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Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2008 01:54 pm

A family tells its story, and you can tell yours

The Buchmann Family, from Rosenwiller to St. Louis Rose Marie Buchmann Roach Miller, 2008, www.lulu.com, 350 pp.

Here’s a book you’ll love. I’m stating up front it’s by a good friend, Rosie Roach Miller, who grew up in Belleville, graduated from Millikin, married a vet from Springfield who joined his father’s business, Capital City Paper Company, raised children, was active in the community, and when Sangamon State University (now UIS) began in 1970, earned a master’s, went on to a Ph.D. in higher education administration, and became, before she retired, associate vice-chancellor for student services at SSU. There, now you know a bit about Rosie and a lot about my biases. Which only count for pluses, since the book is wonderful and brimful of well-told stories about Belleville, Springfield, Decatur, even St. Louis.

“Once a Belleville child turned 12, he or she was considered old enough to ride the bus — 10 cents round trip — to downtown St. Louis, unaccompanied by an adult. As I rarely went anywhere without my twin sister, we rode together on our twelfth birthday. The bus stop was at the Farmer’s Market, a big shed-like building we had to walk through to get to the department stores. I have no idea what in the world we shopped for, we only had bus fare and lunch money. We always ate lunch at the Forum which was the first automated restaurant we’d ever seen. I remember standing in wonderment, staring at the selections behind the little glass doors, and finally making a choice, inserting my nickel and watching as the partition magically slid up, allowing me to quickly slide out the plate before it slammed down again. . . . I have never felt quite so grown up as I did on those trips.”

Gone With the Wind, the movie, came out in 1939, almost two and a half hours long. Rosie and her friends were wild to go and finally allowed, although the local paper said Clark Gable as Rhett Butler “used language not fit to print in this family newspaper.” In those days movies ran continuously with only newsreels and a cartoon separating a rerun of the main feature. The girls’ mothers packed them each a bologna sandwich in wax paper, and the friends sat through the feature three times that afternoon and evening. “I can still remember my quick intake of breath every time Rhett said to Scarlet, ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a DAMN.’ How deliciously shocking that was!”

The girls were equally innocent about sex. “At fourteen, what we basically knew for sure was that if we ‘did it’ our fathers would kill us.” The sex book they shared after 10 pages of extolling the sexual act and marriage – synonymous – “graphically described the culmination as two reeds waving together in the moonlight.” At a sleepover after a senior formal dance, 12 friends were informed by the younger sister of a recent bride, “Well, it’s not like that at all!” The shock of Rhett’s DAMN was nothing compared to this bombshell.

“She did THAT? On her wedding night?” By four in the morning the twelve had made a pact. “I solemnly swear that if I ever do THAT on my wedding night I will send a postcard with ‘I DID IT’ to every one of you, my special sisters.” When the high school class held its 60th reunion in 2005, of the “sisters” present, “none of us ever remembered receiving (or addressing and mailing) the promised postcard.”

What of the Springfield stories? The first home, adequate but aloof and uncomfortable, and prone to natural disasters — tornados, trees falling on it, etc. The move to 1001 Williams Boulevard, where the sun made rainbows in the front hall, and which had its own disaster — a fire. This, told in riveting detail in a preserved letter, recounts the heroism of a student saving baby Philip, highchair and all, and directing the firemen to the correct area of the house where the blaze is. The kindness of neighbors living at the Leland Hotel while repairs went on. Later, a worse disaster — near Christmas, the sudden death of Rob Roach, husband and father, at age 51. How for two holidays Rosie fled, took the children to the Virgin Islands. “What no one tells you about grieving is that after you steel yourself to get through the first year alone, all that is left to do is buck up and steel yourself to get through the next year alone.” But 14-year-old Philip, the third year, urges Christmas at home; the older siblings agree, and persuade their mother — (How could I unpack the wooden angels and ornaments . . . how could I hold back the memories and sadness? . . .” The kids suggest a big intergenerational party, all their relatives and friends and their father’s business friends. An older son says, “We’ll show them, all those who have stuck with us these past two years, they’ll know that we’re going to be just fine.” The party is a huge success, and the house is made happy again.

There are many, many more stories, copious pictures, and sections of the book devoted to immigration, family trees, documents, recipes. Other family members have contributed stories. This is a book for Rosie’s family, but its appeal is for all of us, and it’s available. Read it for its superb storytelling, but also as an example of what you too can do — gather your stories, pictures, interviews and other materials (warts and all) and organize them in some fashion, and publish them by one of the many inexpensive ways now available on the Internet. You’ll be saving your personal history for your wider family and descendents, and giving pleasure, if you share, to those far beyond your own family circle. Rosie’s done it; so can we all.

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