be a little embarrassed at the lack of polish, but her heart will swell with delight that her story is found to have value. This will be the capstone of her life. Walter will be grinning from ear to ear. He wanted everyone to know that he lived the young life every boy dreamed of living. He'll be unabashedly joyful to know his story lives on. How sad that Blanche wrote nothing ...

Hey, y'all readers, listen up. Hetties story was about forty hand-written notebook paper pages. Walters was maybe a dozen. Oh yes. You'll have to go to Amy's blog and read about Walter. Don't go down in history as "She (or he) who didn't write and left so many questions."

Amy said...

I am delighted and so touched that you, who knew them, believe that Hettie and Walter would be happy with my publication of their stories. I believe that each life, no matter how mundane it might seem, is a life worth remembering. Part of my reason for writing is to preserve those lives so we all can cherish our own as well.

Ian Mathie said...

This just goes to show that you don't have to be the world's best author, or even highly educated to write a worthwhile and very interesting and valuable life-story. You just have to have lived and be willing to share a little of your experience with others. There is always help available to put it into better English, that's what editors do (among other things). But it's most important to record your story in some way. Well done Hettie.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Amy, our family thanks YOU for taking Hettie and Walter's stories far beyond what any of us are likely to have done. Your expansion shows what's possible if a descendant decides to build on the foundation of early lifestories, whether roughly written or polished. I hope Heart and Craft readers will take a look at what you are doing with all the Schoenthal siblings. Start here: Amy's blog.

Amy said...

OK, now you have made me blush! :)

ShirleyHS said...

Sharon, I can testify that writing down stories will create an heirloom. When I was writing my memoir, I often asked my mother for her opinion and details I could not quite recall on my own. Mother wrote journals and her own stories which proved invaluable to me. Now, since Mother is beginning to lose her memory, I am so glad that I started when I did, and our whole family now has a published book to pass along to future generations.

I loved looking at the handwriting. There's something so personal and distinct about each person's writing and each person's stories.