Tag Archives: Family Stories

Why Worry About Family Stories?

Why Family Stories?

Unless we pause to ask, “Why that story,” or “Why that story told that way,” we may find ourselves trying to live the story we’ve always heard. In my family we tell great love stories. Listen long enough and you might spend your whole life waiting to be swept off your feet.

Stories get better with time. Families exaggerate because they want the stories to be remembered. Pay attention. The whoppers contain clues as to what the family thinks is important. George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree; never said “I cannot tell a lie.” So why, as an American family, do we keep telling that story? When we stop telling it, what has changed?

Stories have voices. If all our stories are about hardship, we may not be able to hear good news. If our stories are about old hurts, we feel a duty to right old wrongs. Old hatreds are passed along the same way.

Stories are slogans. “In our family we ___________” is a sentence most of us can complete. Question is, who decides how to fill in that blank?

If you come from a family of war heroes, does it become unthinkable to not put on a uniform? If you come from a family that goes to college, is becoming a plumber an option or a failure?

Giving a new twist to an old story can make a huge difference. Have you examined your family stories lately?


Filed under Family history, Family Stories, History, stories, Why Stories?

Christmas Letter Time–Yeah Family, Yeah Bloggers

letter writing quillYes, I know people who bemoan the fact that no one writes letters any more. Those same people aren’t blog savvy. If they were, they’d know that bloggers are the letter writers of the 21st Century. I read blogs on everything from a-poem-day to the history of Yellowstone Park. I see photos of food in restaurants and police brutality in Oakland. I am informed about everyday things and history-in-the-making.

Christmas letters are something else. So far this season, I’ve gotten the good, the bad, and the ugly. Since I love family stories, why can’t I get excited about family letters? I’m thinking it’s because they lack the spontaneity and freshness of blogs.

letter writing quillChristmas comes once a year, and we try to roll everything into a summary. The result is often a catalog of  what Tim, Tammy and George did. They competed, they won, they advanced a grade or got a scholarship. Yeah! However, as a lover of stories, I would rather know the ups and downs that went with that achievement and how they handled defeat–assuming they didn’t win everything. Defeat reveals more about character than success.

Our dogsitter just arrived to pick up the keys. She’ll be in charge while we visit the granddaughters. “Just wanted you to know, my father died two days ago. We’re doing the memorial in a couple of weeks, so I’m still good for taking care of things, but I thought you should know.”

letter writing quillYes, I should know. She didn’t have to tell me but telling created a bond.

Yes, I should know, so keep sending those Christmas letters. I need to know what everyone did last year. Otherwise we will drift too far apart. At the same time, raise a glass to blogs and bloggers everywhere. Bloggers keep us informed, entertained and aware of our shared humanity all year long. How good is that?

To borrow a phrase, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night” Or Solstice, Kwanza, Hanukkah and/or any other celebration that marks the season. The “merry” is the part we need to know!


Filed under Christmas, Family history, Family Stories, Storytelling

The Ancestor Effect!

family tree graphicThinking about your ancestors makes you smarter!
Recent research at the University of Graz has identified an “ancestor effect.” Individuals who think about their ancestors just prior to a job interview or college exam boost their chances of success. Dr. Peter Fischer hypothesizes that “thinking about one’s origins . . . provides people with a positive psychological resource.” In other words, reminding the brain of the difficulties your ancestors overcame, you are able to approach a task with a stronger sense of identity and self-esteem—an edge that can make a measurable difference, which is probably why families continue to tell stories that emphasize how hard it used to be, how lucky we are now, blah, blah, blah, etc, etc, etc.
Is there a family that doesn’t tell their stories that way?


Filed under Definition, Family history, Family Stories, Old Storytelling Traditions, Why Stories?

