Amy Choate-Nielsen: Family stories of all kinds are inspiring

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 18 2014 4:52 p.m. MST

Updated: Tuesday, Feb. 18 2014 4:52 p.m. MST

Amy Choate-Nielsen takes comfort in the fact that not everyone in her family history was skilled at tasks such as cooking.

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Years ago, I worked on the copy desk of the Deseret News.

My fellow copy editors and I were tasked with the mighty job of catching every mistake, big or small, and snatching it out of the pages of the newspaper. It was a mission we took seriously, poring over each word that fell under our purview, hunching over our desks long after the newsroom had quieted from the hum of the day, rubbing our eyes as the nights grew later and later.

It was more than a job; it was teamwork.

Back then, we wrote headlines and cutlines (captions under a photo), edited stories for style, length and accuracy, and proofed and reproofed every single page — even the obituaries page.

Every once in a while, as one of my coworkers scanned the page and read another glowing story of someone who had “gone fishin’ ” for eternity, she would look up and say with some bitterness that obituaries never tell the whole story. They only tell the best things about people, she’d say.

“I bet it’s not even true,” she scoffed.

I see her point.

My grandmother Fleeta died before I was born, and I only know the best things about her. She fought cancer. She was funny. She was educated. She was employed, and she still cooked and cleaned and boiled homemade candy. She did it all wonderfully well.

But this story isn’t about her.

It isn’t about perfection.

It’s about me.

I think I’m funny. And I think I’m fairly educated. But more often than not, my cooking and cleaning leave something to be desired. I often scramble to figure out what to cook for dinner at 6 o’clock when my husband walks in the door, and more often than not, I never find the answer. My kids end up eating almond butter and jam sandwiches for dinner, more often than not.

My delinquent skills have sometimes been the source of contention in our family, as dinner is late or the house is filled with dirty clothes and dishes. And so it is that one of the things that first fascinated me about Fleeta was her homemaking prowess — the ability to do it all. And I wondered if learning about her would help me learn the same skills.

I admit it’s been slow going. I’ve been frustrated with myself more than once over the fact that making a home — I can hardly say "being a homemaker" — just doesn’t come easily to me.

But as it turns out, I’m not the first woman in my family history to feel that way.

I am delighted to report that my great-grandmother Monta Pearl, mother of my maternal grandmother, was the same way.

According to my mother, who heard stories about Monta Pearl from her mother, my great-grandmother would send the kids off to school, and then, instead of using that time to do the chores, she would retreat to the attic, where she had a studio of sorts, and she would write and paint and sew.

When my grandmother Lenore and her sisters got home, they’d hustle around the house to get it clean before their father came home. My grandmother cooked, and my great-aunt kept the checkbook balanced.

I do not mean to suggest my great-grandmother was lazy or negligent, but she may have been preoccupied. It sounds to me like she had lots of pans in the fire — and I can relate. In fact, it’s a relief.

Now, when I look to the stories of my family history for inspiration, I see the best in the women who went before me, but it doesn’t always sound the same.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother Fleeta.

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