Farmer Boy and the Value of Handing Down Stories

 

Almanzo Wilder cannot believe his eyes.

“Whose sled is that, Father?” he asks, bewildered. “Is it—it isn’t for me?”

Mother laughs and Father twinkles his eyes and asks, “Do you know any other nine-year-old that wants it?”

It is Almanzo’s ninth birthday. In his family’s farmhouse in upstate New York, his parents have just sent him to the woodshed, where a new sled surprises him.

The reason Almanzo cannot believe it is for him is that he already received his birthday present earlier that morning—a new calf-yoke that Father had made him for harnessing his own little oxen, Star and Bright. His father had helped him put the yoke on the calves, and then told Almanzo he would leave him to figure out the rest.

“Then Almanzo knew that he was really old enough to do important things all by himself,” the book tells us, and the morning had passed in a flash as he taught Star and Bright to “Giddap!” and “Whoa!”

This birthday gift of a calf-yoke did not merely please Almanzo; it acknowledged his progress on the way to manhood. It made him feel grown-up. He had been trusted with a great responsibility, and it exhilarated him. He expected nothing more.

Yet Father and Mother wanted to give him more. He was growing up, yes, but he was still a boy, too, and they wanted him to enjoy his childhood while he still could. So Father had made him a beautiful hickory sled.

It was forty below zero outside, “but the sun was shining, and all afternoon Almanzo played with his sled.”

I don’t remember a thing about my ninth birthday, but I know all about Almanzo Wilder’s from the pages of Farmer Boy. The stories Laura Ingalls Wilder tells in this book about her husband’s childhood are as endearing as they are astounding.

Almanzo’s stories, like the gifts he received on his ninth birthday, are gifts from one generation to the next. They are gifts he gave to his wife and child, and to all of us who meet his boyhood self through these pages. As his calf-yoke signified a bond of trust, so do the stories that entrust to us his personal memories. As his hand-sled entertained and delighted him, so do his youthful adventures entertain and delight all of us who turn the pages where his childhood stays imprinted forever.

We have the treasure of these stories today because Almanzo told them to Laura, and Laura wrote them down. If he had not taken the time to share so many details about his life, would their daughter Rose ever have known so much about her father’s youth, and about her grandparents, aunts, and uncle? Or would the childhood of Almanzo Wilder—which has enchanted readers of Farmer Boy for nearly a century—have been lost to the winds of time?

When I read aloud (again) this book recently with our children, I wondered: When was the last time I told them stories of my childhood? How much do they know about what it was like for me growing up? Have I given them the gift that Almanzo gave his wife and child—the same gift my grandfather also gave to me?

A Grandfather’s Gift
When I was ten years old, I sent my grandfather a letter. Our teacher had announced a contest: Write about your family’s history—first prize, $500. Did my grandfather have any stories, I asked, that he could send me?

My grandfather, born on 11-11-11, took up his pen and sent me eight pages of handwritten anecdotes about his parents, siblings, grandparents, and life growing up. I hunted-and-pecked some of the stories on my family’s typewriter and gave my submission to my teacher, who unfortunately, due to a miscommunication, did not submit it to the contest.

While I did not receive the $500 prize, I received something worth far more than any amount of money. My wise mother tucked away the letter until I was an adult. Now my grandfather’s stories, in his handwriting, on his yellow ledger paper, are safe in the envelope postmarked 1985. Through these pages, my children, who were born after he died, have been able to “meet” their great-grandfather.

They have also been able to see the world of the early twentieth century through his eyes. Richer than any history book I ever read, the scenes my grandfather painted with the brush of his words continue, even to this day, to captivate me. Sadly, I did not enjoy learning about history as a child: too many dates, rulers, and empires that bore no meaning in my own life (and frankly, too many hours spent summarizing dry textbooks for homework). But what my grandfather wrote—now, that was interesting! And it was real! It was my family!

“Before the radio and television and telephone,” he wrote, “if something of great interest happened, they printed a special issue of the newspaper, and the news boys came through the neighborhood, calling out, ‘Extra-extra, read all about it!’

“Fruit and vegetables were sold from horse and wagon and later from trucks—in the streets. As also were fish. During the summer, they came around in the evening selling watermelons.

“If you were fortunate, you lived near a public bath house to go to a pool in the summer. You were allowed in for one hour—then the next group came in—you went outside and did your best to dry your trunks so you could get back in time for another swim.

“Before the advent of a tele[phone] in homes, you hung around the drug store on the corner, where they had three, four, or five phones. A call came in for someone up the street—the druggist would look outside for someone to go to the house and tell the person they were wanted on the tele—you got a nickel for going.

“The ice cream was brought to the corner drug store by horse and wagon—later truck. The ice cream came in large metal containers. They sat in ice and salt. The day the druggist expected the ice cream man, he would fix up the ice cream box and put the empty containers at the curb. We would make sure all the ice cream was out of them.”

In this letter, I learned that my great-great grandmother Sarah died in 1876, at age 35, when she dropped a hot coal from the stove onto her apron, ran outside when it caught fire and was engulfed in flames. (I share this story with my children when we talk about “Stop, Drop, and Roll.”)

Historic events such as World War I (his brother served) and the first transatlantic airplane flight (when he was in high school) took on new life now that they were connected to him. He told me about ice boxes and electric railway cars; about building his father’s first radio and cranking record players by hand. He wrote to me about the man who lit the gas street lamps each night, the policemen who held “Stop” and “Go” signs to direct traffic, and the boys who played handball in the streets (“You threw the ball up and hit it with your fist. Cost of equipment—a nickel for a ball.”)

