“It only takes three generations to lose a piece of oral family history.” My daughter quoted to me in the same sing-song voice she had used as a child. She loved sharing random facts as much as I loved hearing them.
Now she stood there with a toddler on one hip, a phone in the other, grinning at me. She knew the tailspin this statement would put me in. I heard the boys yelling at each other in the background as their mother roared, running by with a giant gorilla mask. I smiled, wishing that I was there to witness this warmhearted chaos.
“Your brother said five would be perfect,” I communicated. “He is going to set it up.”
She smiled distractedly at the phone as the little one tugged on her sleek auburn hair. Instinctively I smoothed my wild curls, now peppered with gray. “Five o’clock Nikki, did you hear me?”
“Yeah, yeah,” she answered, still preoccupied with her daughter. “Wait, what time, Mom?”
I rolled my eyes. “Get Emi”
“Emily!” She hollers loudly, and then little one imitated her “EEEEEEEMMMMLLEEEE.”
I couldn’t help but laugh, remembering how often Nikki had imitated the adults around her when she was little.
“Suck it, stormtroopers,” I could hear her tiny voice as she had sat next to her father, playing Star Wars games on the PlayStation. I looked away quickly, squeezing the tears out of my eyes before anyone noticed.
Nikki passed the phone to her wife, and a giant gorilla face entered the screen. I heard one of the boys shout from the background, “Hi Gramma!”
“Emily!” I smiled warmly. The woman peeled the mask off, sweaty hair plastered to her face.
“Hi, Mama,” she answered. I adored that she called me Mama, I couldn’t have asked for a better partner for Nikki, and I loved that Emily felt comfortable with me.
“I just wanted to tell you the call is at five. Nikki will forget and ask--”
“I won’t forget!” Nikki interjected.
“Yes, you will!” Emily and I laughed in unison.
“Fine, fine,” Nikki said. “Time to get this one off to a nap. Talk soon!”
“Hugs and kisses!” I said. In the background, the little one loudly protested a nap.
The screen closes, and I was alone with my thoughts. I let the tears flow freely. A massive wave of grief washed over me, then subsided. I had lost my husband more than two years ago, and some moments still hit me as hard as when it was fresh. Now I just let it flow through me, feeling each ounce of pain and joy that it brought.
My husband would have hated this whole COVID thing. He was never one to be able to sit still for very long. Honestly, he would have hated this entire year. I missed talking with him, his ability to argue both sides of a perspective so eloquently. The world needed people like him.
Three generations, my mind snapped back to my daughter’s comment. She was right. I could hardly think of any stories about my great grandparents. An idea was beginning to form.
My computer chimed at exactly five p.m. My son was nothing if not prompt. Micahel’s smiling face, so much like my own, appeared on the screen.
“Hi, Mom,” he grinned and sat back with his wife and the two girls.
Ava was the oldest of my grandkids. Even as a ten-year-old, she was quiet and reflective. So much like Nikki. Her sister Ainsley was seven. A firecracker, like her father. Ashley was Michael's wife. She was warm, loving, and supportive—the yin to his yang.
“Happy Thanksgiving!” they sang in unison.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” I replied.
A few minutes later, Nikki’s family popped on the screen. The twins Aiden and Aaron each had a Nintendo switch in their hands, powered off, but I could tell they were itching to get back to their games. I could see that Vivian had just woken from her nap.
“So,” I said conspiratorially, “I have an idea!”
“Oh no,” Michael said with a grin, “Not one of mom’s ideas!”
I scoffed playfully and continued. “So Nikki got me thinking earlier about oral history, and I thought we could build a new holiday tradition. We could tell stories!”
“Nikki!” Micahel said playfully, “What were you thinking?”
Both of them sat back, smiling. I knew how much my kids enjoyed stories. Their childhood had been full of them. My husband had loved making up wild tales on why things were the way they were, and Nikki and Micahel had never grown tired of it.
I sat up taller and smiled broadly.
“Tonight,” I spoke dramatically,” I will tell you three tales.
“Like the ghosts of Christmas that visited Scrooge?” Ainsley piped in excitedly.
I raised my eyebrows thoughtfully. “Well… No, not really.”
Her face fell but recovered quickly. “It’s okay, Gramma; I’ll still like your stories.”
Her mother hushed her. “Let’s just listen, okay?” Ainsley nodded quietly.
“The first tale will be about your great great grandfather, my grandfather. If he were alive today, he would be almost one hundred years old. His name was Cornelius Connor. When I was little,
I used to think that my Grandfather was secretly a leprechaun.
I would go to his house and search the yard for four-leaf clovers, and often I would find them! He would tell me to make a wish. Imagine my excitement when it came true.
