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ROSE NOLEN: Growing up in big family makes for many stories

Tuesday, March 1, 2011 | 2:42 p.m. CST; updated 10:02 p.m. CST, Tuesday, March 1, 2011

My family was never into birthday parties. That was probably because of the family's philosophy that decreed one was never to call attention to oneself. Having a birthday cake decorated with several lit candles would have been considered way over the top.

Usually when my birthday came around, I would try to disappear into a room by myself where I could enjoy looking at my presents without being afraid that I would be accused of overreacting in an effort to gain the attention of the other people in the room.

My family's way of celebrating was by holding large Sunday dinners where all of the family gathered at my great-grandmother's house and engaged in storytelling. My great-grandfather was the master storyteller mainly because he had the most prominent stories.

He served in the Union Army during the Civil War and was on guard duty at Ford's Theatre the night Abraham Lincoln was killed. His other biggie had to do with bringing his son, my grandfather, who was born in Mexico, across the Rio Grande and settling in Eagle Pass, Texas. From there they worked their way north with the railroad into Missouri. We must have heard those stories dozens of times but we always clung to every word.

My grandfather apprenticed under his father and became a master carpenter, bricklayer and wine maker. The two men married mother and daughter. My grandfather had his own grape orchard. We heard stories about how he and our grandmother survived the Great Depression by his making moonshine.

And when President Franklin Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration, my grandfather worked at building many of the highways across mid-Missouri. Later, he had his own business building houses. So he had no shortage of stories to tell.

Our father drove a truck for the grain elevator and he regaled us with stories about the joys and wonders that he experienced on his visits to the big city of St. Louis. He brought home phonograph records and books and the latest dresses for my mother to wear to parties. He liked telling stories about people gathering to admire his driving skills, such as when he had to pull his big truck into or out of cramped spaces.

One aunt was married to a minister and, while he told quiet spiritual stories about the joys and sorrows of members of his flock, the family respectfully allowed him his turn. His main occupation was to bless the food — it seemed sometimes like it took him an eternity to do so.

Although our family tended to be matriarchal, the men were permitted to use the dinner table as their platform. The women told their own stories as they set the table and carried the food back and forth into the dining area.

Because they lived during the days when the lives of women were usually far less adventurous than men, they usually talked about books they had read, new patterns they had discovered or recipes they tried. We kids sat quietly at the children's table, listened to the stories and played word games until it was time to eat.

I love hearing people talk about their family's customs and traditions. Such discussions open the door toward better understanding of individual personalities. More often than not, I find that we really are what we were when we were children.

Some of my friends come from families that have several huge, expensive birthday parties every year. Some of them rent hotel ballrooms, hire caterers and dance the night away. Others host backyard barbecues and have tennis matches. One family I know has an annual domino tournament in one state and another in a different state the following year.

It's interesting how most family customs and traditions remain with the family for several generations. I know a lot of people who still celebrate holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas the same way their parents and grandparents did. I do know a few people, though, who have resented some of the traditions they grew up with and have gone to great lengths to leave them in the past.

I have always been thankful that I grew up in a big family. I feel it has greatly enhanced every aspect of my life.

It has provided me enough stories to tell for years to come.

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen by calling her at 882-5734 or e-mailing her at nolen@iland.net.

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