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Moats: Lena And The Lightning

11/23/09 5:55PM By David Moats
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(HOST)  On the day after Thanksgiving, people around the country are invited to participate in the second annual National Day of Listening. As part of that effort, VPR commentators are telling some of their own favorite family stories this week - like the oral history from David Moats' family in which a great aunt may - or may not - have been hit by lighting.

(MOATS) So was Aunt Lena killed by lightning or not? Nobody seems to know.

I'd never even heard of Aunt Lena until I came across an oral history left by my grandfather describing his family's journey from Denmark to America.

My grandfather's Uncle Fred came first. He settled in Utah around 1880. In my grandfather's words, Uncle Fred took over a "...relinquished homestead and started grubbing sagebrush and planting crops."

Then comes the mysterious reference to Aunt Lena, Fred's wife, who died when their two children were small. After mentioning her death, my grandfather said this: "Uncle Fred showed me a good a good-sized hole in the ground next to a small house and barn, where the lightning struck during a bad storm. It happened that Aunt Lena was home alone." He never says the lightning killed her; it seems he assumes we know it.

So I asked my mother, age 92, if she remembered anything about Aunt Lena, her great-aunt, and death by lightning. She hardly remembered Aunt Lena at all.

I asked my brother what he thought. He said the words don't tell us for sure.

I asked my sister. She said it sounds as if she was killed by lightning.

In this way, fact becomes legend. I could do a little research, track down descendants, figure out if there's any record of Lena's death. But I like the story as it is.

Aunt Lena remains an unfortunate forgotten person among the brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, who came over from Denmark, and their descendants who hold on to little scraps of their story.

Fred's brother Christian followed him to Utah and became the father of my mother's father.

The most dramatic story from that generation involved Elna, Christian's daughter, who burnt up when her nightgown caught fire after she had enjoyed an alcohol rubdown.

These stories filter down.

My great-grandfather Christian was a tailor who made fine men's coats in Boise. One story tells of the time he had to go back to Utah, where his family was still living, because his daughter was sick. He didn't have enough money for the fare, so he hid behind the stove on the rail car the whole way.

Who knows what stories later generations will tell about us? We're not part of their lore, not yet. But we're leaving stories behind us as we go. Maybe we ought to stay indoors when there's lightning.

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