Family History: What’s Your First Memory?

cats in boxMost people remember events tied to a strong emotion, smell, or some other sensual detail. That’s especially true of first memories. Mine is a box of kittens my father brought home. I was two and a half, maybe three-years-old. I don’t remember why he had a box of kittens, where they came from, or whether we kept them. What I remember are the sensations–the fur, the claws, the smells, the sounds, and how they squirmed when I reached in to touch them. I remember laughing.

My whole life I thought I was a cat person. Dogs annoyed me. A cat purred and snuggled. Dogs jumped up on you with dirty paws and needed to be taken outside regularly. Unfortunately, I married a dog person. He grew up with dogs, loved dogs, always wanted one. I delayed and delayed, but that only works so long. Eventually he got his dog, which quickly turned into two dogs, both Great Danes. When people ask how that happened, I tell them I made him wait too long–the dogs grew larger and multiplied. You know, like unattended problems.

Turns out I’m a dog person. The bed is never empty. The house is never lonely. Bring on the slobber and the face-licks.

Question is: Would I have been a dog person earlier if my first memory was a puppy? That’s not an idle thought. We shape our sense of self from the stories we tell about the things we remember.

great dane dogs

Want more examples of first memories. Check out www.yourfirstmemory.com, a blog featuring videos of people telling their first memories. Interesting project.


Filed under children's stories, Family history, Family Stories, Memories, Why Stories?

When the Stories are Complete . . .

Verna Wilder writes an insightful blog called OUT OF THE CUBE. As part of her entry entitled Turn the Page she reminds us exactly why we need to pay attention to family stories:

Waving Good-byeAt the end of the day (so to speak), all we have are stories. And I don’t mean to diminish their value by saying “all we have,” as if this is nothing. In fact, isn’t it everything? Don’t the minutes and moments and remember-the-time-whens accumulate and dissipate like fog in low-lying land? It’s like this: for more than 10 years, I’ve been meeting up with my siblings annually at Dad’s house, where we sit in the garage with the big bay doors open where we can stay dry while thunderstorms pass through, where we tell stories and create new stories, and just as the storm passes and leaves everything fresh and new, so this visit passes into memory – and into story. Thank god for story.

At the end of the visit four years ago, as I was putting my car in gear to pull out of Dad’s driveway, I looked in the side-view mirror to see Dad and my sister Carolyn waving at me, Carolyn doing that imitation of our grandmother who used to wave a hankie at our retreating station wagon on those childhood visits, and I thought, as I often do, that this could be the last time I’d see my father.

Carolyn died three weeks later. Just like that, the Carolyn stories were a complete set. There would be no more.

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Filed under Family Stories, Life Story, Memoir, stories, Why Stories?

Who Decides Your Family Story?

I was teaching a class on novel-writing. One student was writing about three generations of women who all married men they didn’t love. The book was largely autobiographical. For that reason she was unwilling to make many changes. As I continued to listen to her, I realized that her family seemingly encouraged stories of my-misery-is-worse-than-your-misery. That meant marrying a man you didn’t love was a prerequisite and the novel was actually a one-up in those tales of woe.

In my family, we tell love stories. My husband and I polished a small incident from our courtship as our contribution. Also unlike my student, as a child, I was never allowed to tell an oh-dear-me more than once. I could get it off my chest, so to speak, but not repeat it.

Who decides how the family stories will be told?

I never got my student to see the pattern in her book, but I’ve been haunted, ever since, with the idea that family stories shape us. We expect our lives to turn out like the stories we’ve heard.


Filed under Family Stories, History, Life Story, Personal Narrative, Uncategorized, Why Stories?

Time Capsules Lost!

imagesAccording to the International Time Capsule Society at Atlanta‘s Oglethorpe University, 90% of time capsules are never recovered–best estimate, 10,000 lost worldwide. We forget. We can’t find them. We don’t care. They’re too expensive to dig up. Name your excuse . . ..

