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Getting to Know You

One of the questions I’m asked when I speak to book clubs is, “How did you come up with this story?”

When Mark Haut and I married, we united lifetimes of rich history. Each of us had been widowed for about five years, and each of us were faithful church-going Lutherans. Neither of us had children. I believe he fell in love with Sadie, my cocker spaniel, before he even noticed me. (She’s adorable—but aren’t all cockers?) He signed on for the package deal.

As we spent time with our siblings, conversations naturally wandered into remember-whens, and what’s going on with so-and-so. And just as naturally, one of us was always left on the sidelines, confused by unfamiliar names. Maybe I’d ask who Uncle Gord was. Which side of the family was he on: maternal or paternal? Was he a blood relative, or a spouse? Your mother was Millie, but your dad’s sister was Minnie, right? And one of your great aunts was another Minnie? Uncle Ed was your mother’s oldest brother . . . named for their father. Wait! Your dad’s name was also Edward? But everyone called him Icky (a nickname for Idkä, which is the German for Ed).

Good grief!

My husband Mark faces the same issue on my side of the family. My brother’s name is also Mark. My late husband’s grown son by his late wife is called Mark, too. My boss’s name was Mark, and the president of my seminary was Mark. That’s too many Marks—even for me, so I told my new husband I was going to refer to him as “Joe”—which led to a story about how he once told his late wife that he had a twin brother named James. He was just kidding, but he'd always wanted a brother. As a child, he even created an imaginary friend whom he called Johnny Ralph. . . . See how all three of those names begin with the letter “J”. Forget calling husband Mark “Joe.”

Sensitive to the possibility that I might be feeling left out when we spent time with his relatives, husband Mark sketched a family tree for me, and the next time everyone got together, I jotted little notes next to each name. Later, I sequestered myself in my office and typed each story that had been shared.

After a year or so of family gatherings, supplemented by weekly phone calls, I’d written over a hundred twenty pages. Mark reviewed them to be sure I’d accurately matched people with events, and added a few details. Eventually, we decided to mail off a hard copy to his sister and brother-in-law.

I write “eventually” because I hesitated. It’s one thing to share family tales over a couple glasses of wine; it’s an entirely different thing to see them in black and white next morning—recorded by a woman who slipped into the family by marrying the younger brother. I once worked for one of the country's largest newspapers, too, and we all know how the general attitude toward “the media” has shifted from Clark Kent protectors of the nation’s history to self-proclaimed shape-shifters of so-called truths. Maybe we should just keep the vignettes hidden in a drawer.

We mailed it. Mark’s sister and her husband called to tell us they’d stayed up all night, leaning against the headboard side-by-side, passing pages back-and-forth, and laughing their heads off. (Whew!) We said we hoped their children and grandchildren would appreciate reading family stories one day. They asked if I was still taking notes—including that call. I had to admit that I was.

I asked Mary Lou how she’d feel if the family story was published.

“Nobody will be interested in that,” she said.

“But what if . . .”

“Do what you want.”

I began listening with intentionality, trying to identify tensions pointing to values we hold dear or lines that we Hauts won’t cross. After all, even close family members don’t always agree or share the same points of view. Some of us worship in the Catholic church; some worship in the Lutheran church (Missouri synod) and some worship in the Lutheran church (ELCA); some just sleep in, except at weddings or on holidays. Some favor one political party; some vote in the other. Some insist HP is the best computer; some won’t give up their Apples. Everybody plays cards, some with more passion than others. None of these are small differences! What, then, holds us together? Which attitudes or preferences reveal what we’re made of? What do we live for—and what are we willing to die for?

One evening when we all were together, I asked how the bakery got started. Mark said his father quit his job as a bread baker to start his own business.

“No, that’s not what happened,” Mary Lou corrected. She’s ten years older, so she lived through some of the secrets that got buried when their parents died. “Daddy got fired. That’s why he started that bakery.”

Mark was stunned.

And now we have a book.

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