Wednesday, September 27, 2006

December Baby

One of the most priceless gifts parents can give to their children is the story of their birth. Because we have no memory of our earliest beginnings, the only way to know about this significant event is from someone who witnessed it.

The story of my birth has a story. I was born in late December, almost late enough to be a New Year baby, and the story of my birth had become legend by the time I learned the simple truth. The story my father liked to tell was that four days after Christmas, he and my mother--who was already two weeks overdue with me--hiked miles up snow-laden Craney Hill in New Hampshire, where at the summit my mother did jumping jacks in the snowdrifts to shake me down. This exercise did the trick, because I was born within hours, after a hair-raising, white-knuckle drive to Concord Hospital in the middle of a raging blizzard.

I loved hearing this dramatic account of my beginnings. But a few years ago when I asked my mother about it, she couldn't remember hiking up Craney Hill. All she remembered of anything that involved Craney Hill was that she and my father had taken a drive around it sometime before I was born. (My dad loved to drive the back country roads of New Engand, anywhere and anytime.)

Soon, more of the truth came out in Gramma's diaries. I was supposed to have been born a week before Christmas, but by Christmas Eve, my mother lay hopelessly huge and uncomfortable on the sofa while the rest of her family sat around the dining table feasting on their holiday dinner together. The next morning, she got up early and walked around town--eating breakfast at her cousin's house and then visiting with her aunt and uncle on the other side of town before returning home. I can see my young mother trudging in the drifts in her winter boots, after months of trying to keep me safely inside, now determined to push me out of the nest where I'd long overstayed my welcome.

I was born five days later in Concord Memorial Hospital.

As much as I loved hearing my father's version of how I came to be, I appreciated once again my grandmother's devotion to recording the facts as they happened and when they happened.

Oh, my father's story did have a nugget of truth in it--I was born during an ice storm.

Do you know the story of your birth? If you don't, try to find out. If you're a parent, have you told your children their stories? If you haven't, please tell them (better yet, write it to them) before this precious story melts away--or they make one up.

© 2006 by Marilyn C. Hilton

Thursday, September 21, 2006

15 Minutes of Your Life

I love the story of Joshua leading the Israelites across the Jordan River. I love it for many reasons, and one of them is because God instructed the leaders of the twelve tribes to choose one stone each from the riverbed and build a memorial on the other side. Every time they saw the memorial, they were to remember and talk about the wonders and miracles God had done for them that day.

I believe that each person has been given the amazing opportunity to create their own memorial. That memorial is the story of their life. It pains me to think that there are people who spend whole days, whole lives, without purposely leaving something behind. The moments of our lives should be noticed, recorded, examined (when there's time), and passed on. Everyone, I think, should do something toward writing their life story.

I know, I know, I hear you grumbling. People have all kinds of reasons for not writing their life story. The first one is they don't have any time. But I counter with if you have 15 minutes, you can do something toward getting your life on paper.

The second argument is that their life is boring. Let me tell you, I'm the first one to raise her hand with that excuse. Here's an example of the events of my typical, boring day:

- Wake up
- Let the dog out
- Wake up the kids
- Take a shower
- Brush my teeth, comb my hair
- Get dressed
- Prepare breakfast and eat
- Take kids to school
- Go to work
- Work
- Eat lunch
- Pick up kids at school
- Go home
- Help kids with homework
- Make dinner and eat
- Clean up
- Get kids ready for bed
- Watch TV, read, write, do chores
- Go to bed

That looks pretty routine, pretty mundane. And sometimes this is exactly what an entry in my diary looks like on a night when I'm too tired to pick up a pen. But if I flesh out these routine events, adding some details, observations, or opinions to them, my day reads like this:

