Category Archives: Independence Day

The Best Stories You Never Told

WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE and WHY: five essential questions writers ask to get the full scope of a story. Like most kids, I learned about the 5W’s in elementary school. I wish I had the wisdom back then to apply them, because I missed out on some really great stories.

I was an only child surrounded by old people—grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles, neighbors, family friends. They loved to gossip, and I was good at eavesdropping on their adult conversations.

I found out WHO in the neighborhood had come home drunk and WHAT happened when his wife caught him with another woman, WHEN she caught him and WHERE. And I wondered along with the gossipers WHY she stayed with that drunken man after he cheated on her. Those were the stories that my little ears shouldn’t have heard. The best stories, though, might have been those the old people held tightly locked in their hearts.

This season, summer, is the season of patriotic holidays, and I might have some good stories to tell had I thought to apply the 5W’s.

On a Decoration Day (Memorial Day) I went with my grandma to the cemetery to plant geraniums on the graves. We planted red geraniums in front of the big Dumke family stone, and then we planted a white geranium on each of the six graves where the Dumke children were buried. “Grandma,” I asked, “why do we put white geraniums on these?” Her answer was brief, almost harsh. “Because, it’s what we do.” Today, I look at that same headstone and the six smaller stones marking the graves of grandma’s young siblings and I have questions. So many questions.

On Independence Day, Grandma always hung a huge American flag between the front window of her upper flat and the big, old oak tree at the curb. Her husband, my grandfather, had died when Grandma was just thirty-nine. But someone (Grandpa?) had fixed a rope and pulley to make it easy to hang the flag. It was a 48-star flag, the flag soldiers and sailors fought for in WWII. It was a 48-star flag that the Marines raised over Iwo Jima. I remember that flag in front of her house every Fourth of July and how reverent and respectful grandma was when she fixed it onto the rope and sent it flying. Today, I have questions.

I remember my Great-Uncle Walter, too. He was an always-in-charge, short, bald little man who walked with a distinct limp. I laugh when I think of a Veteran’s Day when he sat in an old, 1950’s upholstered swivel rocking chair in his living room telling a battle story about the Spanish American War. As if re-enacting the experience he raised his arms, covered his head with his hands and ducked. “Bullets were flying to the right of me! Bullets to the left . . .” And then, just as the story was getting really good, the bottom of the swivel rocker gave way sending Walter’s backside to the floor. That, in itself, is a story. But still, I wonder. WHO was shooting those bullets? WHAT happened next? WHEN did it happen and WHERE? And WHY did Walter walk with a limp.

Five little questions I wish I had asked.

My advice to young writers, all writers, is to listen. Listen to that little voice inside that’s telling you, “There’s a story hidden here.” Then apply the 5W’s. Ask and keep asking until you get the full scope of the story.

If you don’t ask, you might miss writing the best stories you could have told.

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Grandma Lily’s “Old Glory”

Vintage red, white, and blue American flag for Memorial day or Veteran's day background

(I’ve been swamped with freelance work, so I haven’t posted here for a while, but I want to share with you this essay I wrote a few years ago. It has nothing to do with writing but everything to do with Independence Day. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it.)

“Old Glory.” That was Grandma Lily’s name for the huge American flag she put up every Fourth of July. Much bigger than an average-sized flag, Old Glory stretched probably seven or eight feet long. It hung on a rope between the front window of Grandma’s upper flat and an ancient elm tree on the parkway. It nearly grazed the heads of those who walked the sidewalk below.

pledge-of-allegiance-girlAt our Independence Day get-togethers, Grandma insisted that we gather under Old Glory and say the pledge to the flag. “It’s important,” she said, “to honor the flag, especially on the Fourth of July.”

Years passed and, one day, the elm tree got a disease. City workers cut it down. Grandma didn’t mind losing the sick tree in front of her house except that it held up Old Glory. Now, the giant flag had nowhere to fly. So, Grandma folded it and put it away. I never saw it again, and I don’t remember us saying the pledge together after that. I think we all knew that Grandma Lily mourned the passing of Old Glory. It was as if there had been a death in the family. Nobody talked about it until many years later when I asked her about the lost tradition of the flag and the pledge. Grandma, who had only a third grade education, offered a lesson about patriotism that I’d never forget.

