The Power of One Writer
Back Yards, Ethiopia and Children's Books

The tough ones that can’t be kept down

Before my little brother was born, we were a family of girls who made up and acted out stories for days at a time.  When we traveled by ship and airplane back to the United States from Ethiopia for the first time, we spent a year in Boise, Idaho.  Caroline was beautiful and good.  Joy was beautiful and cute.  Cathy was the baby of the family.  I’m the second oldest–front–and, as my older sister pointed out when she saw this picture, I’m leaning on her.  I wanted to be her.  I didn’t think there was anything very special about me.  But that year my teacher wrote, “We have enjoyed Jane’s poems.  They are exceptionally good for her age.  Perhaps it is one of her talents.”

Now the four of us are all grandmas!

That year, I had my first connections and clashes (that I can remember) with my strong Grandma Kurtz.

She had to be tough to get through her life.  I ran into that toughness when I took my seven-year-old self out with my grandpa and a couple of cousins and one cousin loaned me her socks so I could wade with her brother in some kind of muck.  Grandma found out and was cross and made me wash the socks.  That side of my family farmed in Idaho and Eastern Oregon–here I am with my cousins on the farm when I visited the United States again five years later.  (I’m on the swing.)  It was a rollicking, fun place to visit.  I remember chasing rabbits in the sagebrush and wading in the irrigation ditches.  But my grandma remembered a time when snow blew into the house and her children ran downstairs shivering to the sagebrush fire.

Grandma Kurtz lived to be 99 years old and still in her own house.  My dad grew up in a family of five boys and one girl, and that one girl was right across the yard to help her mom.  Here is grandma with one of her sisters.  When my older sister gave me this photo, she commented that she hoped we would someday be sisters sticking together to the end just like grandma and her sister.

So far, my sisters–my brother–and I are sticking together.  We all like gardens and writing and reading and singing together around a guitar or a piano.

We like orange spirals, the rolls Grandma used to make.

What kinds of things ripple through your family?

Stories and songs and laughter and toughness ripple through mine.  At Thanksgiving this year, we sat around talking about how many teachers we have in the family, too.  We like school.

My grandma had a chance to go to college at the College of Idaho, where she played basketball and studied.  She was a curious, determined person who was always interested in learning more about all kinds of things.  My dad struggled with school.  But he still thought it was important.  He still loved stories–and he was smart enough to marry my mom, a great reader, who turned him into a reader, too.

My mom grew up in a much tougher, sadder family than the one my dad grew up in.  Like the family I gave Lanie, the newest character I created, she was born with inside genes, and she loved books and words and ideas.  Her reading gave her great hopefulness and gave her a certain toughness that helped her survive and thrive.

I never knew either of my grandmas well.  After all, we grew up in Ethiopia far away from them.  And my grandkids might end up growing up in Ethiopia far away from me, too.

That’s the dream.

No matter what happens, I hope they have a life full of family connections.  It’s precious to me that they got a chance to meet my dad before he died.  It’s precious that they feel loved by their aunts and uncles and cousins.

It’s precious to me that they have families across two continents.

My granddaughter in this picture (with her other grandma) has a legacy of tough determination running through both sides of her family.

What will she carry forward?

I’m not sure, but I love her fierce little eyes.

I also love, love, love it that I’ve had a chance to share some of my favorite stories with her and her little brother.  I love having kids–and now grandkids–who feel connected to some of the same sweet folks I feel connected to including Wilbur and Winn Dixie and Junie B. Jones and Judy Moody and Pippi and Peter Rabbit and Despereaux, the tough ones that won’t be kept down no matter what.

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