Elizabeth Lenherr

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My lifelong search is about discovering my truest identity. My twenties was spent exploring life to its fullest, traveling and celebrating what I felt I had been denied growing up in a small, conservative Kansas town. The majority of my travels then focused on the States and Mexico. What I learned about myself was that I have a burning desire to explore, to learn, and form intimate relationships with new cultures. Unfortunately, I had always been under the impression that traveling was something only wealthy people could do, not people like me.

When I took a position at the age of twenty-seven as an Accent Reductionist in the Republic of Mauritius, I had never flown over the ocean before. Feeling as though I had beaten the odds of my humble beginnings, I conjured all my courage to leave home and family. I had no idea of the self-discovery and voyages on the horizon for me. Once I proved to myself that I could move and live abroad with total happiness and adaptability, there was no stopping me. From Mauritius I traveled to Dubai, Egypt, Australia, Zambia, South Africa, The Philippines, China and beyond, finally proving to myself that I was capable of so much more than just the “Kansas farm girl” label I had assumed so many years before.

The rest of my family, however, were not so free-spirited, which in the midst of these adventures, also gave me the sense I did not fit in with them. They all had long-term plans, and mortgages, things that in my twenties I had no interest in. Which is why, when my contract ended, and my heart was overflowing with rich cultural experiences, I was not prepared to return to middle America. During travels in the Caribbean I learned of a Masters program in English Education with a focus on ESL and Linguistics at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez. It seemed like the logical next step. I was about to turn thirty. I had loved my work in Accent Neutralization in Mauritius, and along with a Bachelor’s degree in English, a Master’s in English Education would certainly be my “golden ticket” to more career stability and satisfaction in this next phase of my life.

            My research interests while at UPRM reflected the lived experience I had just gained working as an expatriate in Mauritius and during my travels beyond. As I conducted autoethnographic research analyzing the blog I kept throughout those years, and my position in the global outsourcing phenomenon, as well as the cultures I had acculturated myself into, I had many life-altering revelations. The student conducting this self-research, was much evolved from the Self reflected throughout the blog narratives which by then were over three years old. I spent countless hours reading and researching texts about otherness, identity, culture, tradition, life narrative-autoethnography and autotopography. My professors and mentors helped me conceptualize what I was reading and its relevance and positioning in my own life and story. In order to research my Self and my lived experiences, I had to begin by attempting to define my Self. Discussions about family history and reading and sharing ancestral stories influenced the following piece. The continued desire to discover how I fit in as a U.S. American, and temporary resident in Puerto Rico and how I fit in within my own family unit, sparked a particular interest in my family history which inspired me to write this short autotopography. 


Lee Lenherr



If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people. – Thich Nhat Hanh


It wasn’t until my maternal grandmother’s death in 1995 that I first started to think about where I came from and my place in our family history. I learned more about her when my mom and auntie found a diary Grandma had kept during her early 20s, in 1940. The cherry oak chest where they found the diary was in the basement of Grandma’s house as they were cleaning and sorting her things only weeks after her death. Buried under countless loose papers, browned with age, was the chronicle which would unlock many secrets about Grandma’s past.

“Your grandma loved you a lot you know!” Mom never raised her voice, so I knew I had offended her by saying I was not sad when my grandma, her mother, died. My paternal grandpa had just died and I was having a rough time moving past the mourning phase. These two deaths of grandparents affected me in very different ways.

“Mom, I know Grandma loved me, I am just saying that I don’t feel like I know anything about her. We didn’t really have a relationship, and when she died, I just felt sad for you, that’s all.”

“Well, of course you felt sad about Grandpa Lenherr, you grew up so close to him. But my mom loved you kids and she would have loved being closer to you and being a regular part of your lives.”