  • Wake up. Leon woke me up this morning because the sprinklers woke him up. I was in the middle of a crazy dream about a human-looking alien who could fly and glide.
  • Let the dog out. As soon as she rushed out the back door, she barked and chased a squirrel, which got the dog next door barking.
  • Wake up the kids. No one wanted to wake up this morning. It’s Monday.
  • Take a shower. Without thinking about it, I solved a problem while shampooing my hair.
  • Brush my teeth, comb my hair. No comment.
  • Get dressed. I dressed up a little better than my usual T-shirt and overalls because I had to talk to someone about fundraising at school.
  • Prepare breakfast and eat. Emily actually made frozen waffles for everyone. She’s growing up and taking on responsibility on her own.
  • Take kids to school. We almost didn’t make it because there’d been an accident on Westmont. It didn’t look like anyone was hurt, but I prayed for them anyway. What a terrible way to start your day!
  • Go to work. At home, as usual. I love it and thank God everyday for it.
  • Eat lunch. I decided to treat myself and with a take-out salad. Besides, I needed to stretch.
  • While I was outside, our neighbor was in her yard with her new baby, so I ran in our house to get the baby gift that had been sitting in the front hall for two weeks.
  • Pick up kids at school. They were all late getting out. Andrew’s face was rosy and flushed from P.E., which he had right before school ended.
  • Go home. The garage door slammed down. It needs a new motor or something. I should be more handy, but I usually add something like that to Leon’s “honey-do” list.
  • Help kids with homework. Amazingly, they all did theirs without my nagging them twenty times. Even Andrew. He’s really showing maturity this school year!
  • Make dinner and eat. Julia told us a funny story about some boys at school today batting around a ball made of rubber bands in the quad at lunchtime.
  • Clean up. Okay, here’s where the nagging came in: I did have to remind the girls a few times to clean the coffee pot and wipe the stovetop.
  • Get kids ready for bed. No one wanted to go to bed on time tonight, and Andrew said he needed three bandages for some invisible scrape on his knee. Maybe I just need a stronger pair of glasses, but I didn’t see anything.
  • Watch TV, read, write, do chores. As I folded the laundry that had been sitting in baskets on the floor since Friday, Leon and I watched an interesting documentary on TV about beer-making in America. Who would have guessed?
  • Go to bed. Even though I’m completely exhausted, I love having some time all to myself.

Not exactly exciting, but it definitely sounds a lot more more interesting. It fills in the gaps and adds some sprinkles and sauce to an otherwise vanilla day.

Here's an exercise you can do in 15 minutes:

  1. Take out a notebook or a piece of paper, or open a new file on your computer, or turn on a recording device (a video camera or voice recorder).
  2. Skipping lines, or leaving space between items, write or record a list of everything that happened today in the order they happened. Just jot them down as they come to you.
  3. Look at your list. You’ve already done a lot today, haven’t you? Look how you’ve spent your time so far.
  4. Now, write or record a little detail about each item.
  5. If you want to take this exercise farther, add a comment, an opinion, or a remark about each detail you wrote.

Time’s up. Do you realize that you just did one thing toward writing your life story? And all in a short 15 minutes. You 've just created the first pebble of your memorial stone!

© 2006 Marilyn C. Hilton

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Personal Hurricane

For years I'd heard my parents and grandparents--those in New Hampshire and those in Massachusetts--talk about "the hurricane." For years, in my mind this was some ho-hum storm that became a legend that the old-timers talked about. A collective, cultural landmark, much as JFK's assassination, The Beatles' first appearance on Ed Sullivan, and the blackout of 1965 became to me. I even have black-and-white snapshots of the flooding this storm caused near the reservoir along Washington Street in Canton, MA, and along the banks of the Contoocook River in Henniker, NH. They're all marked simply "Flooding, 1938," as if anyone who read those spartan words wouldn't need any more.

That two families in two different states who were unrelated in 1938 bothered to snap these photos and save them for decades should have been a clue to this disaster, but not until I watched a recent documentary on The History Channel did I begin to grasp the enormity of this storm and its relative effect on my mother's family in the midst of their own very personal tragedy.

Reaching as wide across as 500 miles and traveling so quickly (up to 186 mph at times) that people barely noticed the eye, the "Long Island Express" (which wasn't called a hurricane until after the fact) roared north into Long Island and gouged the coasts of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts and their islands, before going inland into New England and finally dying out in Canada. It left hundreds of people dead and thousands more injured and homeless.