“Our fathers worked longer hours in a week, went to work in the dark and returned in the dark, worked Saturday also—all for very little money,” he wrote. “Most boys had jobs—in stores, helping the bread man or milk man, delivering the papers, helping the ice man.”

Three decades after he mailed it, his letter has only become more precious. Reading it, I can place myself in the world my grandfather grew up in, and I can compare it to mine. Through his words, I learn about history—and I learn about him. Those stories bring me closer to my grandfather, and the effort and time he spent writing them down will likely carry them, carry him, to his great-great grandchildren and beyond.

Talking about Long Ago
Later in Farmer Boy, Almanzo’s father takes him out to build another sled with him: this time, a bobsled, for Almanzo to hitch to his yoke of oxen for hauling wood. In the snowy woods, father and son chop down a small oak, and then begin looking for two trees to make curved runners. The trees need to be similar, but Father knows that in nature, they will not find a perfect match.

“You wouldn’t find two alike in the whole world, son,” he tells Almanzo. “Not even two blades of grass are the same. Everything is different from everything else, if you look at it.”

So it is with nature, and so it is with people’s lives: You won’t find two exactly alike in the whole world. Each one is created uniquely, crafted carefully by the Divine Hand. In order to fully recognize the beauty in the differences, we must look at each one in all its extraordinary detail. To capture this beauty in nature, we can take photographs and paint images; to capture it in people’s experiences and personalities, we can tell stories.

Often in modern life, our conversations seem to revolve around what is happening now in the lives of our family. We talk about yesterday’s 5K race, today’s dinner menu, and tomorrow’s surprise party, and this is good; it is good for families to talk about everything we experience! But how often do we talk about the past? How much of our conversation involves our reminiscences, our memories, our family’s history?

We read and cherish books and their contributions to history—books that touch on the experience of being a person alive in this world, in varied times, in different circumstances, in places far and near—and this is good; it is good for families to love these books! But how often do we tell children our own life stories? How much do they know about us, about our lives growing up, about the world we lived in and the people we knew and the places we went? This is history, and more than history. This is family. The link between generations is only one story away.

Sometimes it seems more important to tell other people’s stories, and a little self-indulgent to tell my own. But when I do, I see how much it matters. When my daughter, my oldest child, was a little girl, I decided to write a little book for her about my family, called “Family Memories.” Now, whenever I start to tell her a story about one of my siblings, she already knows and remembers it from the book, while I have forgotten I ever wrote it down!

Not long ago, at the dinner table, my husband told our children about a time when he was working on a roof and his ladder blew down. Every subsequent night at dinner the following week, our preschooler would say, “Daddy, now tell the story of when you were working on the roof…” (The older children enjoy the stories just as much but have outgrown that insatiable desire so characteristic of preschoolers to hear the same story over and over and over again.)

Our stories are our lives. When we share them with those we love, we enrich their lives, too. Just as we fill bookshelves with children’s favorite books, we can stock the shelves of their hearts with the tales of our lives, of their family’s lives. When the children are young, they will enjoy the stories; when they are old, they will treasure them.

Our children are a part of us—sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, grandchildren and students and friends. When we tell them about ourselves, like Almanzo told Laura and Rose, or like my grandfather told me, we give them a lasting gift—a gift that knits generations together. Through sharing our words and our memories, we leave a part of ourselves with those we already know and love, and with those yet to be born, whom we may never meet in this life but already love.

Tell your children of it,
and let your children tell their children,
and their children another generation. (Joel 1:3)

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Crisis Magazine.
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  • pnyikos

    The author really makes a simpler life long gone come alive, and lets us know how wonderful the old days were at their best. Such rich writing is hard to come by these days.

  • JMC

    Oh, cranking record players by hand. My great-uncle had a turn-of-the-century Victrola, a large console type. I was introduced to Caruso on that machine…as well as some truly terrible French popular music from the 1910s. My great-aunt, a war bride, had long since stopped listening to them, having lost her taste for them. But I remember cranking that machine, and the sound was so incredible; no electronic system, however high-quality, can match it.
    .
    Like many of our World War II vets, and our Viet Nam vets, you didn’t ask him for war stories. He never talked about it. My great-grandmother always kept a picture of him in his uniform, but hidden in her sewing room, because he couldn’t bear the sight of it. If you even mentioned Germany or Germans, he would fly into an unbelievable rage that had the edge of panic about it. (When he learned that my brother was studying the German language in college, he didn’t speak to him for a month.) All the history books said that trench warfare held horrors that modern warfare actually hides; his reactions brought that home to me as no other child in my class could even imagine.
    .
    Actually seeing (and sometimes participating in) their old-fashioned lifestyle was the only way I got to learn about how people in their time lived. They told no stories. Neither did my parents or grandparents. There were only the inferences I could draw from what I could see. But it was enough. Today as I can produce on my own little farm, I feel so connected with my great-aunt it’s almost as if she’s standing there looking over my shoulder. It’s the same when I mend my clothes or play the piano, only then it’s my grandmother, a professional seamstress and music teacher, who seems to be looking on.
    .
    I sometimes wonder what stories they could have told, and there’s always the morbid curiosity about what horrors were in their earlier lives that made them so reticent to talk about those years. So it may be, in this particular case, that I got the better deal. But the value of family history, however it’s passed on, is incalculable.

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