The Ripple Effect

The author in Costa Rica, circa 1986.

Photographs convey an immediacy that compels us to respond. A photo can transport us back to a precise moment more rapidly than words. But words — journal entries, letters, hurried notes — take us beyond simple visual memory. Words have the power to replay history, stirring recollections of who and what we were along the timeline of our lives.

I was reminded of that recently when I uncovered a snapshot stuffed in a file of my old news clips from Central America. The picture, a casually composed Polaroid, gives little away. The only clue to where or when the picture was taken is scrawled across the bottom: 1986, El Pueblo. How the group knew each other and what brought us together in that particular bar is left to the viewer’s imagination. I knew the photo was taken in San Jose, and could still identify the group. But it was the scrap of a story clipped to the photo — a grad school assignment written years after I left Costa Rica — that brought those years tumbling back.

Seated around a wooden bar table, leaning against each other and across a stained plastic mat, the six of us look happy. We were friends of a sort, brought together in a strange and difficult place where we lived and worked for a brief time and then moved on. When I look at the photo all these years later, I am almost fooled into thinking we were the best of friends. In truth, I was never a part of their group, a select few bonded by one overriding memory that forever defined their friendship.

It was death that brought them together. The bombing made news around the world not so much for who died, but for who didn’t. The narrow escape of Eden Pastora, a Nicaraguan revolutionary turned rebel fighter, filled the column inches. The brutal death of an American reporter, wife and mother of an eight-year-old boy, was judged less newsworthy. But in San Jose, Linda Frazier’s murder left a long shadow; not just over her grieving family, but over the Costa Rican paper she was a part of — the paper where the six of us first met.

My mother would often recount the story of how I took a job on that paper, stepping in after a woman reporter was killed. She saw my decision as rash and a testament to my daredevil temperament. She was partly right, as mothers often are. But what she didn’t understand was why I wanted to work there.

The paper was run out of a ramshackle colonial house in central San Jose. It was painted Pepto-Bismol pink and housed an assortment of stray cats, a family of rabbits and a crew of underpaid, young journalists. We loved it, knowing we were at the heart of a big story — a guerrilla war bankrolled by Washington and fought along Costa Rica’s northern border. Journalists from media outlets around the world would drift in to write about the Contra insurgency, hiring us to book interviews, translate or take notes at press conferences. “Fixers,” they called us.

It was one of those fixer jobs that first brought me to the Nicaraguan border. We travelled up river along the San Juan for hours, passing near the rebel camp where two years earlier, a bomb exploded at a news conference killing seven people, including three journalists, one of them Linda. Night had fallen by the time the reporters assembled, packed into a wooded shack on stilts above the muddy river. Pastora had just begun answering questions when the bomb went off, sending shrapnel in all directions.

Despite the trip, despite coming so close to that reality, for me the tragedy remained a distant event. And when the others would recount the long night waiting for news of friends that lived or died in that ill-fated press conference, when they would mull over every detail and obsess about the identity of the still-unknown bomber, I would only listen…

When I saw Pastora’s obituary last month in The New York Times I thought of my time in Central America, and my writing of events there. Not long after the snapshot was taken, I interviewed Pastora. By then he’d abandoned his war against the Sandinistas, but still reveled in telling tales of his adventures — the dangerous, wild life he led as a revolutionary hero, Contra guerilla and finally, shark fisherman. It’s the back story to a photo that truly resonates, the complicated stuff that we can’t see. And it’s those stories that cause a ripple effect, evoking in us wave after wave of deepening memories.

The author in Managua, Nicaragua.

Remembering What Matters Most

I ’ve done a lot of thinking about my own mortality these past few months, in the thick of the pandemic. Like most people, I’m not easy with pondering my own demise, and even less comfortable planning for it.

But I’ve discovered that thinking about death has forced me to consider what matters most in life: family, friends and long-held passions.  It’s been an unexpectedly comforting meditation, unearthing old memories, untold stories and life lessons I’ve picked up over many decades. It struck me, not for the first time, that while we often define our lives by the material treasures around us, it’s the life lessons we learn, the wisdom we gain and the stories we pass on to the next generation that truly define our legacy.

My musings got me thinking about ethical wills, a particular kind of storytelling where the focus isn’t on the timeline of a life, but the values that bind us together.

The ethical will has been around since Biblical times. In fact, there’s a reference to the tradition in Genesis 49 when a dying Jacob calls his sons to his tent, determined to give each of the 12 some very specific advice.  

One of the most famous early ethical wills, written in the 11th century, comes from a Spanish doctor, Judah ibn Tibbon. The document, which runs over 50 pages, is packed with detailed advice for his son Samuel on an slew of subjects, from telling him to study medicine and the Torah, to ordering him to honor his wife. Apparently eager to leave no stone unturned in Samuel’s life, the anxious father even spelled out how his son should care for the family library:

Never refuse to lend books to anyone who has not the means to purchase books for himself, but only act thus to those who can be trusted to return the volumes. Cover the bookcases with rugs of fine quality and preserve them from damp and from mice, for your books are your greatest treasure…

Modern ethical wills have come a long way from those ancient scrolls. To start, they come in curiously creative packages — films, digital recordings, handwritten letters, illustrated books, a collage of beloved photos, a laundry list of ideas — and can be addressed to anyone the writer thinks should read them. I heard of one case in which a young mother, diagnosed with terminal cancer and longing to leave her two daughters her best advice, bundled together a packet of letters for each girl to read on the most important days of her life — 21st birthday, graduation, wedding, becoming a parent.