But this story is not about me. It's one my Grandfather would tell. When Grampa Connor was young, younger than your parents, he joined the army. A War was going on, World War II. One of his favorite stories to tell about his time during the war wasn’t about the scary or sad stuff that happened. No, he didn’t like to focus on that. He would sit my sister and me down with Darby O’Gill music playing in the background.
Then he would tell us about his job as an army police officer. Sometimes he would have to confiscate the other soldier’s alcohol or cigarettes. Well, Grampa was also the sort of man that liked to have fun. He loved to gamble and play poker. Grandpa Connor was the one that first taught me that game.
When he had time, he would borrow the confiscated alcohol and cigarettes to gamble with, often winning even more, and then return the borrowed contraband to sell his winnings for cash since he didn’t drink.
Grandpa Connor loved to tell stories, so In the future, I will remember more to share with you!
Both boys had wide grins on their faces. It was Aiden that spoke first. “That is soooo cool!”
Aaron babbled after “I won a dollar playing poker with Uncle Mike. Maybe I get my skill from Grampa Connor!”
Nikki looked at me with mock exasperation on her face. “Mooom, you had to tell that story! The boys are already insufferable.” She paused for a moment. “Hey, can I go next?”
My heart was full. I had prepared three stories myself, but to have the kids participate, was music to my ears. “Of course!”
Nikki leaned into the camera, making eye contact. She had always been good at setting a mood.
“This story is about my Grandfather. Grandpa Gagne was a teacher, but not the boring kind of teacher. He saw lessons and joy in everything.
Grandpa Gagne was the person that took me to my first musical theatre performance. It was a matinee for a high school production of Seussical the musical. Mike was just a baby, so he had to stay at the house with mom and dad. The lights and singing were terrific, and I had just started taking ballet lessons. I couldn’t have been more than four or five.”
I smiled proudly, remembering this trip, “you were four,” I added.
“Anyway,” Nikki continued, “This isn’t really about the show. You see, they lived in rural New Hampshire, and I had ground up across the country in a big city. When we went to visit, I loved the farms and nature that surrounded them. We passed one such farm, with a stand on the side of the road, selling corn.
I had never seen corn like this! My Grandfather saw my excitement and pulled the craziest U-turn that you would ever see to stop at the farmstand. He explained to the farmer how excited I was about the corn, and we ended up with a tour of the fields. I learned to shuck corn, and we had fresh corn that I had picked with dinner that night. I had never been prouder.”
I noticed Michael’s eyes getting a little watery. He had been incredibly close to my father. I opened my mouth to tell the next story when a small voice spoke.
“Gramma?” Ava said quietly. “Can I tell one about Grandpa?” My heart clenched a bit, and I nodded without speaking. I was going to tell a funny story about Nikki and Michael, but this was perfect.
“Of course you can, sweetie,” I finally got out, “he would have loved that you wanted to tell a story about him.”
Ava smiled and began.
“Grandpa was the funniest person I ever knew. He could always make any of us laugh. I remember him watching us after school before you guys moved to Florida. When I told him about kids picking on me, he would say something funny, and I would feel better.
Once there was a boy that told me I was terrible at math. He would say this every time we were in class. When Grandpa picked us up after school one day, I told him how much I hated this boy. I thought Grandpa was going to say something funny about him, but instead, he was quiet.
I was frustrated because he was supposed to make me feel better. When he finally spoke, he told me that some kids are only mean because someone is mean to them. So the next day, instead of feeling mad at the boy, I said to him that he was lucky that he was good at math. It turns out that Grampa was right because the boy told me how much he sucked at math. Then we decided to be friends. He was still mean to most kids in our class, but he was always nice to me. And he never told me I was bad at math again.”
I let a tear fall on my face remembering my husband, so wise.
“I’m sorry, Gramma, I didn’t mean to make you cry!” Ava exclaimed.
“It's okay. It’s good to cry sometimes.” I answered softly.
I looked at all the faces on my screen and felt such a deep love that I could almost imagine them in the room with me. “I miss you guys, and I can’t wait until we can visit each other again!”
“Gramma, are you lonely?” Ainsley asked, “because you live by yourself?”
I smiled brightly this time, “Oooh Ains, thank you for asking. I miss you all, just like I miss your grandpa, but I’m not lonely. I’m so grateful for everything I have. I have wonderful friends, kids, and grandkids who take time out of their day to call or send me messages. I think I must be the luckiest lady alive.”
I meant it; my heart was full.
Aaron spoke up next, “We should do this every holiday! Can it be my turn to tell a story now? I
want to tell a funny one about my moms!”
For the next hour, we all took turns telling the stories that made us who we were. We laughed and cried, then laughed some more. My fear that our oral history would disappear faded a bit more with each new tale.