She Will Take It All With Her

Winifred Mershon Mathis McAfee – the best storyteller I know


When an old person dies, a library burns.     African proverb

Mom is turning 94 in a few days. She is still kind and funny and self-aware. Her memory, though, is developing gaps. As I watch her struggling for names and words, I am so grateful that she told me so much about her long and interesting life. I have been blessed to be raised by a fine storyteller.

My own memory is rich with many stories about her childhood in Depression-era Des Moines, Iowa:

The sound the ice wagon made coming up the street – horse hooves on cobblestones.

The way her father sat down at the piano to sing and play immediately after returning from work in his family real estate office.

How her elegant, brilliant mother worked outside the home – a highly unusual thing for a mother in the 1930’s.

The tender ministrations she received from Mrs. Morning, the Irish housekeeper and cook who helped raise her.

Long ice skating afternoons with friends and siblings.

Collecting nuts with her father at the local park.

She lived through amazing times. She was just five years old when the Depression hit and just graduating high school when Pearl Harbor happened. She and Dad got engaged quickly and then he went off to work in an Army hospital in India for four long years. Her college years were his war years.

Back when Mom was still in her 80’s, I wanted to catch as many of her vivid stories as I could. When I arrived with my laptop and a list of questions, she nervously wondered if she would have anything to say.


My rapid typing skills were put to a serious test. She was a fountain of stories full of rich detail and subtle nuance. Twenty-five pages later, I teased her about her earlier doubts.

Lately I have been recording her stories on my phone. I have hours of her voice recounting tales of her long life. She has gotten more honest about some of the hard times than she used to be. I’m honored when she trusts me with her “dark nights of the soul” stories. It helps me understand the roots of some of my own struggles.

These days Mom talks easily and often about dying. She frequently repeats this little riff. “When you go to sleep at night at my age, you never know whether you’re going to wake up in the morning. So, every night I say the little prayer I used to say as a girl: ‘Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.’” And then she smiles.

I know she is at peace with dying. I am preparing for her departure every day. One of the most difficult parts of letting her go is this: when she dies, that rich treasure trove of story will go with her. No matter how many of her stories I catch, her unique experience of being alive during her lifetime will be lost forever.

About Barbara McAfee

Barbara is a voice coach, singer/songwriter, keynote speaker, and author who merges lessons from 12 years in organization development with the transformational power of sound. Her book, Full Voice: The Art & Practice of Vocal Presence (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) was a #1 Amazon bestseller in Business Communication. The book is based on her 25 years as a voice coach, supporting people from many professions in learning how to access the full power and expression of the voice in service to their work and relationships. Barbara’s musical keynotes blend practical content, sophisticated humor, and thought-provoking questions on topics including voice, leadership, and engagement. She was “the band” for Margaret Wheatley’s Women’s Leadership Revival Tour, which visited 15 North American cities. She also appears with authors Parker Palmer and Peter Block. Barbara has produced seven CD's of mostly original music and is founder of the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer hospice choir in the Twin Cities. She lives across the street from the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
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10 Responses to She Will Take It All With Her

  1. Kerstin Ljungström says:

    Thank you! So beautiful!

  2. Oh, I love this, Barbara. Inspiring me to get my mom to tell more (or the same) stories.

  3. Anne Butler says:

    Dear Barbara, What a poignant and tender tribute celebrating the power of enduring love and the gift of stories…tucked down deep into the pocket of your heart and the pillow of your memory. Yes, your dear mother “will take it all with her” and I deeply believe much of this narrative treasure will continue to live on in you – in loving and courageous and beautiful ways!

  4. Sending love, Barbara…Your words touch the familiar…May the time left be rich…and the moment of transition, peaceful…<3

  5. Julie Davis Carran says:

    Hi Barbara, What a beautifully moving tribute — and photo. Of COURSE that strong, gentle woman is your mother! You can see that I’ve fallen way behind on my emails (and of course everything else too). I haven’t figured out when I can seriously go back to working (and playing) with you, but I will. May 10 is the date that Ron and I are being honored by the MLK Institute. I have to give a speech and it might be very good for me to have a session with you before then. I’ll make suggestions soon. I hope you are doing well, and your mom is hanging in. With love, Julie

    Julie Davis Carran cell: 914-522-3793


  6. Ingrid Mattsson says:

    Thank you Barbara for this touching and beautiful story about your sweet mother and her rich memories. How smart you are to try and capture as many as you can, but as the Africa proverb says, … a library burns. I completely relate to your comment about preparing for her departure. It’s not imminent or anything, but there are days I try to imagine what life will be like without my own Mom and before the thought is finished in my mind, my tears are overflowing. So beautiful and so painful to be mothers and daughters, isn’t it? Love you…

  7. Roxanne Schaaf says:

    you are lucky that you and Rolfe has spent so much time with her and asking questions and letting her tell the stories, I love all the videos of her talking to Rolfe, just like I liked the ones he made with your dad. You both have a treasure trove of memories. She is loved and so lucky to have her children and grands and great grands and the many friends that love her so much. Hugs Barb

    • Yes, Roxy! I do feel so grateful to have so many of her stories to carry on. I just learned a new one last week which is rare these days. She’s repeating things more and more often as her memory gets fuzzy. Big hugs!

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