By Michaela Noble 

My family has a shallow memory.

My mom and dad can tell me about the relatives they remember from their childhoods; my grandpa can list the names of a few generations that preceded him before coming up blank, and we’re all able to speak at length about stories that have happened in recent history—the ones that are tangible in our lives.

But when I go to plumb the depths of ancestry.com, with only a few clues on what I should be searching for, I emerge with only scraps of concrete fact—and far more bits of conjecture.

I can’t fault them for it; it’s not a willful sort of ignorance or a lack of appreciation for the life they’ve been given (and the process by which it manifested; a myriad of random and life-altering turns, decisions, and happenstances). In fact, the opposite is true. The members of my family have a preoccupation with living, in the present, to the fullest extent of their abilities.

That’s best done facing forward, they’d tell you.

 A patchwork quilt

My story is one of Norwegian, Irish, Scottish, German and Native American roots. It’s made up of farmland and chickens, the sweat of factory workers’ brows; dedicated teachers and students.

The stories I’ve learned about my parents and my ancestry, though it can’t be traced past a certain point, amaze me in that they’re like one of the patchwork quilts my great-grandma Myrna makes: pieced together, the scraps form an entirely new whole, with a story of its own.

Still, I’m a writer—inquisitive by nature or necessity—with an insatiable desire for details.

And I’ve learned that what I lack in knowledge of my distant ancestry, I make up for in the stories of my living relatives, whose memories represent history itself.

I have two living great-grandmothers. Great-grandmother Myrna Noble, formerly Myrna Townsend, is 95 years old, an avid quilter and the most formidable Scrabble opponent I’ve ever faced. She can date the Townsend family back to the 1700s in Pennsylvania, but hasn’t been able to go past that.

Her mother, Cora Kruse, was of German descent. Cora’s father bought farming land when he came here from Germany, land that was eventually sold in 1916.

Farming, it would seem, was in Myrna’s blood.

 Hard work becomes a family legacy

Myrna met Merlin (Bud) Noble, the son of a farmer, in high school in Boone County, Nebraska. They came in contact again when she began teaching in Akron where his parents lived, at only 16 years old.

“It was a rural school and I taught all grades,” she said. She remembers having a 15-year-old student in her very first classroom.

Myrna and Bud were married in 1942, and he was drafted in September. When he came back from the war in 1945, the two ran Bud’s father’s farm and lived there for 30 years; maintaining it even once they moved to Loretto or “into town,” as Myrna said.

“We worked. We didn’t make slaves out of ourselves, but we worked,” she said.

It’s this mentality in particular that my dad, John Noble, feels is a family legacy.

“For me, it was mostly about instilling in us that sense of getting up and going to work,” he said.

The farming background was a big part of his childhood, though I have never thought of him in that way. He’s the vice president of Streck Laboratories now, having worked his way up through the years. Farming, he said, taught him he wanted to provide for his family.

But he remembers his mom cooking, baking, canning things and harvesting everything from her own garden.

“We even made our own ketchup, for God’s sake,” he said.

Though my dad’s parents didn’t work on the farm, he and his brothers often went to visit their grandparents.

My dad’s granddad, Bud, cared about sports and wanted his grandsons to have the opportunities he hadn’t had because his youth was spent farming with his dad.

Bud bought my dad and his two brothers all of their baseball equipment—left and right handed gloves “just in case.” In the evenings when he was done with all his farming chores, he would come out and play baseball with the boys.

And he never missed a game.

 A lesson in strength

My mom’s side of the family boasts resilience as well. Great-Grandma McCance is 94 years old, and my great-grandma Lind died in 2005, when I was in fifth grade.

I noted this evidence of hardiness to my mom, who has every bit the mental grit of her relatives.

“You’ve got some longevity in your genes—as well as some cancer,” she said. It was a line delivered with such nonchalance that we both had to laugh, finding humor in the contrast.

My mom’s mom, Joyce (Lind) McCance, died of cancer at 56. My mom and grandma both had cancer at the same time, and while my mom made a recovery, my grandma didn’t. This, my mom says, was a willful sort of thing.

“She prayed that if one of us had to go, it would be her, so that I could raise you girls,” my mom said.

That was consistent with my grandma’s character. She, too, was raised on a farm that her parents, Edwin Lind and Amy (Callahan) Lind, tended. She had two horses, Creampuff and Chalky, and she rode every morning to a one-room schoolhouse in Gothenburg, Nebraska.

Her father, Edwin, was born in 1916. His grandparents on his father’s side emigrated from Norway to the United States. The Callahans were Irish.

No one in my family knows why they immigrated to the U.S., but we do know the result.

Edwin used to play the fiddle at dances in Brady, Nebraska. And it just so happened that Amy showed up to one of them. Because of this chance encounter, my grandma and mom exist—and by extension, so do I, with an abiding love for music and for horses.

Edwin and Amy had six children who would eventually come together to buy the farmland near Brady once Edwin died, continuing his legacy in a way he would appreciate.

My mom hated spending time out at the farm with her grandparents; she remembers it being dirty and the visits always filled with hard work.

Vividly, she can picture her grandma (Amy Callahan), swinging her arms like a windmill, wringing the necks of the chickens she raised for slaughter and eggs. There was a tool for such a job, my mom said, an instrument that looked like a small guillotine, but her grandma was too impatient to use it.

Next generation leaves farmland in history

My mom was raised in town in Gothenburg, Nebraska, and had a different experience growing up than both her parents, Roy and Joyce McCance. Roy was born to second-shift factory workers and basically raised himself, prompting him to drop out of high school and only later earn his GED.

When Joyce worked the early nursing shifts at the hospital, it was my mom’s responsibility to wake up her dad—no alarm clock would do the trick.

The only method that worked, she said, was to place a cigarette in his mouth and light it for him.

Roy had an ornery streak as a child, one that carried through the rest of his life. A streak, perhaps, passed down from his grandpa, Charles McCance, who got on a freight train when he was 15 and “went bumming, and went to see the world,” during the ‘20s and the Great Depression when work was scarce.

That’s the only family story Grandpa Roy really remembers hearing—except that his great-great grandma on his mom’s side was Native American. He doesn’t know her name or anything else about her. His family is closed off when it comes to its history, preserving no documents and few definite facts.

Both my mom and dad said there was no question that they’d be going to college. It was an expectation on both sides—one of the few commonalities between their two upbringings.

 A new story

I am an intellectual, a writer and voracious reader—from a family of hard workers who made a series of decisions and geographical moves that resulted in my existence.

And though I wish my narrative went back further, I found myself sitting and chatting over pizza with my grandpa Roy, watching him grow animated as he remembered one thing in particular.

He listed off about 20 cars he owned at various stages of his life. He remembered his first car—a 1949 Ford V8, my mom’s, a Mercury Bobcat, and my Uncle Chad’s, a 1970 short-bed pickup.

He couldn’t remember the dates or names I needed, but he used a timeline of cars to tell his story. And it made me realize something significant.

Perhaps sometimes it’s what we remember that’s the most important, rather than what we don’t.

And so I’ve acquired a few stories, the important ones to my family members, by way of questioning, research and with the help of some photographs. These remain tucked into my novels as bookmarks, on display as my own features and lodged into my heart, where such things belong.