In my last entry, I wrote about my great-grandmother's diaries. Gramma Clark was a faithful diarist and time and time again my mother--and now I--have opened them to clarify a fuzzy memory or confirm a suspicion. (This is just another good reason to keep a diary--as long as you tell the truth, the diary keeps everyone honest. When you record something when it happens, time has no opportunity to change the facts. )

So, as I watched this show in fascination, I went to the shelf of Gramma's diaries, pulled out 1938, and turned to September 21. There, she recorded strong winds, heavy rains, and flooding so swift that it tore out the town's landmark stone bridge that spanned the Contoocook River. (The bridge was reconstructed a year later.) The power stayed out for three days afterward, and my Nana and Grandpa, and my mother and uncle (who were just children) moved in with Gramma Clark and her second husband until the power was restored and life returned to normal.

Reading her entries about the hurricane brought to life those old photos and the brief references to the storm. There's something heart-pounding about reading a personal account of a shared, public event, from someone who experienced at the ground level something that most people will experience only from a bird's-eye view. But I was disappointed: I expected to read more drama, more excitement, and more awe over the power and devastation of this historic storm.

Then, by flipping back a few pages, I understood. The hurricane wasn't the only thing going on in her life at that time. In fact, it took a back seat to something far more devastating to my great-grandma. Only a few days before, the body of her son, just 31 years old, arrived on a train for his funeral and burial, which took place three days before the hurricane struck. Her beloved only son died suddenly and unexpectedly during a regular summer visit to his wife's folks in the mid-west. I can't begin to imagine the shock and disbelief she still felt when the hurricane hit. My Gramma, whose diary entries are distinguished by her dispassionate accounts of her daily life, revealed the depth of her grief over her son's death when on December 31 she wrote, "This ends the saddest year of my life."

In the span of a week, my Gramma endured two tragedies: one shared by thousands of other residents of New England--with whom she might have commiserated--and the other a sharp, isolating agony that only she could bear and bear alone.

© 2006 Marilyn C. Hilton

Friday, September 15, 2006

Keeping a Daily Diary

People know me for "making history last" by recording, preserving, and telling my family's stories--and for showing others how to do the same for theirs. Whenever I'm asked for my Number One piece of advice, I answer without hesitation: Keep a diary every day.

"Keep a diary?!" people exclaim, sometimes outraged. "I don't have time to floss my teeth."

Then I explain that keeping a daily diary can take less time than flossing your teeth, and the benefits to your family may have farther-reaching and longer-lasting effects than good oral hygiene. Traditional diary keeping is recording just the facts, writing what happened during the day. This is the next place where people often freak out, because they think I mean they must create a literary masterpiece every day. But that's just not so.

My great-grandmother, Gramma Clark, who is my model for diary keeping, wrote in a diary nearly every day of her 83+ years. Now, this working woman/widow/single mother of two for much of her life had far more to do with her time than pen profundities at the end of every day, yet she managed to faithfully record each day's events. When I decided to adopt Gramma's diary-keeping habit, I was a working mother of two babies who also didn't have an extra moment to floss. But, I wanted my children to know what they did every day, how their young lives played out, and that someone noticed what they did and said and then took the time to pin those elusive moments onto paper.

My grandmother had two secrets for successful diary-keeping, and now they're mine:
  • Write no more than one page each day.
  • Write only what happened.
Gramma purchased small books for her diaries (average size 5"x7") and wrote up to one page each day. Sometimes she wrote only one sentence, and sometimes she skipped lines. But she wrote something every day. She stuck to the facts and didn't get into her interpretation of events. By recording one kernel of detail in each event, however, she brought clarity and distinctiveness to the event. Some people may view this tone as cold, detached, or unemotional. That may be true, but clearly she wrote these diaries for other eyes to read--they were public diaries--and did not want her words to offend anyone or be misconstrued. Another benefit of writing "just the facts" is that readers can interpret the words, fill in the spaces, and draw their own conclusions.

If you're interested in keeping a daily diary, you might be discouraged by the high cost of many pre-dated daily diaries. Many of these books are real leather and have fancy printing and embossing--and you pay for all this finery. You can find inexpensive varieties if you look closely, however, starting around October, when the holiday shopping begins. Calendar stores, card and gift stores, and mall booth vendors are good places to look. You can find a good diary, perfect- or spiral-bound, for about US$14.

