By CINDY LADAGE
CINCINNATI, Ohio — Many people who have lost loved ones wish they had a chance to go back and ask questions – such as, I wonder if I grew up when my mother did, would I have liked her? Would she have liked me?
And then, with some relatives, these questions could never have been asked because the family member they see or hear about is only through other people’s observations and memories. But sometimes, someone records their own history, thoughts and feelings – like Justine Klomann Hildebrandt did.
Hildebrandt wrote her memoir in her late seventies, leaving a legacy for her children and now her great-granddaughter, Anne Elizabeth Walker, to read. Walker has come to know her great-grandmother and learned about her life on the farm long ago.
“The notes were handed down to my mother by her aunt, Justine’s youngest daughter. They were handwritten on 300 pages of stationery and kept safe in a pink stationery box since 1940,” she explained.
“My mother (now 94) gave them to me when she cleaned out her house and moved into assisted living. Three years later, I came upon them right after my husband retired, and we decided to make it a project.”
That project was to transcribe Justine’s notes into a typed record. “My great-grandmother’s handwriting was lovely, but we thought that her memoir would be much more readable if we transcribed it. It took a zillion hours!”
While the transcribing lasted much longer than anticipated, Walker, 63, learned a lot while doing it. “I’ve been captivated by her story, partly because she seemed to have a happier early family life than I had. Her closeness to her brothers, sisters, and parents was comforting to me,” she explained.
“Also, I have always lived in big cities, so her intimate descriptions of life in the country I find fascinating. She described childhood, schooling, church, chores, crop planting and harvesting, livestock and community life – it’s a window into the past.”
Walker was so fascinated with the world that Hildebrandt opened up in her memoir that she started a blog, sharing her great-grandmother’s words and adding her own thoughts in a blog she calls Memoir Of An 1870s Ohio Farm Girl. “I keep finding old photos and quilts and family items, so I decided to write a blog and use these things as illustrations,” she noted. The blog is online at https://1870ohiofarmgirl.wordpress.com
“After we finished the transcription, I started exploring how to make this piece of history available to others. I wrote an email to the Library of Congress to ask about similar memoirs, and the librarian responded immediately. She was very helpful, gave me some references and suggested that I contact a museum in the region my great-grandmother was from.”
Walker followed up on the suggestion. “Eventually I emailed the transcribed version to the archivist at the Cincinnati Museum and the next day, she sent me the sweetest email saying she had gotten so entranced reading the memoir that she missed a meeting she was supposed to go to!
“My husband and I drove to Cincinnati to deliver the manuscript for their archives, where the public and researchers can read it,” she added.
“I was surprised that my grandmother had such vivid memories of life on the farm. She wrote her memoir in her late seventies, over 50 years after moving into the city of Cincinnati. I hope I have half as clear a memory as she did when I am in my seventies.”
For those who are interested in reading Justine’s story, “my blog offers my great-grandmother’s memoir and my responses to it more than 150 years later.
Justine Klomann Hildebrandt’s story is set in the era before telephones and electricity, let alone cell phones and the internet.
“My own story began nearly 100 years after her birth, in 1954, when television was brand new. An explosion of technology followed, along with profound cultural change. Between my great-grandmother and me, we have witnessed two-thirds of the history of our nation.
“I’m sorry we never met, but we are bound by our shared family and culture,” Walker mused.
This story is an inspiration to others to share memories on paper or in a written summary for those who come after. Life on the farm has changed so much in the last 50 years, and Justine’s story lends a personal reflection of what life was like through the eyes of one living it, rather than a history book trying to explain it.
Walker is interested in stories of other peoples’ ancestors from that period, 1860-80. Readers who would like to correspond may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org