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Friday, November 24, 2017

Three Generations of Family Secrets

This month marks three years since the publication of my novel, Family Secrets. It is a contemporary novel. However, because the characters reach back into their past, it has historical elements dating to the Vietnam War era for Grandpa Mike. For younger people who don't have the years fixed in their head, that was from approximately 1965 to 1972 as far as heavy U.S. involvement goes, although the conflict extended beyond those years. 

Part of the motivation behind this book was to be able to share my current husband's Vietnam War experiences in a fictionalized format. However, the book comes forward with key incidences in the lives of his daughter, Christy, and his granddaughter, my main character, Jennie Graves.

I have a great deal of difficulty thinking of the 1960's as history. I not only was alive then, I graduated from high school during that decade. I watched friends receive draft notices and go off to fight in this war, whether they were enthusiastic about it or not. One young man I dated, but never fell in love with, finished college and the ROTC program and enlisted into officer training. Although I never identified with the hippie or war protest movements, at the time I never fully understood the politics behind this war, either. 

In fact, I felt a little smug back then because the man I married had just been mustered out of active duty. He told me one day his company was called together for an announcement. All who had less than thirty days of their enlistment left would be discharged from active duty. All with thirty days or more would be re-upped and sent for a year's tour in Vietnam. He was among those with fewer than thirty days.

That is how close that war touched me personally in the 1960's. It was only after I remarried a Vietnam War veteran and I heard the stories of what he experienced in Vietnam that this war became real to me. My current husband was there in 1967-68, roughly the time frame I set for my character Grandma Mike Carpenter.

Unlike Grandpa Mike, my husband figured out the best way to work through his flashbacks and nightmares was to talk about his experiences. Although we married over twenty years after his tour in Vietnam ended, on several occasions he shared with me the stories of what he went through. Even though by the time we married he rarely had the nightmares, just like Mike in my novel warns Jan, he told me what to do to protect myself and how to wake him up if I ever realized he was trapped in a nightmare.

How did the hint of a Thanksgiving theme get introduced into this novel? Once again, it was because of a story about one of my husband's experiences in Vietnam. 

In the novel, Jennie, Grandpa Mike's granddaughter, and most contemporary generation in this three-generation story, had gone to a meeting to learn how to take an oral history. Her goal was to coax Grandpa Mike's story out of him. The following excerpt introduces the Thanksgiving connection. :

          “Thanks, and I appreciate all your help. I’m going to study these hand-outs and look up all the online sites so I can be as prepared as possible. Wish me luck on Thanksgiving Day, will you? That is the one holiday my mom’s side of the family always spends together. Even though he sometimes gets quiet and grumpy after dinner, it seems to be Grandpa Mike’s favorite holiday.”
          “Really!” said Kayla. “I think Christmas is most people’s favorite holiday. I know it’s mine, hands down.”
          “Grandpa Mike says we can visit other sides of the family any other holiday, but Thanksgiving belongs to him. It’s really important to him to spend it with as many of the family as possible. I just hope that since it’s his favorite holiday, he will be in a good mood and agree to talk to me.”
          “We will be pulling for you one hundred percent, Jennie,” assured Sandy. “We can hardly wait until next month when you tell us how things worked out.”
          “Yeah, and find out why he likes Thanksgiving so much while you’re at it,” said Kaylee.

Why did Thanksgiving become so important to Grandpa Mike? For him, it had nothing to do with remembering the Pilgrims. 

Celebrating Thanksgiving in the 1960's was perhaps not much different than how many of us celebrate it now. The style of phone was different. Instead of a cell with a multitude of apps, rotary phones were the thing, even though all you used them for talking.

Watching football on television was a favorite Thanksgiving pastime on that holiday as it is for many families today. Instead of flat screens, the nicer televisions were mounted in a wooden cabinet. If a family was fortunate, they might have a combination television, radio and 78/45/33 rpm record player console. Although color television was available by 1964-66, not all shows were broadcast in color. Some of them had a whopping big 25 inch screen. And, I can remember our family having one of the first remote control televisions made. It had a control box attached to the screen with a twenty foot cable about 3/8 inches in diameter.

Like I said, I'm not that old and it is hard to think of those days as "history."

That was the world in which Mike Carpenter lived the year or two before he left for Vietnam. The chapter that follows the above excerpt starts with the following told in first person by Mike Carpenter:

          By rights, I should have celebrated the last Thanksgiving Day of my life in Vietnam. That should have been my last time eating turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie and everything that goes with it. 
          There were no football games to watch in Vietnam, and that is what I really missed about the holiday. I didn’t miss listening to Patty tying up the telephone with her friends and all her giggling and whispering and squeals that went with it. Sometimes she talked so loud that her voice drowned out a referee’s call. No, I sure did not miss that.
          So, in my mind, Thanksgiving as a family celebration was out. And, although I liked the turkey dinner well enough—especially the pies afterwards—without the football to watch, the holiday just was not that important to me the year I was in-country. 

Another activity families used to enjoy during holiday dinners was sit around the table and tell stories about themselves and other family members. My grandmother's stories of her parents and grandparents crossing the plains in a covered wagon are what prompted in me a love of family history. 

Although Thanksgiving is over, if you gather with family for Christmas, after the meal, instead of playing X-box, using your cell phone to catch up on emails, or getting lost in some other technological wonder, take time to listen to the older generation tell their stories. If you are part of the older generation, open your mouth and share your family's history with your children and grandchildren.

In Family Secrets, many years after Mike returned from Vietnam, married and had children, his granddaughter, Jennie, did convince her grandpa to tell of his experiences in Vietnam. 

However you and your family and friends celebrate Thanksgiving, I hope this year is one of gratitude and love for you. And, please remember:

Zina Abbott is the pen name used by Robyn Echols for her historical novels. Her novel, Family Secrets, was published by Fire Star Press. Please visit and follow the Zina Abbott’s Amazon Author Page by clicking HERE.

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