Letters are Stories. All are Golden.

One of my fondest memories is of our annual family camping trips to Apple River Canyon in northwest Illinois each fall. Over three or four different weekends, from Labor Day to mid-October, we would spend time there, down in the canyon, on private property (a farm), next to the river. My grandfather, a widower, and my uncle and his family joined us on these occasions. We’d park our campers together and share a communal fire pit, freshly dug spring, and good food.

At that time, my parents, uncle, and grandfather all hunted in the fall—mostly for squirrels. Hunting was part of the family ritual, something my grandfather did from a young age to help feed his poor family in rural Missouri, and later to feed his family during the Great Depression. Wild game, wild edibles, and a garden allowed the family to get through those difficult years without experiencing serious hunger.

My mother, who I nicknamed, “the beautiful Tom Boy”, began hunting at the age of 12, anxious to spend time with her father in the woods. At first, he resisted her participation in this annual ritual. This was not appropriate behavior for a young girl, he said. But she was persistent and would not give up until he agreed to teach her everything he knew about the woods, which was substantial. My parents and grandfather came to this same hunting ground year after year, starting in the late 1920’s and continuing until the last years of their lives. Miraculously, nearly 100 years later, we still camp there as a family, due the generosity of the descendants of the property owners.

In the early morning hours and in the early evening, our parents, grandfather, and uncle would roam the hills and ravines around the river and hunt for squirrels. They would come back to camp for lunch and dinner. When gathered around the fire, they would share their hunting stories – not just about how many squirrels they bagged, but about the other animals they had seen or the condition of the woods that year. My mother always came back to camp with something to show us. She would bring us interesting mushrooms, plants, leaves, nuts, fossils she had found, even a live bat and baby snakes. She was fearless and loved the woods and everything in it.
After the meals were over, I loved to listen to the stories of my elders. They all liked to talk, and would sometimes reminisce about earlier days there, and about the changes they were seeing on the farm we camped on and on the surrounding land. My father would smoke his pipe, my grandfather his cigar. They would sit back on the wooden picnic bench and share the stories of the day.

There was a predictable flow to the conversation and the sharing during those times, all which felt warm and comforting. I was part of a larger continuum of family tradition. And it made me feel more connected at a basic level to the nature around me. The animals around us felt like part of the family, too.

Built into their stories were key lessons for me. That is where I learned through osmosis about ethical hunting practices, that I should never leave an injured animal in the woods, that I must always watch for rattlesnakes, to be sure to clean up after myself when in nature; to leave no trace of my having been there. I still hold these values dear today without anyone having to tell me directly. They came to me by simply listening to their stories.

I feel very grateful that I came from a family of storytellers and conversationalists. It is because of them that I became so interested in hearing the stories of others. Knowing these stories has enriched my own in so many ways. And my interest in handwritten letters, stems, I think, from the fact that they also tell stories. I can learn so much about the world and myself from simply reading letters. Sometimes letters can be drab and boring on the face of it, however, there is so much more that is told between the lines, ready for us to discover. Each one is a treasure to me. A place to enjoy and relish the depth of the character behind the words.

I encourage everyone to write down their stories. No matter how humdrum the stories may be to you, please write them down for posterity. I am still terribly sad that my parents left this earth without having done so.

I will leave you with an example of a wonderful story my Aunt Polly shared with my sister and I in an email letter. It is a story of average people doing average things, but I think you might agree that it is charming and evocative of the times in which she grew up. It tells us so much about what has and has not changed in our society since the 1940’s. It tells me about my hardworking mother and aunt and how gutsy they were for their ages at a time. It says a great deal about their friendship that lasted for decades and the ways in which they treasured their time together. Like my aunt did, please do write and share your own marvelous stories with your loved ones. They, like me, will be eternally grateful for it.

The Story of Clem – By Polly Friedman (edited by Julie Sorensen and Lynne Kolze)

My niece, Julie, (Natalie’s middle daughter) asked me recently how I gave her mother the nickname, Clem. Here is the story.

In high school, I was “chummy” with Natalie Parke. In 1942, Natalie was in 10th grade, and I was in 9th grade. In those days we were consolidated around the Bensenville, IL High School system. Students came on the bus from Itasca and Wood Dale, where Natalie lived. About that time, she and I were very eager to work and have our own money. The Depression was over. We looked around for jobs in Bensenville, but it was small and there was not much available. The only jobs were in Chicago, and this meant going downtown on the Milwaukee RR train every day. The time was WWII, when there were few men in the factories – they were needed for battles in Europe or the Pacific. This was the start of women getting jobs in factories. They were finally freed from having to wear dresses. We called pants “slacks”–never “pants.” At that time, women in the factories did all kinds of difficult jobs.

It probably was Natalie’s idea to interview at Mars Candy Factory in Chicago, but this would mean that we would have to find a way to get to the train after school. We had to ask the High School superintendent, Mr. Johnson, if we could leave early at 2:00 PM to make the train on time and to be at Mars by 4:00 PM. They needed four hours on the swing shift and because we had to take the bus home, we would arrive home at 11:00 PM.

Natalie and I loved the excitement of working, even though we were tired every day with school’s full routine, walking a mile to school in the morning and going to the train later, about four blocks away. We’d study on the train, then walk to Mars, then take another walk to the bus after work, then walk another mile to get home. Natalie went even further to Wood Dale, getting home after 11:30 PM. Then we had to start school again in the morning, around 7:00 AM. How we did it, I can’t imagine. We were young and we were eager again to put money into savings for college. Our parents had jobs, but we had no investments, no money at that time. They were robbed by the Depression.

So, we spent two years at Mars, and we had a lot of chocolate, candy, almonds, caramels, and nougat! We hand-wrapped candy bars to send overseas to the soldiers. We had to take our breaks around all those luscious barrels of delicate, gooey stuff, but after two weeks, we were sick of candy. The reason we had to stop working at Mars was because the factories became automated, and they did not need people to do hand-wrapping anymore. At this writing, Mars is still in business and the popular bars are still Milky Way, Snickers and Three Musketeers.

We sang songs on the bus going home at night from Mars. We sang country and folk songs. Probably most of these songs were from radio station WLS, in Chicago, which had country and cowboy songs by Red Foley, Patsy Montana, Johnny Cash, and others. They had a comic man named “Clem” who was a simple kind of a bumpkin in country radio land. The bus driver, called “Pop,” liked songs, so we sang together in harmony all the way from Mars Candy factory to Bensenville. The people on the bus were also regulars and they liked our songs. It was a way to kill the time at night and to feel less tired. The radio was king in those days. At work, we would tune in to other songs as we were wrapping the candy; so, with the bus we had a songfest for free those two years.

After that, Natalie got a job in Chicago while she waited for me to go with her to college at Blackburn, a work program college in southern Illinois. You could graduate with an associate degree in 2 years, but I continued for all four. Then Natalie, my best friend, told me she was going to marry my brother, Larry. After they got married, Larry went to Korea with the Army.
Natalie and I have been singing together all those years since.

That is the story of “CLEM”! We should put on my gravestone — Thank you, “Clem”!