I could tell my mom was sad to hear me admit that I felt much closer to Grandpa Lenherr, my dad’s dad, who had just passed away, than I had felt to her mother, Grandma Marge, who died a few years before. The truth is, I had a special bond with Grandpa Lenherr. I grew up half a mile from Grandpa’s farm, the same farm where my dad grew up. My best childhood memories are set there – long Saturday wild mushroom hunts, Fourth of July hotdog roasts and firework shows down by the Kaw River, tire swinging and soaring via cannon ball air launch into the murky pond – the same murky pond where I baited my first hook and caught my first fish. Those memories are all laced with echoes of Grandpa’s laugh. He had a great sense of humor, and gigantic hands. I used to love holding his hand because I always felt so small, but so safe, with my grandpa. And his big strong hands represented years of hard labor on the farm to support his family.

My mom’s mom, Margaret or as we called her, Grandma Marge, lived three hours away. Our relationship consisted of about one or two visits a year, where she would walk around the house pulling our shoulders back, telling us to stand with proper posture and quizzing us on facts from Bible Trivial Pursuit. She seemed strict, cranky, and never overly personable, especially compared to Grandpa Lenherr who was always very friendly, funny, and affectionate with us. But having this conversation with my mom that day triggered something in her which prompted her to give me Grandma’s diary she had found four years earlier.


“I want you to read this,” she said setting it down in front of me.
“Grandma’s diary? Why?” I was surprised. My mom has always been pretty private.
“I think you’ll see another side of your grandma by reading this. I want you to know her and maybe you can understand her better.”


At that moment, I was a self-absorbed nineteen-year-old, thinking there’s no point in learning more about Grandma now, she’s already dead. I wasn’t sure what it was exactly Mom wanted me to read in the diary – whether it was something specific, or if she just wanted me to read the entire thing to see if I could feel a connection with her life at my age. Whatever it was, I could tell it was important to her so I took Grandma’s diary and sat down unsure of what to expect.

Day by day notations of the twenty-three-year-old woman, living the life in the Forties, revealed a fun-loving, social, independent woman, Marg. Through her words, I could see her, powdered face, red lips, long curls peeking out from under a glamorous hat complimenting a perfectly matched high collared dress. Even more, I could hear her speaking to me and as I read those lines.  My grandma told me stories of dinner dates almost always followed by dances, visits to the movies and drinks with girlfriends, and midnight steamroller trips between Kansas and Missouri. Marg was a be-boppin’ dame with a full social agenda, and an active love life.

I flipped through the pages slowly at first learning a little bit more each day about the girl my grandma used to be. It was interesting to read about and imagine her dates with men- sometimes a different one each night of the week – at the same time writing frequently of Vincent, her future husband, a Spaniard studying to be a doctor, whom she had met and left back in St. Louis.

Meanwhile, there was one other man who was in really hot pursuit, “Lee.” Grandma mentioned him often in her diary including references to the many letters they exchanged. One more flip of the page, and the letters came pouring out. There were fifteen in total – all hand written – some from Marg to Lee, but many more from Lee to Marg. He was desperately in love with her. In fact, I was beginning to pity him. While he was hopelessly smitten, Grandma wrote that her heart was torn. She was still in love with Vincent.

Be-boppin' Marg

It was exhilarating to experience this romance drama through Grandma’s words. It was a love triangle spread across Kansas and Missouri, Marg in Southeast Kansas, Lee in Northeast Kansas and Vincent in St. Louis. It held me in suspense even though every mention of Vincent came without surprise. I knew he would later become her husband, my mom’s father and my grandfather.

The letters Lee wrote to Marg continued to ask for her photograph. Finally, in August, 1940, Lee received his much desired picture. He wrote; I don’t know what I would do without your picture now because I get so much consolation by looking at it. You certainly did take a good picture, but a photographer can do good work when they have good material to work with.

At that moment, I was dying to see that picture! My heart was pounding as I frantically flipped through the loose papers and playbills falling out of the back of the diary and there it was – the 8×10 photograph my grandma had taken for her gentleman caller, Lee, in 1940. It was beautiful. She was breathtaking. I couldn’t stop staring at her sweet

"Lee" Lenherr - Marg's suitor

young face. She was exactly the woman I had pictured who writing these letters in the form of diary entries, just for me, telling me about her young life, trying desperately to form a relationship with me before she even knew me. Her smile was sweet and bright and her eyes shone above. Not so much as a wrinkle or a freckle aged her face, nor a single grey strand of hair. This is Marg. Wow, I resemble her! I had never noticed that before.

