The Fierce Urge to Tell Our Stories

Anne Frank was a vivacious teenager and a keen observer of human nature. She wrote well and her diary often includes deft characterizations of schoolmates, family, and the other people in hiding with her family. When I recently reread her famous diary in preparation for visiting her family’s hiding place in Amsterdam, I was impressed by her lively mind.

Initially, she wrote to sort out her feelings—the same impulse that has prompted me to keep a journal off and on since I was a teenager. Putting my feelings into words helps me understand them. Airing out something on the page calms me and enables me to move on. 

At first, Anne Frank meant her diary to be private. When she was 15, she heard a radio broadcast about a Dutch official who wanted to collect war stories and experiences, so she edited her diary in hopes it might be published one day. Unlike Anne Frank, I don’t want my journals shared with others. They’re histories of cranky confusion, and without context, they would likely distress family or friends once I’m gone and can’t explain.

After her family went into hiding, her diary also served as a record of how they lived—what their space looked like, what their meals were, and what their daily schedule was. As the war intensified, she recorded bombing raids and news updates.

Shortly after I finished the Anne Frank book, my sister asked me to refresh her memory about our great great grandmother—Katherine O’Tanney Feeley who emigrated from Ireland in the late 1800’s. To answer, I searched handwritten notes from my mother and father—a story here, a date and detail there. Some of the notes are sketchy and incomplete, but I decided I would make sense of them in a Word document so others in my family will have a record.

Anne Frank’s story has touched millions all over the world in the decades since she wrote it. I have no such expectation for the family record I’m assembling. All I have are snippets of stories, not much to go on. Perhaps a few family members will have a mild interest. Hearing about people you never knew (even if they’re related to you) can be boring. 

I’m fascinated by the urge to write journals and record family histories. Beyond that is the widespread wish to share the content of our days on social media or like I’m doing with this blog. People across all eras and cultures have felt this fierce need to tell our stories and understand who we are and who we came from. Sometimes we’re saying, “Here’s what happened.” Other times the wish to share is a way of saying, “I’m here. I matter.”

Anne Frank could not have imagined how much her story would matter or how many readers would be touched by her words.

Although my intentions and hopes for my writing differ from Anne Frank’s, I feel a kinship with that young woman born almost a century ago. 


I’m at an odd intersection. The familiar objects from my childhood look like history to the rest of the world.

In the Before times when I casually shopped, I’d spot artifacts from my childhood at antique stores. Huh?!? Toys like Barbies and transistor radios, kitchen items like Pyrex bowl sets and milk glass spice jars, decorations like ashtrays and the glass swan currently on my buffet are . . . old enough to be collectible. Antiques. 

More startling was the realization that the purpose of those childhood objects will soon be obscure. Who fills decorative jars with spices anymore? When I was growing up, most homes had several ashtrays. Now they’re rare. 

I value antiques from my grandmothers like Depression glass decanters, silver trays, cut glass salt cellars, aprons, and dresser scarves (what I prefer to think of as ‘true’ antiques). Their quaintness and the memories they call up appeal to me, but I rarely use them because they are so high maintenance. If I want younger family members to appreciate those antiques, I’d have to explain their purpose and tell stories about people they’ve never met. 

Bringing the objects and the people who used them to life is hard, but here goes.

Last week I made a pecan pie from scratch using my grandmother’s old wooden rolling pin. Although I never made pie with her, she was the one who liked to bake, so I feel that connection when I use it. I floured an old embroidered linen towel and rolled out the crust on it, which brought to mind one of my grandmother Mimmie’s housekeeping tips.

She was from an era when women were expected to embroider towels, pillowcases, and dresser scarves (pretty cloths that covered up a lot of a dresser top to protect the wood—a lot of energy went into protecting furniture in her day). She or one of her sisters embroidered the towel which also had to be starched and ironed so it would look nice while hanging in the kitchen. 

As a girl, I wondered how I was supposed to use such a fancy towel. Mimmie showed me her secret: dry your hands on the part that doesn’t show—the part that hangs closest to the wall on the towel rack. That way the pretty ironed front would stay nice for a few days. No surprise that I use terrycloth towels in my kitchen!

Beyond the ‘antiques’ in my life is the realization that my lived experiences are also the stuff of history, but that’s a story for a different day! 

What’s the oldest thing in your house? Does anyone besides you know what to do with it or why it matters?

Honoring WWII Heroes

My father never talked about his experiences in the Navy during WWII until late in life. He was in his 80s when I learned he’d been on a destroyer off the coast of Normandy during D-Day and that his ship, the USS O’Brien, had been hit by a kamikaze pilot when the war shifted to the Pacific. He never glorified war or his role. Like so many men who served in WWII, he said that he hadn’t done anything special—he was just doing his job like everybody else.

WordSister Cynthia Kraack coauthored 40 Thieves on Saipan with Joseph Tachovsky, whose father Lieutenant Frank Tachovsky, led the elite Marine Scout-Sniper platoon known as the “40 Thieves.” The younger Tachovsky didn’t know the incredible scope of his father’s role until his father’s funeral, which sent him on a quest to learn more. In 2016, he came to Cynthia with hours of interviews with surviving platoon members, letters, and military research that he’d gathered.

During an informal interview with Cynthia I asked, “What was the story you wanted to tell?” She explained, “The book is a fairly accurate capture of the story I wanted to tell. Understandably, the old men he interviewed found it easier to talk about the lighter side of their Marine service—the jokes, the pranks, the exploits. They said a situation was tense without describing the conditions. Joe wanted to pay tribute to the men and we focused on a line of his father’s: ‘War makes men out of boys and old men out of young men.’ The 18-year-old who went to church with his family and had a last Sunday dinner at home before reporting for training would never come home. The man who came home would need time to rebuild his connection to living outside of war. I also found myself wanting to write a book that would help women understand war’s imprint on the men in their world.”

Last fall, I visited Omaha Beach and other sites associated with the D-Day invasion. Part of me understood that although I was hoping for a glimmer of Dad’s experience, I wouldn’t find it. There’s no way I could possibly understand what he went through. Maybe a soldier or sailor could, but not me.

I sensed that longing in Joe and Cynthia, whose father also served in the Navy in the Pacific Theater during WWII. As coauthors, their main focus in writing the book was to remember and honor the men known as the 40 Thieves. Ultimately, their work was personal, too. They hoped to gain insight into their fathers, access those younger men, honor and remember what they did. As coauthors, they have.