My Family’s Dash

Christmas tree boughs and sawdust littered the shed floor. Stepping over the mess, I ushered my niece to a row of plastic totes and pointed to bulging bags further in.

I announced, “There they are.” My warm breath made an impressive plume of steam rise from my mouth. It was a week before Christmas and I had invited Susie to come for a visit.

When the Altmann family farm was sold in 2016, I had emptied the farmhouse for the new owners. Much of what I had salvaged is stored in my shed. My mother had spent over thirty years making afghans as a legacy for her children and grandchildren. As we searched though the treasures, I instructed my niece, “Take as many as you want.”

Later, visiting in the warm comfort of the house, I gave Susie a jar of elderberry jelly and a box of meringue candies made to look like small, freckled mushrooms. Then, handing her a box of pictures, I explained, “I sorted the family photographs according to each member. These are the ones I think your Mom would have wanted.”

I began to tell Susie stories of our ancestors that I doubted her mother had passed on. My deceased sister, her mother, had never been very interested in family history. “Your maternal great grandmother, Franziska, immigrated from Eisenstein, Germany in 1893 with John, her toddler and Elizabeth, her eight-month-old infant.”

As I narrated our family history, I suddenly realized my sisters Rosie, Agnes and I were the last ones in our family with this knowledge. What we knew needed to be recorded!

I have never been interested in formal genealogy. While it is good to know the names of our ancestors, their birth and death dates, I want more. I want to know about their lives, their stories. I was unhappy that Grandma Franziska never told my mother more about her experiences in sailing to America. All we know is that baby Elizabeth nearly died from motion sickness during their two weeks spent on-board the ship.

I recalled a patient saying, “The most important thing on a tomb stone is the dash between the birth and death dates.

He had handed me a sheet of paper containing a poem by Linda Ellis, titled, THE DASH. Summing up its message, he said, “The dash represents the time we spent living and what we did with that time!”

Since talking to my niece, I have decided to record as much as I know and can discover about my parents and grandparents. I want names and dates, but also as many anecdotes as I can remember. Although I am the youngest member of my family, I have the advantage of having heard many of the family stories, repeated over and over as I helped my aging mother.

The job intimidates me. How does a person go about telling the major life events of three generations? Can I do justice to telling my family’s story? Then I realize that no one else is attempting to do it and I reassure myself that whatever I do, will be better than what we have now!

I’ve found information in a dozen different places, all presented in the dullest manner possible. Some comes from fusty census sheets from the early 1900’s, but others is in old letters my aunts and uncles sent to each other, newspaper articles and family photos. As I draw it all together, I’m adding memories, conjectures and even historical articles.

I want my family story to be interesting, even if few people will read it. Like Mom’s many afghans, this is my legacy for my descendants. It pleases me to know the story of my family’s ‘Dash’ will become more and more valuable as the years go by.



by Linda Ellis

I read of a man who stood to speak at a funeral of a friend. He referred to the dates on the tombstone from the beginning… to the end.

He noted that first came the date of birth and spoke of the following date with tears, but he said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years.

For that dash represents all the time they spent alive on earth and now only those who loved them know what that little line is worth.

For it matters not, how much we own, the cars… the house… the cash. What matters is how we live and love and how we spend our dash.

So think about this long and hard; are there things you’d like to change? For you never know how much time is left that still can be rearranged.

To be less quick to anger and show appreciation more and love the people in our lives like we’ve never loved before.

If we treat each other with respect and more often wear a smile… remembering that this special dash might only last a little while.

So when your eulogy is being read, with your life’s actions to rehash, would you be proud of the things they say about how you lived your dash?



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s