The same can be said for family stories, family photos, other mementos.

crypt of civilization

Crypt of Civilization interior

We keep trying. The Crypt of Civilization, also located at Oglethorpe University, is a swimming pool size time capsule sealed in 1940 to be opened in 8113. The walls are covered with pictographs because it is assumed that by 8113 even the known languages of our world will be forgotten.

The future beckons. The day-to-day is hard to ignore. The past? What do we lose when we lose the past?

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What Makes Us Remember?

It’s sometimes the simplest things that trigger a memory. Ask Bobbi A Chukran who grew up in grapevine, Texas on fried chicken and turnip greens.

240px-Loch_4She says, “My paternal grandmother was a sharecropper’s daughter. When I was growing up, so many of my stories have that Southern feel to them. Deep down, I feel lots more Southern than I do Texan, even though I was born here. My childhood was all about putting out trot-lines for catfish, not riding horses and herding cattle.
And by the way, I have a big old iron cauldron filled with hens-and-chicks just like my great-grandmother’s. It sits on my back patio underneath a shade tree.”

120px-Two_Hens_and_Chicks_3264pxYeah, yeah, I also have a love of hens-and-chicks because they grew by my grandmothers back door. Never have liked catfish. Point is, what we share is larger than our differences.

Check out Bobbi’s blog http://southern-fried-stories.blogspot.com/

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Filed under Family Stories, Memories, Personal Narrative, stories, Uncategorized

TV Cowboys and Me

The car in front of me had an agenda–a bumper sticker I had to read because the light was red: KILL YOUR TELEVISION

220px-Gabby_Hayes_&_Roy_RogersI don’t have a problem with television. Or I don’t have the same problem with television as most people do–a waste of time or too much sex or violence. My concern is that television is such a powerful storytelling medium it can replace the real storytellers–our own families.

I was in the third grade when television made it to my part of rural Idaho. My grandparents bought a set as soon as we knew TV was coming. For weeks I watched the screen with fascinated anticipation when the only thing being broadcast was a test pattern for three hours a day.

200px-GeneAutryOf course, as soon as the local station was up and running, I did what everyone my age did. I ran in from school, flopped down on the floor and watched TV westerns. The power of that visual medium was such that I began to think of the American West the way it was being presented on TV—a place of strong men and few women. Never mind that I was growing up on a working ranch that included horses, dogs, sheep, cattle, and three generations of women who had run that place from its beginning. What’s more, this wasn’t ancient history for me. I knew all these women, even my great-grandmother, but the reality, outside my back door, was so different from what was coming in on the television set that I didn’t connect the two. I didn’t assume that they were supposed to be the same.

Our stories are important because they’re “ours.” If we don’t keep telling them, we might find ourselves without stories, just television.


Filed under cowboy story, Family Stories, History, Television, Uncategorized

Why Stories #2

Why do stories matter?

Because listening to someone else’s story is the only way we will ever understand why they do the crazy, foolish, stupid, insane things they do. The opposite is also true. Stories are our only hope of ever being understood. It’s why we’ll tell our story to anyone who’ll listen, even a stranger in a bar.

August: Osage CountySaw a riveting performance of the play August: Osage County at the Denver Center last week. The playwright, Tracy Letts, brings thirteen members of one family together. The patriarch of the family has gone missing. They fear his suicide. They fear not knowing. They fear responsibility, blame, duty. Everyone is living one lie or another because they fear the truth. The situation forces them to talk; they tell things they never told before. The result is devastating or enlightening depending on how each character chooses to handle the information. The laughs are real and frequent. The sadness cuts deep.

The play is also a perfect example of how we build our lives on our version of the truth–until someone tells us something new. Then more than our story changes; our whole life changes. Story matters, indeed.

Estelle Parsons

Estelle Parsons

August: Osage County starring Estelle Parsons plays through August, 2009, at the Denver Center. Don’t miss it. But don’t let them seat you on the 4th balcony. Evidently that’s reserved for season ticketholders, like me! That’s another story.

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Filed under Family Stories, Life Story, Review, Uncategorized, Why Stories?