Tag Archives: Why 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?

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

Stodgy Vs Story

I had a great aunt whose idea of entertainment was to bring out the family photographs and carefully repeat the names, “This is cousin So-and-So.” A man’s wife was always “Mrs. So-and-So,” never a first name, who was called something else before she was married and something else after she re-married. Of course, Mrs. So-and-So was related to someone else I was supposed to know . . .. I was worse than bored. I grumped and slumped until my great aunt finally excused my bad behavior saying “very likely I was just too young to remember.”

Hardly.

I also had an uncle who twisted nursery rhymes into ribald limericks. Since no one would explain why they were funny, I had to remember them until I was old enough to figure it out on my own.

Mary Had a Little Lamb imageMary had a little lamb

She tied him to a heater

Every time he turned around

He burned his little peter

will run through my head the rest of my life.

Names and dates don’t stick: never have, never will; but, once in awhile, my great aunt got distracted and told me something interesting, like the fact that one of my ancestors was a Viking pirate. Of course, when I asked to see a picture of him, she didn’t have one, which meant she was forced to fill-in. “Our family came from Denmark, not the regular part of Denmark, but a little island off the coast with a hidden cove—a favorite Viking hideout. There were pirates plundering nearby ports from that little island far longer than from the Barbary Coast,” she claimed.

Viking Ship Picture

Turns out that’s mostly true, but, even if she was still alive, I doubt she’d be impressed by the fact that I’ve been to that little island, checking out her pirate story, among other things. She was less about truth and more about application. When she told a story, she made sure it made a point.

“We are luckier than pirates,” she told me. “We have so many new things, such wonderful inventions, these days a pirate wouldn’t know what to steal.”

Turns out my great aunt also kept a journal. She names her first boyfriend, Alonzo Eckersley, and tells how they spent one summer together:

Every night we would take a ride on my horse and then dream dreams of what we were going to do in the future. One night his dog was poisoned. Both of us surely did cry.

She doesn’t say what happened to Alonzo. Instead, she shifts to how she went away to board for high school. She lived with a family named Stewart and took piano lessons but didn’t like making music. She names her best girlfriends: Mildred Rhule, Grace Ritchie, and Ruby Ward.

photo of young women and 1922 automobileThey had a car and so did I. We had a good time that summer with all the boyfriends! I guess there were too many boyfriends because I got so I hated them all. They were all alike, how disgusting, and they all acted and talked alike.

The year happens to be 1922, but the tale is timeless.

We take photographs, sometimes feverishly, trying to hold the moments that matter, but, nearly always, when I tell someone that I’m gathering the family stories, I get a puzzled response, as if that is not a task for the serious. Names and dates on genealogical charts, fine. Copying the family photographs, encouraged. Stories? Why stories?

Because two pages of her journal were enough to change my impression of a stodgy old aunt.

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Filed under Family Photos, Family Stories, Life Story, Memories, Personal Narrative, stories, Uncategorized, 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.

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

Story Quote # 11

This story shall the good man teach his son . . .

But we in it shall be remember’d;

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed

Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Henry V, Act IV, Scene 3

William Shakespeare knew that if you want to motivate, you inspire with a story, a new one suggesting the way things will be . . .

King Henry stands before his ragtag army. They are vastly outnumbered. Every man knows and fears that, but they also have long bows. Their bows can give them advantage over the horse mounted French, if they stand. Henry must make them stand and fight. How does he do that? By telling them a new story–the one that will be told of their victory. The story that will be repeated every St. Crispin’s Day from this time forward.

Do stories matter? Ask Shakespeare.

PS: Check comments for video of an even better performance of St. Crispin’s speech!


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Filed under History, Legend, National Story, New Story, stories, 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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Tie Yourself Down

steam-engineA hundred years ago, there was a legendary “tie yourself down” stretch of railroad along Beaver Canyon, one of the places my great grandmother, Sophia, worked as a cook for the railroad crews laying track. The road was so rough, several men were stationed there with the sole purpose of cleaning up the box cars that weren’t tied down and therefore tipped over and smashed on the rocks below. “Tie yourself down,” meaning prepare for a rough ride, is a phrase I whispered, to give myself courage, long before I knew the term probably originated with my family’s railroad background.

Stories are so powerful we don’t have to remember how or when we heard them only that they work. In this case, the family mantra for courage was just there, often repeated, not explained, until I asked.

What’s your “tie yourself down” story?

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Unicorn! Seen One Lately?

unicornMy husband met a unicorn last week.

He was impressed enough to take pictures.

He says he doesn’t believe in unicorns. He has a degree in physics, thank you! However, everyone who sees his pictures says “unicorn.” White, blue-eyed–what else could it be? No horn? They hide their horn, except in moonlight. I’m guessing that more people know that than understand what goes on in a particle accelerator.

JonUnicorns have been part of mythology since 400 BC when Ctesias describes them as living in India. Aristotle disputed his description and added his own. Although unicorns were never part of Greek mythology, they were included in Greek books of natural history. They are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible–repeatedly. Marco Polo claims to have seen one. The King of Scotland, James I, supposed brought one with him when he assumed the English throne. It has remained a part of the royal coat of arms ever since. The Simpsons televisions show includes an episode with a unicorn. My granddaughter has adopted a stuffed one that she sleeps with, pink sparkles and all.

Unicorn paintingWho cares?

Evidently everyone from Ctesias to my granddaughter.

More to the point, this is a blog about the power of stories, and without stories, we wouldn’t have unicorns!

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Filed under Animal Stories, Fantasy, Legend, Old Storytelling Traditions, stories, Uncategorized, Why Stories?