Family History

An excerpt from my Great-grandmother's memoir.

An excerpt from my Great-grandmother's memoir.

Growing up, one of the few things we were able to bond over and laugh about together was my grandmother's awkward insistence, at every family gathering (no matter how small), that everybody sit around at some point and listen to her talk about something she thought would be a benefit for us to know.

Sometimes it was a personal revelation or journey, sometimes a story about family history, and sometimes it was to share somebody else's story, which often ended up being a recording of a motivational speaker delivered to us via her tape deck.

Every time we'd hear, "Ok, everybody, if we could just gather in the living room," my mother looked at me, roller her eyes, and then, as soon as it was over, we'd go for a private walk to chuckle over how annoying it was to be managed by her. Like, why couldn't everyone just 'do their own thing'?

This tradition of storytelling that she 'forced' on us was carried down from her mother, Hedwig Becker, whose whole life was spent retracing her steps. For her, storytelling was a way of remembering, of making real, of making the struggles worth it. If nobody knew about her father's photographic emulsion factory, then, eventually, once she was gone, it would be as if it never happened.

If she didn't tell us about the struggle of emigration in a time of war, what it meant to have your lives literally (and figuratively) bombed, and what it meant to build anew over and over and over again (all while trying to disguise her shameful German accent), then that struggle would have been for naught. For what is family struggle for if not to warn and prepare future generations?

My grandmother, Arlene, loved to hear her mother tell stories, but my mother is the opposite. There are no stories. Only questions. And as a child, desperate for her approval, I would have ganged up with her over pretty much anything if it meant getting a few precious laughs.

Hedwig, in one of her clothing designs.

Hedwig, in one of her clothing designs.

The result is that, for a long time, I had no sense of history or legacy and, if you don't know where you have been, it's hard to imagine where you might go. I spent most of my childhood feeling lost, looking for purpose and connection, and always wondering about myself. Context is an important part of identity development and cultivating a deep sense of self, but I had very little of that context. 

My father, who was a shadow in my life, made rare, uncomfortable appearances and, since his parents had died when he and his siblings were very young, I had no sense of what my paternal history was. Even now, when I have to fill out family history forms at doctor's offices, I'm at a total loss. I think his family was Irish but even that fact could have just been something out of a dream.

On my mother's side, all I could really discern from the combination of somber storytelling and uncomfortable laughter with my mom and her silent past, was shame. 

All I knew about my mother's family was that my great grandparents were German mormons who left early 1920's Germany for America; my grandparents met at Brigham Young University; my grandfather left the family and the country (pretty much never to return) when my mother was in high school (He even published a book about it -- Snow Papers); my family has a history of  unmarried 'aunts;' my great-grandfather Henry was a photographer and furniture maker; Hedwig was a seamstress and world-class knitter; and then there was my mother, who eventually became a therapist.

She briefly went to photography school, but then there I was, and carrying me to the dark room everyday in a laundry basked was just too much. 

But she didn't really want to talk about things. So I was left with a lot of questions.

I learned to fear the past and fear the future and feel totally ill at-ease in the present. Because who knew what was coming next? Why start when you'll probably never be able to finish? Almost as soon as my mother, her new husband, and I moved into our first home together in Youngsville, NC when I was 6, she began going to open houses. It's like imagining working toward some other life outside of the one she had, was the only thing keeping her in this one with us.

Both literally and figuratively, I learned to feel bad about where I was, whatever the place. For a long time, I was most comfortable in discomfort and afraid to even want something better because better was so elusive, and, ultimately, seemed unattainable.

"Henry a little peeved?" See, even Germans can have a sense of humor.

"Henry a little peeved?" See, even Germans can have a sense of humor.

It's only been in the past few years that I've begun to mourn all those stories told in the living room of my grandmother's house. I missed out on so much and the need to know is a craving that won't go away. 

So I began talking to my grandmother Arlene more and more about the past and so many things about my life that never made sense before, have begun to take shape.

For example, mine, my mother's, and my great-grandfather's interest in photography was in our blood. My great-great-grandfather, Karl Becker, invented a dry plate film processing formula and eventually opened a factory to produce it. He was at the heigh of success, exporting to Spain and England, when he agreed to the partnership that eventually undid him and left him hungry starving, forcing the family to move across Germany and start again during a time when moving a family was a huge ordeal. Picture moving cross-country without a car. I mean, seriously.

A piece of my camera collection.

A piece of my camera collection.

Photography is a necessity in my life anymore, but a welcome necessity. My business, Smart & Becker, wouldn't exist without photography, and I've discovered a lot of joy in styling and shooting products.

Another piece of the story is when my Hedwig and her sister came to America to work as tailors to build a new life here from scratch. They were badass, entrepreneurial working women in the MOTHERF'N 1920's!! In a country where they barely spoke the language!

And I thought being an entrepreneur was hard.

Without struggle, there's no reason to grow. Whether it's a disagreement between friends, a failed business, a family loss, or devastating heartbreak, for me, it's always been on the heels of absolute hopelessness that the motivation to survive has led to some of the greatest discoveries about myself and some of the most meaningful revelations about what I want to accomplish and experience while in this world.

People ask me all the time, "Where does the name Smart & Becker come from?"

It comes from survival and it comes from faith. Becker, the maiden name of my great-grandmother who set the state for creative entrepreneurship in my family; and Smart, the last name of my grandmother, who will spend hours on the phone with me any time I want, telling me more and more about who I am and where I came from. 

I wouldn't be who I am without them. I was mesmerized by my Hedwig's knitting projects, and motivated by Arlene's ever-present insistence that I was going to be a creative person and this combination created a creative thirst that I don't think I'll ever fully quench.

Hedwig's creative actions planted the seed, but it was Arlene who actually taught me to knit and sew, took me to the bead store at every birthday, and encouraged me to write as if my life depended on it... even when I thought I had nothing to say. 

And now, I'm going through the process of sifting through xeroxed pages of family history that my grandmother is sending me a little at a time, and, learning about my family's struggle is helping me through this time of complete uncertainty. For the first time since I was 15, I have no job, I don't know where the next check is coming from, and I'm about to travel the country for a month on a Handmade Holiday Tour with Jewel -- yet another woman whose strength and persistence has encouraged me over the years.

I'm scared as hell, but also, I really believe it will all be ok. Because I have support. it's not just me anymore. It's a community and more people than just me are fighting for my happiness (thanks, friends!).

I share all this to say that recovering from loss and struggle and learning to overcome the ill-begotten belief that independence should be valued over community, has been the story of Smart & Becker, this thing I've had to re-make over and over again, and it's about so much more than just me.

I make the jewelry, but I want it to become a community that benefits other makers, artists, storytellers, and creatively curious people who want to be a part of a creative community that helps each other solve problems, overcome tribulation, and imagine a bigger future than what seems possible right. now. 

So that's what I'm working on figuring out how to create now. More thoughts and plans to come soon on that!

Have an idea or just want to share a thought? Email me at!