Recognizing the emotional clout of ethical wills, lawyers are increasingly adding them to their estate planning toolbox too. As the Vermont attorney William Deveneau explains:  

For the most part we leave the decision to write an ethical will up to the client, but we do tell them that if they want their values, life lessons and advice to be passed on to the next generation, they need to put it in writing or it’s unlikely to ever happen.

This is especially true, Deveneau says, if there’s potential for a quarrel when the legal will is read.

If there’s the possibility that the [legal] will might infuriate people, I suggest including an explanation. I’ve found that explaining the values and emotions behind the decision can help soothe conflict among the descendants.

Sometimes an ethical will goes well beyond a family legacy, posing instead as a speech that powerfully addresses the writer’s hopes and dreams for the next generation. In this month of cancelled graduations, I’m reminded of Steve Job’s poignant commencement address at Stanford. Standing before the Class of 2005, believing in that moment he’d survived cancer, Jobs bequeaths the graduates his lessons on life. Emotional and inspiring, the man who changed the tech landscape forever told the crowd that coming close to death had forced him to look at what was most important in his life. Don’t settle, he urged them, do what you love.

…Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition…

The speech ends, as any will should, learning from the past and looking toward the future: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

I Wish I’d Asked

Megan Johnson Randall in her Vermont kitchen.

As I grow older, my hair gets frizzier, and there’s many a morning when I like to pull it back and up into a cheap facelift. As I anchor it with a few bobby pins and a claw clip, I often think of Grandma Randall. She had smooth silver hair, not at all frizzy, and she’d sweep it up in one deft twist which poufed naturally in front into a slight pompadour. As a young girl, I admired her gesture of careless elegance, and marveled that the twist stayed put all day long.

Grandma was from Louisville, Kentucky, a southerner and a farm girl who did most things with a certain dash. She was also cranky and fundamentalist. You avoided getting into a long conversation with her; you might end up, as I did once, being forced by guilt into memorizing the first chapter of the Gospel of John.

Maybe Grandma’s critical nature prevented us from prodding her for more stories, or maybe we took it for granted, as children will, that we already knew all there was to learn about her life, but I regret not asking more, now that there’s no one left to witness or explain. I’m left with her pretty old hands on the silver twist of her hair, the wonderful peach cobbler she threw together one hot summer day when too many peaches ripened at once, her slightly bow legs she said were from horseback riding, and those delicious molasses cookies she made from memory.

Oh those cookies! How many times have my sisters and I said to one another, “I wish we had Grandma’s molasses cookie recipe!” But I never saw Grandma work from a recipe. Her molasses cookies were as big as my palm and a half-inch thick, soft and cakey, an aromatic dark brown. Did she use the sorghum she sometimes brought us from down south? I wish I’d taken the time to learn how she made them, to show my love that way. As I twist up my hair, I think of the small things we leave behind us, and the importance of witness. As the Gospel of John says, “In the beginning was the Word.” Words save memories; be sure to leave some behind. Be sure to collect them. Especially now while we’re all stuck inside with so little social interaction with those we love, get them to make a video of each other making the treasured brisket recipe, the family favorite O’Henry bars, mom’s inimitable pie crust. Tell us about your results.

And while memory plays tricks and makes many things impossibly delicious, here’s a challenge for you. Can you replicate Grandma Randall’s large, very dark, cakey molasses cookies? Maybe it’s regional?

What follows are two not quite it molasses cookie recipes. One is from The Silver Palate Cookbook. They’re addictive, but too flat and too chewy to be Grandma’s. The second is an old standby from Joy of Cooking, too small, too light colored, just not Gram’s. Neither can replicate Grandma’s recipe, put together by handfuls instead of using a measuring cup, by guess and by golly, from her long practice of 80 plus years. Got another offering?

Contributing writer Megan Johnson Randall is a retired English teacher who holds a master’s degree in creative writing.


Molasses Cookies

The Silver Palate Cookbook By Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins

24 large, flat cookies

12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) butter

1 cup granulated sugar

¼ cup molasses

1 egg

1 ¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour

½  teaspoon ground cloves (I adjust to ¼ teaspoon as cloves can be overpowering)

1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger (I adjust to 2 heaping teaspoons)

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon baking soda

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
  2. Melt butter, add sugar and molasses, and mix thoroughly. Lightly beat egg and add to butter mixture; blend well.
  3. Sift flour with spices, salt and baking soda, and add to first mixture; mix. Batter will be wet.
  4. Lay a sheet of foil on a cookie sheet. Drop tablespoons of cookie batter on foil, leaving 3 inches between cookies. These will spread during baking.
  5. Bake until cookies start to darken, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven while still soft. Carefully slide foil off baking sheet. Let cookies cool on foil.