There are several alternatives to bound, pre-dated diaries. You can use any bound book with lined pages--at least 365 sides--which you can date yourself. Sometimes it's best to date the pages ahead so that you don't inadvertently skip a day. I usually write the dates one month ahead in pencil, and then pen in the date when I write the entry.

You can also buy an empty organizer and a one-year pack of daily calendar pages, which are usually pre-dated. (If they're not dated, write in the dates as above.) At the end of the year, remove the pages, bind them with string or clips, and store them in a large envelope with the year written on it. Then, refill the organizer with the current year's calendar pages.

Or, you can go to your local office-supply store and purchase a notebook that has enough pages for 365 days.

At the end of the year, place your diary in a dry, cool box that's safe from moisture, heat, and pests.

So, let's recap:
  • Keep a diary every day; keep it short, and stick to the facts.
  • Choose from several options for your diary.
  • Write legibly in ink.
  • Store filled diaries in a safe place.
In upcoming entries, I'll talk about other ways you can keep a diary.

© 2006 Marilyn C. Hilton

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


My grandparents--my father's mother and father--lived in a grand, rambling house on the corner of two busy streets in Canton, Massachusetts. This house, brown-shingled and green-shuttered--a very New England house--held magic and mystery for we young grandchildren who came for holiday celebrations, Sunday dinners, and drop-in visits.

My grandparents were farmers and business people, and among their many ventures was a turkey farm which they operated for several years. Down the broad, curved driveway of their home, next to the barn (which smelled of clean hay, grain, and burlap bags) were the turkey coops, where hundreds of turkeys gobbled and clucked through their days until someone wanted to eat one, at which time my grandfather wrung its neck, plucked its feathers, and handed it over to the customer. Business boomed during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, and to this day there are people in Canton who remember my grandparents' turkey farm and remark, sometimes wistfully, that those were the best turkeys they'd ever tasted.

Running a turkey farm, like running a family, requires huge amounts of energy and devotion. There were seasons for turkeys: in the spring, chicks hatched and had to incubated in the farmhouse until they were old enough and strong enough to move into the coops. They had to be fed and watered daily, their coops had to be cleaned, and when night fell or the skies threatened bad weather, the turkeys had to be gathered and sheltered from the elements. Often, when my grandparents were visiting us at our home in a nearby town and dusk began to settle, my grandmother would become anxious and announce, "We got to get home and get those turkeys in." I imagined her standing in the turkey pen, shooing every last stray turkey into its coop before night--or the first raindrop--fell, unable to rest until she had sheltered her enormous brood of turkeys in warmth and safety.

Five years and two days ago, a dear friend of mine boarded a plane in Boston and flew to San Jose for a brief, routine business trip. And then the next morning, tragedy struck our nation and our lives. Knowing she was separated from her husband back East and unable to return home for who knew how long, we invited her to stay with us. So she moved from her expansive hotel room to our cramped, cluttered, often-chaotic house while the world readjusted itself. A few days later, she and I, and two other dear old (as in "long-term," not "aged") friends attended an impromptu service at our church to pray, remember, cry, and try to make sense of the events of the past days--and then went to a local coffee shop to do something normal, sharply aware that the changes to our world and our lives were permanent and irreversible.

My friend, whom I'd met in college, with whom I'd studied for a year in Japan, and with whom I later shared my first apartment, and who has remained close despite the three-thousand miles that now separate us, was in those few days a part of my brood. Like my grandmother, I needed to keep her sheltered in our warmth and safety until she could fly home to her husband.

I'm grateful we were here to do that for her. I'm grateful that she found some comfort and solace in our love. But I think there was more to it. Surrounded by all the fear, sorrow, panic, and uncertainty of those days, she and I needed to be reminded that there are greater things to focus on. That she was here during that time wasn't a coincidence: it was a reminder, a reassurance, that some things--like friendship, love, and God's sheltering grace--can never be destroyed.

© 2006 Marilyn C. Hilton