Guest Post: An exclusive interview with my great-grandmother

This is my favorite picture of my great-grandmother, “Gram.” I never knew her at this age, of course, but to me this photo depicts everything I loved most about her. She was happy, vibrant, full of life and adventure, and always cherishing the moment. She carried that youthful zeal with her throughout her entire life, even as she was approaching 100. She was always happy, always savoring life, and that sprightly demeanor she’s showing in the photo will forever be my memory of her. On the back of this photo, Gram wrote: “I took this out of Frank’s album. That’s why it’s cracked. Don’t die laughing. The highest one up is me. Yee-haw! Mary 16 years, taken at McNutt’s ranch.”

In September 2010, I got the idea to film my great-grandmother telling stories. 

The timing was perfect. I had just gotten a wireless microphone for my high-definition camcorder, and I needed a subject to test it on. 

And what better subject than my family’s near-centenarian matriarch? 

That’s right: Gram was 99 at the time, just five months shy of her 100th birthday. And although her grasp of the present was slipping (she often repeated herself and sometimes would forget where she was), her memories of the past were not only intact — they were razor-sharp.

She never lived in a nursing home. Each of her surviving children took turns staying at her house, so that she could be in a familiar environment. 

My grandpa, Dennis Cassinelli, and my grandma, Mary, often would invite us for dinner when it was their turn to stay with Gram. (Gram was Mary’s mother.) On such a weekend, I went over for an impromptu recording session — as well as a delicious meal. (After all, a well-fed interviewer is a happy interviewer.)

My parents came, too. And after dinner, we settled in the living room, with Gram taking her usual seat near the front window. 

I set the camcorder on a tripod, then attached the wireless microphone to Gram’s collar. I explained that we wanted to interview her, but I wasn’t sure if she knew what I was doing. And if she wondered why there was a blinking camcorder pointed at her, she didn’t say anything. 

When everything was set up and the camera was rolling, we started talking. 

I lobbed a few questions at her about her childhood, and her eyes lit up. Immediately, she launched into a familiar story about how her older brother, Bud, would tease her about being born in “the land of the lemon, the prune, and the nut” — which was his way of describing California. 

He, on the other hand, had been born in the “gold and silver state of Nevada.” (Apparently, he liked to remind her of that a lot.)

After that first story, there was a pause. We had to prod a little more to get her going, but once she did, the stories unspooled like yarn. 

She talked about a Christmas morning when all the children had opened their presents. Her youngest sister started crying, because there were no more gifts to open. 

So Gram’s father took a rug into the kitchen and rolled himself into it. His wife and the other children helped lug him back into the living room, put him under the tree, and told the young girl that there was one more Christmas present — and it was just for her. 

She eagerly unfurled the rug, and her father rolled out. The girl squealed with joy, and for the rest of that Christmas day, he belonged to her and no one else. “That was her daddy,” Gram said. 

Another story took place when Gram was a schoolgirl. She got so mad at the teacher that she marched into the coatroom and tore all the children’s coats off the racks to stomp on them. 

In another, her mother admonished her for being a tomboy. “Why can’t you stay in the house and be a little lady like Virginia?” she asked, referring to the neighbor girl, who was prim and elegant. But Gram much preferred to be outside playing baseball with the boys. 

We recorded for well over an hour. Each of us took turns asking questions. My grandparents could prod deeper, as they knew more of the family history. My grandpa, Dennis, well-known for being the Nevada-history buff of the family, asked her a series of questions about growing up in Tonopah, Nevada. 

Gram talked about her first job, her children, and the first time she met her future husband, Cornileus. 

The session wasn’t without hiccups. At one point, Gram started toying with the wireless mic, as if it were a brooch. I had to pause the camcorder to move the mic. It’s a funny moment — the sound at that part gets real staticky — and it gives the interview character. I love it. 

She also repeated herself at times — the story about “the land of the lemon, the prune, and the nut” came up often — but each time we’d gently broach another subject, and away she’d go. 

The video starts out in bright, late-afternoon sunlight, and as it proceeds the room gradually gets darker, and darker, until someone finally turns on a light. 

However, Gram’s voice is clear — as it was fed directly from the mic to the camcorder. Her words are crisp and audible, her memories preserved in time for her family to enjoy. My hope is that the video will allow descendants who never met her to see what a cheerful, buoyant person she was. 

Gram passed away in December that year. In two more months, she would have been 100. The family had been planning a large celebration. I’d even scheduled my photographer friend to be there, to capture the occasion. 

But we captured our own special moment that day, and I’m so grateful we did. None of us knew that evening would be one of the last times we’d ever see Gram. 

I watch the video sometimes, and when I do, memories of that day come tumbling back. And I realize that although life is short, it can include so much. Gram had grown up in an era with horse-drawn plows and Model-T Fords. Yet she lived to see things like computers and cell phones and YouTube and Facebook. (Personally, I prefer the era with Model-T Fords.)

If you have an aging relative, I encourage you to record their stories. Capture them on video, like I did, or jot them down in a journal. Everyone has stories worth hearing, and everyone deserves to have a piece of their lives preserved. You don’t want all that knowledge lost. 

You and your family will be so grateful you did. I know I am.

