Influencers - Part 1: Family

Recently, I read an article about social media influencers, as if that’s new. The social media part may be new, but influencers have always been with us. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what (and who) has contributed to my becoming the person I am today. Every place I’ve lived is part of me, and everyone with whom I’ve developed any kind of relationship has affected me. Just for fun, I made a list of my most powerful interactions: the people and places that have shaped me.

Of course, family is my foundation. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all raised me (or tried to) in their own traditions.

It’s Mom’s fault that I don’t like beets. She didn’t like them, so she never cooked them. She told me they taste like dirt, so I didn’t bother to try them until I was in my twenties. When I did, I said, “Yuck! So that’s what dirt tastes like!” To her credit, though, she also taught me not to like soft drinks, and as a result, my teeth are still in pretty good shape. The thing I appreciate most about her, though, is that she believed in me. Mom taught me perseverance and gave me self-confidence.

Dad set a fine example of responsibility and good citizenship. From him, I learned to own my actions—apologize for and repair damage from the bad, and refrain from crowing about the good. He understood that helping community is an extension of helping self. Active in civic, charitable, and philanthropic organizations, he modeled the use of teamwork and proactive involvement to make our world a better place. Dad was my hero.

My mother’s mother instilled in me a love of reading and history. My earliest memories include sitting beside her as she read to me (and later, I read to her) an endless variety of books. She liked to discuss each one, ensuring I understood the moral in an Aesop’s fable, the meaning behind a fairy tale, or what life must have been like in the time and location in which a story took place. She introduced me to fiction and nonfiction. Once, after reading about gardens, we planted radishes and lettuce in flowerpots on her patio. When we read about then-Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and the Spanish-American War, she showed me (and later gave me) the bayonets her older brother brought home after serving in Cuba. I still have them. Grandma broadened my horizons.

Daddy’s parents emigrated from Norway during World War I, bringing with them my grandmother’s spinning wheel. An expert woodworker, Grandpa fashioned replacements for the parts of it that didn’t survive the journey. Years later, those same skilled hands crafted an exquisite playhouse for the five-year-old me. I spent hours by his side as he worked on it, while mesmerizing me with tales of the old country. From Grandpa I learned about pride of workmanship and my European roots.

My parents and their siblings held the family together until that generation passed. Uncle George’s stories of Minnesota back-country escapades and California mountain treks sparked my sense of adventure. Aunt Marie’s big heart and warm hugs modeled empathy and taught me kindness. Aunt Marge’s encouragement brought me through some dark times, and her genealogy research solidified my family tree. They are nearly all gone now, and the cousins have mostly drifted apart. But my early years with them gave me a sense of place in the world, and their gifts and lessons made me whole.

Photo, courtesy of Nancy Hiemenz Thomas, is of William Miner, our mutual ancestor.

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