Years after my grandfather passed away I have written a letter to him explaining how his stories have changed my life.
I have spent the last four and a half years thinking of different things I could say to you. I imagine how you would respond, give me advice, or find something to laugh about. When I did have the good fortune to get to know you, you impacted me more than I realized. As I’ve grown older, I have discovered different parts of my personality that remind me of you. I have also learned that telling our personal history to others gives us greater peace of mind and reminds us that we have contributed to the world of our future generations. I was so disappointed that we had so little time together, time when you could have shared more of your stories. That is until I recently found a family website filled with family memories. It was not like anything I had ever seen before because it was filled with your stories. I discovered tales that you wanted to share with family and anyone else interested in reading them. It was so interesting to see the range of entry dates spanning both before and long after I was born, yet I never knew about them. You entitled the collection the Stephenson Tales.
I began reading through your stories and instantly became hooked. They were so interesting and showed me a more personal part of our family history. The first story that truly made an impact on me was the "Beginning of my Professional Career." You described how when you were five in 1926 you were on a beach in Michigan and happened to run into some soldiers. Being the intelligent little boy I know you were, you asked if they wanted to hear you recite poetry. They were so impressed with mini-you that they each gave you a dime and therefore you were a professional actor at the age of five. The more I thought about this, the more I realized that you had a truly unique experience. Because you were born as a white male, you were treated with more respect at a young age than others may have been. It dawned on me that I may have also benefited from this lineage, but was unaware of it. Additionally, you were able to take those coins home to your impoverished family and help make a difference. That experience helped define one of your passions which opened new opportunities to you and your family. Your memory has helped remind me to value the opportunities I have been provided.
As I continued exploring, I stumbled upon a quite interesting story. This memory was entitled "Two Near Brushes with Death (Including my brief career as a thief)," which of course made me wonder what it was about. I discovered that while you were serving as a spy in North Africa during World War II, you had several literal brushes with death. On one occasion, you described how you had been riding on top of a train car traveling through fields when suddenly you felt something fly past your right ear. When you saw smoke wafting from a tiny haystack in the distance, it was only then that you realized you were being shot at. That was your first brush with death. Later, when you were given some free time you decided to climb a mountain. Personally, this sounds like exactly what I would choose to do, but when I continued to read I became very surprised. You declared that when you reached the top of the mountain there was a small temple. You continued to explore it and found a circle of small green candleholders. There were quite a few of them and you found them very attractive. Considering there were so many, you determined that worshipers would never miss two. As soon as you had stowed them away, someone began to chase you back down the mountain shooting all the while. Eventually, you managed to bring both candleholders back to the United States undamaged. While reading, I remembered seeing one of them glistening in the light on the shelf you built in the corner of your living room.
You are the only veteran I have known incredibly well, yet when I was younger you always avoided speaking about the topic of your service. I wish I could have discussed these memories with you in person, but this will have to do instead. Reading about your continued service in Africa and Italy, and how you worked for the organization that would become the CIA, has kindled my sense of patriotism. Prior to hearing your detailed stories about World War II, I was not aware that our family was so involved in helping protect our country. Learning this, I have become more mindful of thanking the veterans around me, and being understanding if they prefer to avoid speaking about the topic. With the exception of your theft, I was never aware that you worked so hard to insure a positive future for your family, friends, and country. I have gained an even larger respect for veterans and how they have sacrificed and contributed to the protection of our American values and individual beliefs.
My eyes continued to search the memories for anything else that intrigued me. The next one that caught my eye was your story "Our Second Wedding Cake." In 1945, rations were being enforced all throughout the United States during World War II, and this included sugar. As a result, I found it very touching that a portion of your community was able to save and contribute all of their sugar rations, not once for your family, but twice. Just 8 months after my great aunt's wedding, and subsequent cake for that event, you and Grandmother had your own wedding and cake to prepare for during your short leave from the war. With the help of the community, you were able to have a gorgeous and mouthwatering cake on your wedding day, August 18, 1945. Reading this story reminded me of the importance of surrounding yourself with people you love. I have learned over time to value friends and family the most because they are the ones who seem to always keep you afloat. Part of what being American means to me is this sense of stability that you can find with others who make you feel happy and inspire you to be a better person.
I decided to explore a part of your memories found under the category summer. There, I came across a story I remember hearing bits and pieces of as a child. This story, called "LORELEI II," told the tale of your immense love for sailing, the freedom you felt when alone cutting through the water, and the pride you felt when you were able to purchase your very own Star-class racing sailboat. You treasured that boat and were devastated when during the end of a tornado the boat was swept into the air and ripped apart on the beach. Searching through the remains of your beautiful boat, you noticed that the keel had detached itself and lay in the sand. It was there that you and my dad pushed the keel further up into the bank so that it could sit upright and face the water. The 900-pound keel has been there since 1974 and still is to this day. That keel is a permanent part of that beach and reminds us that the past is still influencing us. As I have grown older, I have been taught to mainly focus on where you are heading in life. However, I would like to challenge this idea. We also have to remember where we come from, because it is that history that contributes to who we are.
The last story I found is the one that had the most emotional impact. "Ring the Bell!" Is about the bell that you managed to buy from a church during its demolition. You had dreamed about having your own bell since childhood, this being because your mother had used a small one to call the family together for meals. When you brought the elaborate 3.5-foot bell to your summer home, you placed it on the edge of the bank overlooking the lake. When your six children were out all over the water, you would ring that bell and they could hear it from every location knowing that it was time to come home. The bell has stood in that spot since 1956, but is still recognized as a symbol of our unique family. I have only heard that bell ring three times that I can remember, during yours and Grandmother’s funerals and once during the Fourth of July. But even though its melodic resonance has only reached my ears a few times, I will forever remember the power and certainty behind every tone. As a symbol of family unity, that bell represents the connection to those we love, the value we hold for our time with one another, and the importance of home.
Grandpa, you have helped create a family that can unite under a shared unique history. We have your stories that span generations, tales that help refine our current perspective of the world and shape our individual values. Thank you for the legacy you have left behind.
Beck, Julie. “Life's Stories.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 10 Aug. 2015,
Freed, Rachael. “The Importance of Telling Our Stories.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 15 Nov. 2010, www.huffingtonpost.com/rachael-freed/legacy-telling-our-story_b_776195.html.
Stephenson, Jim Bob. “Stephenson Tales.” Stephenson Tales - Beginning of My Professional Career, 2008, stephensontales.com/beginning.htm.
Stephenson, Jim Bob. “Stephenson Tales.” Stephenson Tales - Lorelei II, 1992, stephensontales.com/LoreleiII.htm.
Stephenson, Jim Bob. “Stephenson Tales.” Stephenson Tales - Our Second Wedding Cake, 2009, stephensontales.com/weddingcake.htm.
Stephenson, Jim Bob. “Stephenson Tales.” Ring the Bell!, 2008, stephensontales.com/RingTheBell.htm.
Stephenson, Jim Bob. “Stephenson Tales.” Stephenson Tales - Two Near Brushes with Death, 2008, stephensontales.com/TwoNearBrushes.htm.