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Family history: Get it all down before it’s too late

Have I got a New Year’s resolution for you. For the past few months I have been reading about World War I (1914-18), which eventually pitted the United States against Germany and Austria-Hungary, and led to the passage of the first conscription law in American history. It has a fascinating Great Plains connection.

My maternal grandparents were as German as you can get. This was Fergus Falls, Minn. They were both born in the United States, but their parents had emigrated from two different regions of Germany. My grandfather’s name was Deidrich, but he Americanized it to Dick. He was born in 1901. The U.S. entered the war in April 1917.

That would have made my grandfather probably just slightly too young to serve in the U.S. Army during WWI and just a little too old to serve during WWII. But if he had really wanted to serve in WWI, he probably could have found a way to bluff his way past the recruiters.

My mother, now 83, knows nothing about this era of her parents’ life. Nothing. She told me last night that during the course of the First World War, Fergus Falls changed the name of Bismarck Street to Washington Street.

But mother cannot tell me if her parents were pro-Germany or pro-Britain, whether they discussed or debated American foreign policy in their farmhouse kitchens, whether at this time they still spoke to each other in German, whether they wanted the United States to intervene early and decisively (with Theodore Roosevelt) or wanted the United States to stay clear of the perennial problems of the Old World they had turned their backs on (Woodrow Wilson).

She is sure they were good American patriots, that whatever misgivings they had about America’s intervention (if they had any), they would have kept to themselves and their kin.

I’d give anything to know what they thought. One of my great, great somebodies was outspokenly pro-German during World War II, mother reports. By then she was old enough to observe things for herself. He was an anti-Semite. Beyond those tantalizing clues, we have no adequate family history. They were not diary keepers or letter writers, and there are no arrest or conscription records, so that really interesting, really important chapter in the lives of Rhoda Shol, and Diedrich Straus, is a mystery and a blank.

One year late in her life I decided to interview my grandmother Rhoda on video. It was early in the digital age. The camera I rented was as large as a suitcase. She did not want to do it. She clucked and aw-shucked and ducked and protested and waved the camera away, and rebuked me, and put on a different housedress, and said she had nothing worthy saying to say, and what was I thinking anyway.

But after that essential ritual was over, she more or less forgot about the camera and started to gab. For two hours she told stories in her kitchen I had never heard. She laughed her wonderful “such is life” laugh. All of her most characteristic gestures found their way to videotape. I treasure that tape for that reason alone. She told stories that put some people in a less than favorable light — including my late father, my living mother, my then brother-in-law, and me.

At a few points, when she got worked up, she walked right over to the camera and addressed it from about a foot away, waving the spatula she was using to make potato pancakes. She cried over a few stories. She was pretty savage at times. And she told tales with a level of irony that I would never have expected. All this occurred in 1986. She died a few years later.

My mother and daughter and I watched the video last Christmas. It was my daughter’s idea. I was against it. My mother was curious — I had never let her see it before. By the time it was over Catherine was pretty wide-eyed (“What did she mean by the way she spoke of Bud’s ‘sweetheart’?” “Why did she cry every time she mentioned Aunt Nancy?”). And by the time it was over Mother demanded time for some rebuttals.

Ah, family.

I wish I had interviewed my grandparents 10 times, a hundred times. Now they are gone forever. We have a few traces. I have almost nothing of my father, as articulate and elegant a man as you will ever meet, but reticent as the Berlin Wall about his inner heart and soul.

So far as I know, I have no audio of my grandfather, who had tight crew-cut and a deep gruff hostile-sounding voice. When he came in to breakfast at the farm, when my sister and I were 4 and 6 or so, he’d pick us up in turn and give us a whisker rub that nearly deboned us. His face was like coarse sandpaper.

He used to cut his toenails at the kitchen table with a jackknife. We’d scream for mercy — and for a repeat “whiskey rub,” of course. Sometimes he’d grab one of us by the ear, pretty forcefully, and say, in a voice no different from his stubble-“Do you want it? Do you want it?” Each time tugging our ears to the point of pleasure/pain. He was like a character out of Dickens — if Dickens had written a Midwestern farm novel.

Last year my daughter conducted a very long video interview with my mother. From upstairs I heard stuff I’d rather not hear, but I’m glad it’s on tape. Then she gave my mother a special guided journal, and on Christmas Day read her a letter asking her to write down everything — all the good, all the bad, the triumphs, the tragedies, the joys, the sorrows, the glory and the shame, no holds barred. Plus tons of mere detail from a long, colorful, eventful life. It was a very beautiful letter (I cried, mama cried), and I understand that Mother has marched forward pen in hand with her usual courage and candor. Fortunately, her handwriting is so terrible that the result will be mistaken for ancient Hittite.

Thanks to recent experiences and cultural challenges, I’ve begun writing what I’m calling “My Creed” or “My Theology” (broadly defined). Some of it surprises me. My view as a writer is that we don’t know what we really think until we start to commit it to paper.

I’m going to write a full account of my grandparents, with such fragments I have, and a short Life of my father Charles Jenkinson, in which there will be as much pain as joy and deep admiration. For whom do I do this? For my child — some day after I am a wisp of dust in the southern Badlands — and to do my duty in maintaining family history.

I urge each of you to get out the now-tiny, high-resolution video cameras (and a tripod!) and interview everyone, repeatedly, while you can. Especially your elders. Every life is important, every life has mystery and astonishing adventures.

Every relaxed person can speak forth whoppers that will lift you out of your chair. We take for granted their stories, sometimes regard them as tedious, but then they die and that unique voice is lost forever, and those amazing stories begin to lose their authenticity and take on the rounded curves of safe family narrative and myth.

We must get it all down before it’s too late.

Clay Jenkinson, the author of nine books, is a North Dakota native who lives in Bismarck. Contact him at


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