She said,

“Hardly anyone said the pledge when I was a girl. Back then, the pledge went like this: ‘I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.’ But, my parents had left Germany for America. Old Glory wasn’t just a flag to us. It meant living like God wanted, free from a government telling us what to do. Your dad was five-years old when they made it better and changed ‘my flag’ to ‘the flag of the United States of America.’ Then it was our flag and our pledge. Eisenhower made it better by adding ‘under God’ in there. And don’t ever forget it’s because of God that your family got here. It’s because of Him that we’re free.” 

She might not have much formal education, but Grandma Lily certainly was wise. “Whatever became of Old Glory?” I asked. She hesitated and then shrugged her shoulders. I think Grandma Lily still couldn’t speak about the memories of her beloved flag—that yellowing old flag with the 48 stars.

Years later, I inherited her bible. Inside, I found this scripture passage written on lined paper in her handwriting:

dc39ab330e528a9d21c28dc710fdb56fBlessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance. From heaven the Lord looks down
and sees all mankind; from his dwelling place he watches all who live on earth—he who forms the hearts of all, who considers everything they do. No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save. But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love. Psalm 33:12–18

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I wish you all a safe and blessed Independence Day—
honor the flag of the United States of America
as a symbol of freedom,
and thank God for bringing your family here.

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Which Famous Author Was Born on the Fourth of July?

hNathaniel Hathorne, the American writer best known for penning The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, was born on July 4, 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts. (And no, I didn’t misspell his name.)

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Hathorne’s great-great-grandfather was the only judge during the time of the Salem witch trials, and Nathaniel’s checkered family past haunted him so greatly that he added at “w” to his last name to separate himself from any association with his grandfather.

When in his thirties, Hawthorne helped found an agricultural commune near Boston. Thinking that farm life would provide him with peace, quiet and plenty of time to write, he soon discovered farming is hard work. Nathaniel shoveled manure, milked cows and baled hay. He left the farm after only a few months, hands blistered and explaining that readers couldn’t expect pretty stories from a man who feeds pigs.

The-Old-Manse-Concord-MAHe was no stranger to other legendary authors of his time. Hawthorne attended college with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and he lived in houses once owned by two other famous authors, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Old Manse” and also the childhood home of Louisa May Alcott. When Nathaniel and his family moved into “Old Manse” another friend, author Henry David Thoreau, planted a vegetable garden for them.

14_franklin_pierce-1The 14th President of the United States, Franklin Pierce, was also a longtime friend. The two met in college and remained friends for the rest of Hawthorne’s life. In fact, it was Pierce who found the author dead in 1864.

Nathaniel was in the final stage of what might have been stomach cancer when the former President suggested the two of them take a trip to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Pierce thought the mountain air might help Nathaniel feel better. On their first night in New Hampshire, Hawthorne ate a light supper of tea and toast and went to bed early. Pierce checked on his friend during the night and discovered that he had died in his sleep.

NHawthorneGraveLongfellow and Emerson were among those who served as pallbearers at Nathaniel Hawthorne’s burial in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (Concord, Massachusetts). His wife, Sophia, and their three adult children survived the author: Julian Hawthorne, like his father, worked as a writer. Nathaniel’s daughters, Una and Rose, both became Catholic nuns. Rose Hawthorne was a leader in her order and took the name Mother Mary Alphonsa. She dedicated her service to helping patients with incurable cancers. She died in 1926 and was buried on the grounds of her order’s Motherhouse. In 2003 Rose was nominated for sainthood. Julian died in San Francisco in 1934.

After Nathaniel’s death, Sophia and MMD2625-LUna moved to London and were buried there after they died. 142 years passed before the Hawthorne family made news again, in 2006, when the bodies of Sophia and Una were moved from their graves in England and reburied next to the famous author.


us-flags-vectorsSo . . . .
if conversation lags during your Independence Day celebrations,

you can share these facts about
Nathaniel Hawthorne,
American author,
and tell your friends:
“He was born on the Fourth of July!”

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