When my husband was in his early 20’s, he was at his parents home with his brother who was in his late teens. The two of them were hungry and made a deal to share lunch preparation duties. My brother-in-law agreed to make macaroni and cheese and my husband agreed to make sandwiches.
When the mac and cheese was done, my husband slapped a spoonful between two pieces of bread and said, “Ta da! Sandwiches!”
His brother was not amused. In fact, it was a good twenty years before he could even smile at that story. Meanwhile, our family thinks it’s hilarious.
All families have stories — sometimes embellished, sometimes stripped down, sometimes funny, sometimes anything but funny — that are passed from generation to generation. Oral storytelling has been part of human existence since the dawn of time. They are the ties that bind us to each other.
Bruce Feiler, author of “The Secrets of Happy Families: How to Improve Your Morning, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smart, Go Out and Play, and Much More,” wrote about family stories in The New York Times. “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all,” he said. “Develop a strong family narrative.”
Dr. Marshall Duke and Dr. Robyn Fivush started studying this in the summer of 2001. They created a series of 20 questions designed to tease out what family stories the children knew. They included questions like: Do you know some of the illnesses and injuries that your parents experienced when they were younger? Do you know some of the lessons that your parents learned from good or bad experiences? Do you know how your parents met? Do you know where some of your grandparents grew up?
The results were overwhelming. According to Feiler,
“The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”Bruce Feiler
Duke and Fivush had an opportunity just a couple of months later to re-interview those same children after the attacks of 9/11 and found once again that, “The ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.”
Feeling a part of something bigger than themselves, having a sense of belonging and a connection with a larger whole resulted in higher self confidence and more resilience. Knowing that Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa had good times and hard times and got through both helps children (and adults) get through the next hard thing. Interestingly, their research also showed that kids who only heard “positive” stories had less resilience. There’s something powerful about knowing that people in your family tree had hard times and were able to get through it – and you can too.
There’s an old African saying that goes: “Every time an elder dies, a library burns to the ground.” What a treasure we have in the stories of those who have decades of lived experiences on this earth. What a shame if we lose those libraries of stories because we don’t ask to hear them.
A few years back, I took a trip to visit my grandmother. She was 96 years old at the time (she’s now 100!) and much to her annoyance, she was slowing down. I wanted to ask her about her stories and her first response was to say, “No one cares about me or my life.” Of course that’s not true – and now we have some of those stories recorded on audio and video.
Not only did I learn stories I had never heard before, but some of the stories were ones that her own children had not heard before. Here’s one that was new to my mom: It was during the Great Depression and things were rough. Jobs evaporated and many families faced desperate circumstances. Some families, though, found themselves with enough and to spare. My great-grandmother Freda was one of those. Her husband had the first car dealership in the area and they did fairly well for themselves.
She always fed the men who knocked on her door – after they did the odd jobs around her home that she held in reserve, just for them. She did not start a food pantry or nonprofit organization, she didn’t campaign for changes in public policy and most of the men she fed probably didn’t even know her name. She just did what needed to be done.
Another story had to do with the night my grandmother was born. It was January, 1922. The weather was cold and her father had covered the front of his car with an old horse blanket to keep the engine “warm” and make it easier to start. When my great-grandmother went into labor, it must have started quickly, because her husband left in such a hurry to fetch the midwife that he forgot to take the horse blanket off and it went flying. They never found it and my great-grandfather teased my grandmother for years that she cost him a good horse blanket. My aunt had heard the story of the horse blanket but did not realize that her mom had been born at home with a midwife.
I loved hearing about my grandmother’s stories about being a young bride, then a young mother without running water. One summer, she and her little kids picked and sold buckets and buckets of blackberries and made enough money that they could finally get an indoor toilet. That’s an accomplishment worth celebrating – at least in my world!
That story ties in with stories from my husband’s grandparents, who did not get an indoor toilet until my husband was in his teens. When they finally took the big step of getting a flushing toilet, they put it in the barn because “who would want to do their business in the House?!” Both of his grandparents passed away years ago and I know very few of their stories. His father has also passed away and his mother has dementia and just like that, the stories are gone.
To be honest, I haven’t been very good at capturing my own family stories. I haven’t scrapbooked since 2000 and, even though I’ve been a writer for some time, I really haven’t written down our family stories. I’ve taken gobs of digital pictures, but I don’t have them sorted or saved anywhere besides my phone, my desktop and some randomly stored hard drives. If this computer crashed, I’d be in a world of hurt. I am reminding myself that the format doesn’t matter nearly as much as actually capturing the stories. Video, audio, pics with descriptive captions, writing long-hand or on the computer – they all work. Just make sure you have a way to back them up safely. I’ve been busy making memories but “too busy” to preserve them. If I were hit by a bus tomorrow, all those stories would be gone – or at least incomplete. It’s on my to-do list…….