Finding Determination in an Old Family Photo

by Neal Lemery

(published in the Tillamook County Pioneer, 7/26/2022

The old family picture showed up in my e-mail the other day, a discovery from a cousin. I could see the younger faces of my grandparents and an aunt, standing stiffly in front of a simple three-room shack on the Canadian prairie.

It was the mid-1910s, the barren landscape being the beginnings of their wheat farm, the place where they raised their six children. The one-room schoolhouse was a mile away, the boarding high school sixteen miles down a dirt road in the only town in the county.

Life looked hard there, the chickens and geese in the yard, their horse and mule at the ready for the day’s chores, the tar paper on the outside walls.

My parents and I visited there in the 1960s. Dad wanted to show us where he was born, and where he grew up before they moved to Oregon. The house was gone then, leaving only the foundation. And from that memory, I could see that the photo showed where my ancestors lived, struggling to build a life.

My grandmother’s dream was to send all her kids to college, which seemed so unattainable in the bleakness of the prairie, and the struggles to plant and harvest their wheat.

Yet, she prevailed, later moving the family to a better farm near Salem, close to a number of colleges. She made sure the three daughters and the three sons finished high school and went on to college. The three sons and two of the daughters eventually earned graduate degrees, and the other daughter finished three years of college. Those remarkable achievements in the 1920s and 1930s became family mandates and principles, expectations ensuring later generations would strive to advance their lives. One should be purposeful and better the lives of the next generation. My dad, my aunts, and my uncles all became forces of determination, taking on the role of my grandmother, repeating her words for the next generation.

Empowering and educating women was more than a political topic in my family. There was no room for excuses for not being achievers, movers, and shakers.

In her last few years, Grandma would talk to me. I was just starting grade school. In spite of her stroke, she was adamant that education was important, that learning and bettering yourself was what we all needed to do. She made sure that I, the youngest grandchild, got the same directive as did everyone else in the family.

Those sun-burnt, dusty faces look at me from that old photo, reminding me of the family mandate, that determination and working through adversity was just what one did in the world, that life could be improved with some hard work and dedication. You took what you had, and you made life better.

I printed off that photo, put it in a frame, and found a place for it among the other family photos. I need a reminder that part of our lives come from the hard work and dreams of those who came before us, and that the things I can find in today’s world, situations I can easily whine and gripe about, aren’t as significant as what people just a hundred years ago endured and overcame. There’s gratitude and admiration, and inspiration, too in that photo. And, a reminder of Grandma’s directives to me, which I’ve carried on to many young people in my life.

Many of the dreams of those who came before us were realized through their blood, sweat, and tears. Life wasn’t easy, and comforts and advantages weren’t served on silver platters. Their dreams and ambitions often get lost in the hectic pace of today’s life. Yet, I need to be reminded of those dreams and those efforts to make lives better, to invest in our kids, and make a better world.

There’s a small piece of my grandmother in me, that determined, committed voice that instilled in me the need to better my life, to get an education, to move ahead in the world. When I get complacent, when I take our lives for granted, I need to stop and listen to my grandmother and move ahead. When I see young people hard at work, getting an education, and working on their dreams, I can see my grandmother’s spirit at work, her stern words and waving finger urging us all to move ahead.

7/24/2022

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Neal Lemery

Neal Lemery

Author of Building Community, Rural Voices for Hope and Change; Mentoring Boys to Men, Climbing Their Own Mountains; Finding My Muse on Main Street.