Old-Fashioned Molasses Cookies*

The Joy of Cooking By Irma S. Rombauer & Marion Rombauer Becker

About 40 2-inch cookies

  • Beat until soft: ½ cup butter or shortening
  • Add gradually and blend until light and creamy: ½ cup sugar
  • Beat in: 1 egg ; ½ cup molasses
  • Have ready: ½ cup buttermilk
  • Sift together: 2 ½ cups sifted cake flour ; 1 teaspoon baking soda ; 1 teaspoon each cinnamon and ginger ; ¼ teaspoon cloves
  • Add sifted ingredients in 3 parts to the sugar mixture, alternately with the buttermilk. Beat the batter until smooth after each addition. Add: ½ cup chopped raisins

Drop the batter from a teaspoon onto a greased cookie sheet. Bake 8 to 12 minutes.   

*Please note that this recipe is a perfect illustration of Rombauer’s injunction to always read the recipe through before beginning. But never fear: no buttermilk? Cake flour? See her invaluable chapter on Substitutions.

The Arctic Convoys: Navigating My Father’s Untold History

Convoy crossing the Atlantic, 1942 (Courtesy The Library of Congress)

On a recent Sunday, snow whirling outside, I scoured the house for something to read, hoping to curl up with a good thriller. Tucked in among a motley collection of still unpacked titles — picture books, college texts and weighty political tracts — I discovered a dog-eared copy of HMS Ulysses, the classic adventure story of combat in the North Atlantic. Captured by the cover image, a World War II cruiser steaming through stormy seas, I began to read the yellowed pages. This was my father’s war. The treacherous routes drawn up on the book’s nautical map would have felt familiar to him. And as I traced those journeys it struck me how little I knew of his harrowing years at sea and the memories he carried with him into old age.

The novel follows the fortunes of a merchant convoy’s terrifying voyage to Russia’s Arctic outposts and the deadly game of cat-and-mouse they play with Nazi U-boats and bombers. Hardly the kind of narrative I regularly devour. So I was more than a little surprised to feel the wave of longing and regret the story triggered.

It was the vivid descriptions that moved me: mountainous rogue waves and Arctic temperatures of -60 F, clouds of frozen sea spray and torpedo explosions bunched together in rapid-fire succession — three hits in three seconds — that ripped and shredded metal, catapulting sailors into the icy waters.

Dad as a young man

Through it all I pictured my dad. A ship’s engineer, he survived 30 voyages across the Atlantic, including four missions to Archangel and Murmansk. He was my son’s age, 26 years old, when he sailed those deadly waters, running the North Atlantic gauntlet to Russia. More than 800 ships, 40 convoys, followed that route between 1941 and 1945, risking everything to deliver supplies to the Soviet allies. Of those, over 100 never made it home, marking it as one of the most dangerous duties of the Second World War.

When we were kids my father shared few tales of his adventures in the Merchant Marine, shrugging off that time as the long-forgotten past. Near the end of his life he sometimes talked of a Christmas Eve when the crew watched helplessly as a nearby tanker was torpedoed, its sailors burning to death in oily Arctic waters. But mostly he kept those horror stories to himself.

There was one scene he’d tell us kids, often with a gruff laugh: “It was late night and I was on deck having a smoke. We still didn’t have our orders. I hoped we might be headed for Scotland, maybe get to go to shore, drink a warm beer, dance with a girl.”

Off Montauk

Standing in the biting wind, braced against the ship’s heavy pitch, he offered a fellow sailor a cigarette. The two men peered into the winter sky, searching the stars to plot their voyage. It didn’t take long to calculate. “So much for Scotland,” the sailor said, tossing his cigarette over the stern. My father sighed as he trudged back to the engine room and his duty. “It’s Murmansk. Again,”

As a child, my take away from the story was that my father could navigate from the stars. As an adult, I find myself considering all that my father left unsaid. What was he thinking as he stared out into the darkness, facing the certainty of piercing cold days and countless nights without sleep, the possibility of Arctic storms, and the unremitting fear of sudden and violent death? I wish I’d urged my father to tell me the story of those remarkable days. I wish I’d recorded his adventures and documented his memories, decoding how they shaped him in later life to pass on as a gift to future generations.

Maybe it’s the missed chance of witnessing my father’s story that’s made me passionate about telling other people’s histories. I’ve seen firsthand that the stories left untold are forever lost, and that those told second-hand are corrupted in the retelling, each time with more lapses and more inaccuracies until finally, drifting from generation to generation, they simply fade away.

Talking to people about their lives — hearing their remembrances, often deeply personal and emotional — is an extraordinary privilege. It’s a privilege that is now my work. The job begins with listening, but it’s in the writing that a unique theme emerges and personal histories are woven into a larger story. A timeline for a life can be constructed, but it’s placing our life stories in the crowded arc of human events that gives them meaning for future generations and adds an invaluable dimension to our own family story. It’s those stories that we cherish most and hope to pass down to our children and grandchildren.

— Caitlin Randall

Sun and sea: the sailor at home