Watching Gram’s interview, the video does more than replay an old woman’s memories. Rather, it paints a picture of a family sitting down after dinner to talk and enjoy each other’s company. It was something we had done so many times before that on that day it seemed so commonplace, so ordinary. 

But looking back, I can see now how extraordinary it really was.

I can see, too, how blessed I am to have those moments, being with the people I love. 

I’m grateful for them, and for the people in my life. 

Allen Coyle is Dennis Cassinelli’s grandson and the author of two books, which are available on Amazon. He’s also the webmaster for denniscassinelli.com.

Ice fishing in Nevada

Ice Fishing in Nevada

An ice fisherman taking a rest after an exhausting day on the ice.

It has been a Cassinelli family tradition for several years to go ice fishing when the lakes and reservoirs are safe for ice fishing. Ice must be a minimum of 6” thick to be safe. If there is corn snow above the solid ice, it may need to be even thicker. With the use of either a power auger or a hand auger, a 6” – 8” hole is drilled into the ice for each fisherman in the group. Those with a second rod stamp can use two holes.

Usually 4 to 6 or more of us pick a date in January or February and decide which lake or reservoir to try. Some of our favorites are Wild horse Reservoir north of Elko, South fork Reservoir south of Elko or Cave Lake southeast of Ely. We have also been known to go to Red Lake or Caples Lake along Highway 88 in California for day-trip fishing.

Layers of protective clothing must be worn, since the winter weather can be brutal. Waterproof boots with treaded soles, insulated gloves, earmuffs, long johns, and a warm jacket with a hood will help. It is always better to bring extra clothing than be “caught out in the cold.” Children dressed up in winter coats and mittens love to skate and run around out on the ice. Letting them pull out a fish is a treat they will never forget.

A family group will always have an ice sieve to clean snow and ice from the fishing holes when needed. The holes drilled are sometimes 24” or more deep. Some groups (including ours) may set up a portable ice fishing tent, a collapsable table with a propane stove, ice chests with no ice to keep worms and drinks from freezing and plenty of your favorite beverages. Simple wire or PVC rod holders to keep your pole at a 45 degree angle with the ice are nice to have. One year, I even made some wooden balanced and weighted trout decoys to lower down into an ice hole to attract fish to the place where we were fishing.

Every one fishing must have a license, trout stamp, extra rod stamp if wanted, short ice fishing poles, tackle box, worms, power bait, shrimp, jigs or whatever bait or lure you (and the fish) desire. Game wardens do check for licenses and go from group to group on snowmobiles. There should be a folding chair with a drink holder for each person. A trick we learned early on, was to attach a jungle bell or a rattlesnake tail to the end of the fishing rod so you can hear when you have a bite. You can then visit and tell lies to the other fishermen until the bell rings. An ice fishing sled or a large plastic box for your gear can easily be pulled across the ice to the desired place to fish.

A few times when the ice was solid and over 2 feet thick, we have taken the truck out on the ice. This must be done with extreme caution and is not recommended. The NDOW website usually has ice fishing conditions listed for each lake or reservoir. There is a humorous story about prehistoric ice fishing in my novel, Legends of Spirit Cave. Several ancient stone ice fishing picks were found at and near Lovelock Cave by the Humboldt sink, so we know that prehistoric people enjoyed the sport and the fish they caught.

An up-close sighting of pronghorn antelope 

Antelope

Above Photo Courtesy: Rvannatta at English Wikipedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Subject to disclaimers.

On a recent hunting/camping trip to Humboldt and Elko counties, my son, John, and I had a remarkable closeup experience with a group of the elusive pronghorn antelope abundant in the area. It is rare to approach very close to these beautiful animals, so this was a special treat to see them and their activities up close.

After camping for two days on the shore of Willow Creek reservoir in Elko County, we decided to return home, since the deer habitat in the area was in such poor condition due to recent fires which had devastated the area. We were traveling south between Midas and Golconda through a portion of the range that had been turned to scorched earth along the east side of the highway. On the west side there was the yellow grass from BLM revegetation operations.

During our trip through the mountains and desert country, we had seen many groups of from one to thirty or more pronghorn antelope running in the distance. It seems they always see us long before we see them, since their eyesight is so remarkable.

Suddenly, a small group of three antelope does dashed across the highway directly in front of us. They immediately stopped and looked back across the road where they had left two fawns behind. We stopped the truck with the camper to get a look at the animals. We noticed that the two fawns were still behind the barbed wire fence alongside the highway. Pronghorn antelope do not jump over fences like deer do, but rather, they prefer to crawl under the bottom wire of the fence.

Crawling under the wire of a fence was obviously not a skill the fawns had yet learned, since they just paced nervously back and forth waiting for the does to come back to rescue them. Amazingly, the does ignored us, parked just a few feet away and dashed back across the highway to rescue the fawns. After a few minutes of encouragement from the mature does, the fawns figured out they had to crawl under the wire and join the does.

The tiny heard then galloped back across the highway and took off through the tall grass.

The need to rescue the fawns overpowered any fear the does may have had of us parked in the highway just a few feet away. Their maternal instinct saved the tiny baby antelope from abandonment. We can be sure the fawns will know what to do the next time they need to cross a fence. The BLM requires that all fences in antelope habitat have a bottom wire high enough for the antelope to scurry under.