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Lessons from My Grandmother ... Taught by My Uncle

Or, Who Is an Elder?

We often think of family elders as the keepers of family history, but do we think to ask aunts, uncles, siblings and cousins what they recall about our families?

I recently had an experience that opened my eyes to the need to quiz every family member who will sit still for it, to ask about family history.

My uncle, who is only a few years my elder, came to visit me and in a back-porch conversation, the topic turned to my grandmother. We were talking about different jobs my grandmother held and my uncle said, "It is amazing to me how much she accomplished with a 5th grade education."

WHAT? I shook my head like I was shaking out cobwebs.

"What?"

"Did you say?"

"It is amazing to me how much she accomplished with a 5th grade education" came the answer.

At that moment my memory flashed to my grandmother telling me that when she started 6th grade, she was put back to 5th grade because she did not speak English. What I didn't know is that she never went back.

My family is Cajun French. My grandmother's birth record states that she was born "in the bayou near..."

She was the keeper of the family history and of our Cajun culture. From the time I could talk she was teaching me to count to 10 in French (the only French I now know). When she was cooking, she would pull a chair up to the stove, lift me onto it and start: "First you brown your onions..." I must have been 5 or so.

My grandmother died in 1976. Now, as an adult, I wish I had paid more attention to the things she was intent on passing on to me.

It never occurred to me to ask her son, my uncle, who is barely 12 years older than me, about what she taught to him.

Above: Me, My Uncle, My Grandmother and My Sister, about 1964

That back-porch epiphany woke me up, gave me a much deeper respect for my grandmother for the challenges she faced, and gave me a deeper understanding of the importance of learning and preserving our family history before it slips away.

Guess who I am interviewing for StoryCorps' National Day of Listening?

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