Mom’s Reflections Inspire Family Storytelling

—Lois Storlie’s Reflections, curated and written by her daughter, Jean Storlie.

I really liked growing up on the farm. It was a simple life, but my dad and grandpa were big teases. They stirred up mischeif and kept me on my toes!

Working in the Field

George Sprague with Work HorsesMy dad taught me how to drive the team by sitting on his lap. I preferred to be out in the fields with the men than in the kitchen, where my mom gave me boring chores. I learned how to drive a 4-horse hitch by myself when I was 11 years old. It was really hard. I held two sets of reigns in my right hand and two in my left.

If I didn’t keep the reigns lined up and a firm grip on the horses, they would get twisted into a big mess … and could even overturn the wagon. I couldn’t let that happen! It was really important for me to keep control of the horses. I was a big help to the men because I could steer the wagon and manage the team while they loaded hay on the wagon.

Of course, my work in the field never got me out of one indoor chore: helping my mom prepare huge midday meals for the men who worked the field. We made large helpings of meat, potatoes, and gravy along with many side dishes. And pie … we baked several pies a day during harvest season.

Grandpa Clarence

Sprague Farm Life in 30s_Going to TownMy grandpa Clarence had a big roll-top desk where he locked up all his important papers. But my brother, Clarence, and I knew that he also kept his candy there. So, we would beg for a treat every time he sat down to work. He would show us the candy, then put a piece in his mouth and talk about how good it tasted. As our mouths watered, he would lock up the rest of the candy. Clarence and I would moan and groan until he opened his desk and gave us a piece. Egging us on, he would take another piece for himself, then lock the desk. Eventually, he made it even. We loved to replay this drama … over and over again.

Clarence was a gentleman farmer who served on a lot of county boards and drove around in his ’28 Chevy. He often took Clarence and me to town with him. We would get dressed up and ready to go, but he would wave and drive away. We’d chase after him and he’d stop. Then when we got almost to the car, he’d move forward. This would repeat several times until we tumbled into the car for an adventure in town.

My Pony Express

I had a pony, named Betty, that I rode to visit the neighbors. They looked forward to my visits because I brought news about everyone else. At each house, they served me a treat, like a cookie or glass of lemonade.Sprague Farm Life in 30s_Pony Express

My favorite stop was the Kopp’s. Their children were grown, so they fussed over me and my pony. They would stroke Betty and curry her mane, then serve treats for both of us. Betty would get some sugar cubes or a carrot. I would be escorted to the porch or kitchen for a nice long chat.

I loved being the one to carry neighborly news from farm to farm. Everyone delighted in sharing what was eventful in their households. My natural curiosity would urge them on, “Oh my! How exciting!” They would elaborate. And I had fun chattering about their stories to others and gathering more.

In retrospect, I was a bit of a gossip. But I wasn’t mean about it.

Zoom Storytelling During COVID

My mom has been in quarantine in a long-term care facility since March—she can’t leave her room and can’t have visitors. She is 92 and suffers from Parkinson’s disease. As a very social person (160 people attend her 90th birthday party), the loneliness of COVID isolation has been oppressive for her. Her orientation to the “here and now” is limited, so maintaining a conversation about recent or current events is a challenge. Small talk—which was once her currency—doesn’t flow easily anymore.

But she has crystal clear memories about her childhood growing up on a farm outside Eau Claire, WI. A few times a week, I chat with her via Zoom. Inviting her to relive these stories brightens her day … recounting these episodes brings me closer to her. As she reminesces, I’m amazed with her recall of vivid details. The stories portray her character and also depict a bygone era in rural America. My sister urged me to post her recollections on Mom’s Facebook page (which she asked us to manage). Putting her stories into writing and getting feedback from family and friends on Facebook transforms her back to her feisty, social self!

Zoom storytelling with my mom also helps me cope with my own COVID isolation and periodic feelings of despair. Bringing Zoom technology into long-term care facilities is a silver lining of COVID—I hope that they never stop it. I live 3.5 hours away from my mom, so before the facility introduced the option of Zoom visits, I could not “see” her nearly this often. Although Zoom and Facebook technologies provide a vehicle for communicating, it’s the stories that deliver deeper meaning. Helping my mom share her memories with her 150 friends on Facebook makes her feel less isolated. Capturing them in writing will be a lasting gift for me and everyone who knows and loves her.

My mom’s stories also spark reflections about how farm life in the Great Depression can help us cope with the COVID pandemic? A few observations come to mind:

Family Togetherness

My mom’s family lived with her grandparents and great-aunt. This multi-generational family was close knit and worked as a unit. My grandma was a school teacher. Other adults were around to keep the household working and watch the kids. Although my great-grandfather was a gentleman farmer, the Depression brought changes to how the farm operated. My Grandpa George took over farm operations and played a hands-on role, milking the cows every day and working the fields. During harvest, it was “all hands on deck.”

As we spend more time with the people in our households and limit outside interactions during COVID, how might we find new ways to support each other as our normal lifestyle routines continue to be disrupted?

Simple Fun

Visits with neighbors and extended family broke up the monotony of their lives that were filled with hard work and chores. My grandma came from a family of 13  children and was one of seven sisters who were very close. On Sunday’s they gathered at my Great-Grandma Hysen’s house. My mom had 30 cousins, so there were usually six to ten kids around her age at these Sunday gatherings. “The adults were so busy drinking coffee that we could tear around like crazy,” she told me.

My mom’s pony express and Sunday gathering’s at Grandma Hysen’s would be out of scope during COVID. But the outdoor play and work plus family meals with their household unit brought them joy and satisfaction—that is still in scope for us. Harmless teasing, joking, and tricks gave them comic relief. As we contemplate the upcoming holiday season with sacred rituals upended, how can we find pleasure in simple life joys?

Living Without

My mom’s generation grew up during the Depression, then faced rationing and sacrifice during WWII. They worked hard—as families, communities, and a nation—to get these challenges.

COVID has taken a big toll on many families in 2020. From loss of jobs and income to childcare and schooling challenges to illness and death of loved ones. Many Americans may feel like it’s hard to feel gratitude this Thanksgiving—life has been tough. But I urge you to indulge in telling family stories this holiday via Zoom, FaceTime, or any technology you can use. Those stories are precious gems that sparkle and glow with love and light that will get you through some dark months ahead.

Visit Once Upon an Innovation for information on Jean’s book about how to use stories in business communications, innovation, and creative problem solving.


  1. Kathy on November 29, 2020 at 10:34 pm

    Great story Jean. When I visited my mom in the nursing home, that is what I use to do – get her to tell me stories about her life. I loved it. My only regret is that I did not record them.

    • Jean Storlie on November 30, 2020 at 11:41 am

      These stories are so rich. I silver lining in COVID is these Zoom visits I have with her. Putting her stories into writing will be a gift that keeps on giving.

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