Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your parents went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? How well do you know your family history?
Listening to – and telling – the stories that shape our past is an important part of understanding our family histories, and gives us strength and guidance about who we are and how to behave into the future.
The other day, we had a leisurely breakfast with my mother-in-law Woodsie. She’s ninety years old and her short term memory isn’t so great these days. She will quickly forget recent interactions and details, but if you take a little time, and ask the right questions, I learned her long term memory is detailed and rich.
I started asking her about her childhood, but she took me back even further. I learned her grandparents on her mother’s side lived on a farm outside of Boston in the late 19th century. She described how they raised livestock, trained horses, and grew vegetables they would bring to market in a horse-drawn wagon. One fateful day a horse kicked her grandfather in the head killing him instantly. His wife was overcome with grief and died that very same day from a broken heart.
Her mother and two siblings, suddenly orphaned and withdrawn from school, moved to Boston to live with family. Her mother and aunt luckily landed jobs in Boston working in the trendy department store of Jordan Marsh. At the turn of the 19th century department stores held the wonders of fashionable clothing, and perfumes to delight. Her mother stocked and folded clothes, but her sister had the glamorous job of modeling clothing for customers. Live models were the thing before mannequins.
Woodsie told me how her aunt, while modeling at the department store, was lucky to be courted by a rich businessman, yet unlucky that he turned out to be an oafish ass, who expected to be waited upon, and praised endlessly. Woodsie couldn’t stand him.
I learned her father was raised in the Territory of Arizona before it became the 48th state in 1912. Her grandfather had tuberculosis as a child and the family moved to Arizona in the 19th century seeking warmer, drier air that would be easier to breathe. When Woodsie’s father left home in Arizona he moved to Hollywood and briefly became a typist in the movie industry.
And so our conversation went on, me asking questions and Woodsie clarifying who’s who in her family tree, adding details and revisiting story elements to embellish. And I kept thinking to myself how remarkable to be hearing first hand accounts of narratives personally passed down to her through family stories. I was listening to family stories reaching deep into the 19th century. Stories otherwise lost if not told.
“Stories are a way of preserving family history, but more importantly, they create a sense of continuity and resilience, and — this is the thing we often forget — they build a framework to understand painful experiences and celebrate joyful ones.”
When we tell our family stories we are sharing our values. We are letting others know what brings us joy or sorrow, and what experiences shape us. When we accent amusing or tragic, or even sordid and mysterious, details of our family stories, we are also letting future generations know how to behave and what defines our family identity.
Family stories are a way of giving depth of time to children and helping them understand they are part of something bigger. Rich family stories can give guidance and direction when life confronts us with unexpected obstacles or choices. It’s important to not only share joyful memories, but also the painful and difficult memories that define us. Telling hard family stories is not a burden, but a gift.
Think of someone in your family, perhaps older than you, and ask them to share something from their childhood. It will likely open a universe of cherished stories you didn’t expect.
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