I was transfixed by the lock of Marg’s eyes with my own, so similar in color and shape, Marg’s eyes revealed a spirited young woman I was meeting for the first time, and held the in them my ancestral past. Then, another picture, stuck to the back of hers, peeled off. It was Lee. My mind became a blank slate. Speechless, I could not blink. His lips, his ears, those small deep set eye I knew so well. He was so handsome! He was so young. He was so in love with Marg. Impossibly, “Lee” and “Grandpa Lenherr” were one and the same.

It took me a few minutes to process it all. How did it come to be that my dad’s dad, Grandpa Lenherr, was once in love with my mom’s mom, Grandma Marg, long before my dad and my mom were even glistens in their parents’ eyes? Tears blurred my view of my young, handsome grandpa and without warning my body began a soft sob. I felt a strange guilt for having never really known Grandma. That day, as I sat and bonded with her through her most intimate thoughts, which she jotted down as a young woman, I connected with Marg – the hot dish from the 1940s. She was no longer my grandma, Margaret, who used to holler at us to stop running and making so much noise in the yard.

Vincent - Marg's future husband

My heart ached too because I had always loved Grandpa Lenherr so much more than her. He was the fun, sweet, good humored grandparent, and Grandma Margaret was grouchy and kept a wall between her and her grandkids. But at that moment, I felt connected with the Marg who Grandpa Lenherr once loved– the same Marg who broke Lee the farmer’s heart to marry Vincent, the doctor. After Marg married Vincent, they had a family of seven children, my mother being the second born. They raised their family in Omaha, Nebraska. Lee married a local woman and my father was the oldest of ironically also seven children. Lee raised his family on the same farm he worked his entire life.

I grew up in the same hometown as Grandpa Lee and Grandma Marg, St. Mary’s, Kansas. It’s a small farm town in the flint hills in the Northeast corner of the state. All 1,800 people living in the community know one another and their family histories, as well as family secrets too well. Yet, no one ever seemed to know this particular family “secret.” It is a safe, friendly, dependable community, and still, I couldn’t wait to leave.

“Is this why Grandma didn’t approve of you marrying dad?” I prodded my mother for more information.

“You read it?” My mom asked with a proud smile.

“Mom, of course I read it. I was shocked. And I am so happy you asked me to read it. She never told you about this?”

My mom shook her head with a sad no and smiled away the tears.

“You know, honey, she just wanted what was best for me. In her eyes, being a farmer’s wife in Kansas wasn’t enough for her, but for me it was.  She loved your dad. And she loved you kids. You kids are the truest reflection of my mother’s heart. Because of you, she got to have grandchildren from both loves of her life, Vincent and Lee.”

The conversation reminded me of another reason for feeling distance from Grandma. My dad sometimes sarcastically mentioned that Grandma didn’t think he could provide enough for my mom and us. But now I understood. Once I met Marg through her diaries, I felt differently. She just wanted something more for her life, just like I did when I left St. Mary’s sixty years later to explore and discover. I wanted what Marg wanted, to be adventurous, independent, and worldly. She married the doctor from Spain rather than the farmer from Kansas and for her that was the best choice.

Grandpa Lenherr "Lee" at my parent's wedding - 1968


Grandpa Vincent & Grandma Marge at my parent's wedding

As my mother grew older, she had a bit of Marg’s adventurous spirit. In the last year of her undergraduate studies, she moved to Spain to live with her father’s family in Mallorca and study in Madrid. She, also in her early twenties, dated doctors and matadors, yet, she could never forget the young handsome farmer she met in Kansas while visiting her grandfather. That was my father. Unlike Marg, my mother fell in love with the Kansas boy and left Spain behind, following her heart back to Kanas to pursue a relationship with my father. A few years later, they married, Marg’s daughter, my mom, and Lee’s son, my father. Lee was a widower by that time. I can only imagine the pull he felt in his heart when he saw his first love once again, but this time she was with the man he lost her to. And no one even knew, until now.

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