Post #86 – Women’s Memoirs, News – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler
Storytelling. Long before we were memoirists, we were storytellers. Fishermen tell their tales of “the one that got away.” Little old women weave stories of their youth and handsome beaux who pursued them madly. And families have tales so central to what defines their relationship that they become lore to be passed down from generation to generation.
Sometimes these stories have historical context. In my family, we have the stories of my maternal Great, Great Grandfather who left his family in Illinois in 1850 to go on the Gold Rush. He made it to Nevada City, California, but never found gold and died within a year of his arrival on the gold fields.
Other stories are like touchstones for families. A single word or phrase is all it takes to remind family members not only of the story but its meaning. In my family, it’s cuckoo clock. I’ll tell you my story in a minute…
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It’s an Emergency…How Family Lore is Born
In May 1977, my sister Niki had just graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design. And before she settled down to look for a job, she took the summer to bum around Europe. Like most kids, she did it on the cheap with just a backpack, a rail pass and a sheaf of Travelers Cheques that represented her life savings plus graduation money.
Off she went; she was the first person in our family to travel to Europe. Remember this was 1977. No cell phones. And we didn’t even pick up the phone to call long distance (let alone internationally) if we could help it. That meant that with the exception of a few postcards, we didn’t hear from Niki all summer.
Remember your first time on your own? The fun you had. The independence you felt. Even the jams you got into and had to resolve on your own. There’s nothing quite like it. And we begin to learn some things about ourselves. If we’re lucky, we get to keep this information to ourselves. In Niki’s case, it became family lore.
In late August, we got her home safe, sound and full of stories. She told us about a train ride through the Alps and a man who suddenly stood up and began to yodel. She traveled around England with our friend Trevor, which gave her the perspective of a native. In France she gorged on rich, flakey pastries. In Vienna, she met an interesting old woman who told her about the Vienna of her youth.
She especially enjoyed the Black Forest region of Germany, which is where Mommy’s father’s family had come from. She described the quaint villages with brightly painted shops. Beautiful handmade Christmas ornaments. “And the cuckoo clocks,” Niki exclaimed. One in particular had caught her eye. It was intricately carved with stag, birds, rabbits…everything you might expect from Bavaria. “And it’s big,” she said. “Enormous compared to that one Papa gave Kendra.” She was describing the cuckoo clock in our hallway that my watchmaker grandfather had given me when I was four.
Mommy was the first comment. “That’s wonderful, Niki. It sounds beautiful, and you must have gotten a very good price to have been able to afford that plus all your travel costs.”
“Well not really,” she paused, swallowed hard and continued. “There’s no way I could have bought that clock. It cost $500. But I figured I’d never have such a chance again.”
In 1977, $500 was a lot of money—probably more money than she spent on the entire trip. Mommy, Daddy, my brother and I all just looked at her…too stunned to say anything. Daddy finally broke the silence. “Then how did you get it?”
“I used the credit card you gave me. It was an emergency.”
From that point on, the Bonnett family had a new definition of emergency. Actually, it became more like an inside joke. When something was expensive but highly prized by another family member, we’d often say, “Oh, I see. It’s an emergency.” And that’s how family lore is created.
There’s actually a little more to this story. We waited months for Niki’s cuckoo clock to arrive. It took so long, we began to think the whole thing was a scam and that she’d never get her clock…just another tourist gypped. Finally, after about six months, it showed up. By now, their shock had subsided and my parents were just happy she received her clock.
Niki was working and living in Boston by then. When she came home to Connecticut one weekend after the clock arrived, Mommy, Daddy and my brother (all eager to see the magnificent clock) stood by to watch as she opened the box containing her “emergency.”
It was definitely big…more than two feet tall. It was elaborately carved too…although secretly everyone was wondering if it was really spectacular. And then Niki said, “Yes, it’s nice. But it’s not the one I ordered.”
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