Saving and re-telling the stories

Saving and re-telling the stories  

           I grew up believing that suppertime and story-time were synonymous. Dad gulped down his food, like most physicians who expect to be called out at any minute, and while we children finished our mashed potatoes and gravy, he told stories. I listened spellbound to his accounts about the patient with a strange rash, the caribou that pranced like Dancer right up to his airplane when he was hunting, and how he fixed the hole in his Piper J-3 float with a kerchief and a stick. Those stories turned into my first book Alaska Bush Pilot Doctor.

           Years later, my husband and his two brothers, along with their parents, laughed heartily at Thanksgiving dinners as they reminisced, and probably embellished, stories about the three boys. Each brother had his version of trying to ride the stray donkey that wandered repeatedly into their Western Kansas barnyard. They howled with laughter and talked at once about trying to stand up in the slimy stock tank and finding cow faces under the water looking down into the water with strands of slobber. The oldest brothers never tired of describing how they taunted their younger brother about the “rollers” coming – the terrifying dust storms that roiled over the plains. The stories continued with rolling Schnitzel, their Dachshund, into a rug and seeing if he’d land on his feet at the bottom of the stairs. After the Thanksgiving pies were eaten, tales continued with Schnitzel dragging home neighbor girls’ dolls, bicycle crashes, and falling off haystacks.

            My daughter and son listened, wide-eyed, and glanced from brother to brother, trying to figure out who was telling the truth.

            My children were 15 and 17 when their father died, followed by his father. The great-grandparents had already died. The family gatherings were smaller. Two brothers told the stories. Everyone chuckled. Everyone was keenly aware of the missing storytellers.

            My parents died, my grandparents died. Within four years, eight family members were gone. Many of my family’s oral traditions were documented in Alaska Bush Pilot Doctor and From Kansas Wheat Fields to Alaska Tundra: a Mennonite Family Finds Home. Now I was concerned that my children would lose their stories.

            On January 23, 1999, the documenting of the three Penner boys took place. This occurred within a traditional event: The Pheasant Festival. For decades, Penner men and boys (now girls and women, too) have flocked to their old home place to hunt pheasants. So it was that while savoring pheasant baked in cream, one brother retold every story he could remember, and I recorded the oral history.

            I transcribed the stories, added photos, included handwritten recipes from my mother-in-law, and printed a booklet for my children, their cousins, and other family members. It wasn’t a birth-till-death memoir, but it captured the supper table stories that were part of the fabric of my children’s lives. It was my gift to them.

            A secondary use of the The Three Boys booklet has been to show other family-savers-of-history a simple, organized, fun way to capture anecdotes that otherwise get lost in the dust storms of life or roll down the stairs and not land on their feet.

            Dads, tell your children stories. Show them where you grew up. Pull out pictures. Go for a ride. Reminisce out loud. Then preserve those stories in written form, digital format, photo books with captions, or in some that way they will remember, chuckle, or blurt out, “Tell us another story,” or sigh longingly, “Remember when Dad…”

            Your story is a gift to your children.

 (This was first printed in “The Country Register” – Kansas, June/July 2013.