Most families have stories. Its one of the things that creates bonds across family members that aren’t really that close and strengthens the bonds of those that are. Cousins, aunts, uncles, great grandparents, that weird guy you don’t know how you’re related to but is always at family functions. Origin stories, tragic stories and, thank God, funny stories. They’re the stuff of families. In her book, The Ranch That Was Us, Becky Crouch Patterson shares the stories of her family as they came to Texas and settled in the Hill Country, stories of love and loss, laughter, pain, and redemption.
Many stories center on the Stieler Ranch, a large spread on the highway between Comfort and Fredericksburg, that was settled by Patterson’s grandfather, Adolph Stieler, “the Goat King”. Most of these are origin stories and tell of the heydays of the ranch and of Stieler’s goat empire. Times were good for the Stielers then with ample wealth, friends, parties, but like many good things the family fell on harder times with Adolph’s eventual death though the ranch remained in the family.
Some of the most poignant tales involve Patterson’s ultimate return to the ranch as an adult, coming home to reclaim her birthright, not so much as the Prodigal, but perhaps as the lost sheep. In one of the more touching lines, Patterson writes,
“With Jimmy’s departure, the last drop of common sense fled the Home Ranch. Not one bit of know-how, ingenuity, or survival skill remained. I was left with only the rotten, fallen-down stuff and the cruel and precarious laws of nature and gravity to watch over me. No one was left in charge, and I felt it.”
This passage brought to mind the loss of my own grandfather from this world. He was incredibly capable in almost every way I can remember, but my own children don’t remember him as much as they remember the stories about him. I want them to feel his presence the way I did and still do. I want them to know him as I did. But they cannot know and I cannot express the vacuum left in my own life by his death. Aldren Watson, author of Country Furniture says,
“The country furniture maker was an intriguing kind of person, a type, a special breed in one sense – a man who has been all but swallowed up in the receding perspective of history and social evolution…On the whole, modern culture has instructed us poorly, providing only the sketchiest preparation for understanding this man. In many ways he is a stranger, a man who dealt with a dozen problems every day, in the stable, the workshop, or the woodlot – drawing solely on his native intelligence, his skills, and his singular adaptability to find practical solutions. A stranger, but the kind of person it would be good to have known.”
This is so much of what our family stories try to convey, that these are the kind of people most of us came from. Our family stories seek to reassure us that we are bred from strong stock, that we’re capable people, and that we belong. Some family stories do this poorly, Becky Crouch Patterson’s do this well.
At the same time, Patterson’s tales tell a history of the Texas Hill Country as the first German settlers came to the frontier and left their mark on the land, just as it left a mark on them. Family stories allow us to be connected to a place, to know home, an innate desire that burns within us as old as the Israelites themselves. To this end Patterson writes,
“You don’t quite realize the strong pull of home until you leave and return to it like a swallow returning to the nest after a long trip. The ranch that is us formed our individuality, created who we’ve become. Our roots lead us back to our childhood kitchens and bedrooms. Mama now had the Home Ranch available to come back to, this place where things, no matter how run-down, are glad to see her again and can give her the same simple welcome.”
Along the way Patterson writes about romances, marriages, and divorces. She writes painfully, honestly, about the loss of her son, Ren. She writes about dreams unfulfilled and joys never dreamed of. These memoirs are well written and the stories are engaging, but more than that they are a reminder that we’re all the same when you get down to it. We all want our families to be healthy, well fed, and happy. We all want to laugh with friends, share a drink, or a moment. We all want to belong. But none of us get to live this life in exactly the ways we plan. Life takes detours and you can dwell in the darkness or see it for what it is, another opportunity to appreciate the light.
By writing openly and lovingly about her family and its history, Becky Crouch Patterson has reminded me to stop and appreciate my own family and our stories. She’s remind me to forgive hurts and love deeply and openly. To quote Patterson and The Ranch That Was Us one last time,
“Kindness and words. They’re all that matter in the end.”
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