“Henry! Henry! You’ve got to come quick!” they urged him.” There’s a woman all cut up into pieces and shoved into boxes on a ship down at Pier Seven. You’ve got to come now!” His heart and mind raced through all manner of tragedies as he scurried into his pants and out the front hall door.Grandpa’s worst imaginings took on an even grimmer tone as he followed them off into the night muttering, “What will I do? Had the police been called?” He wondered how he would manage his own stomach in such a gruesome situation. Who had done such a thing? He thought the horses would never get there.
Well, when Henry Silberhorn got to the ship at Pier Seven, what he encountered was a woman of some renown who was indeed in several boxes, 214 of them to be exact. She was the Statue of Liberty! What a joke! He guffawed and giggled right along with his crew, till tears came to his eyes.
Gather pieces of family history
Like June, we might have just one piece of family history or maybe just a few bare facts. So we may wonder if this enough to make us family historians and storytellers. But I have good news! If you have a desire to share important things that have happened with the next generations, then you ARE a family historian and by answering that need, you can provide a living history for generations to come. So here are some pointers.
First, it is important to realize that a good storyteller creates a world and invites others to enter. The unfolding of a personal event is highlighted. The emotions and personal meaning underneath the event are celebrated and underlined. Let’s return to our opening example of Grandpa Silberhorn. It tells us only one event and does not explain everything he did at the docks. The story begins with his fear and confusion about an emergency and it stirs up our emotions. It is this element of human emotion that can make so many family episodes important and even meaningful for the next generation.
Where the hearts of generations meet
The desire to share personal events and history with loved ones is important. We want to be heard and appreciated. This is normal. But we also want to make a connection of mind and heart through these stories. And so our beginning point must be a genuine concern for the events and emotions in young people’s lives. Unfortunately, concern for our listeners means dying to self and a willingness to look at our lives from their point of view. We must seek that place in the heart where our stories coincide with theirs in order to guard against self-absorption in ourselves and boredom in our young people. When we do this, stories give hope.
Storytelling creates common ground for people of all ages, by dividing reality into manageable chunks. The gift of “storying” is a basic human skill and helps us become more sensitive and responsive to the world around us. We move beyond talking out our past, and even rehearsing for the future inside our heads. Events and emotion are welded into a single unit of truth as we interpret the meaning of life and search for a new wholeness together.
My father likes to tell the story about his dad shaving in the kitchen of their farmhouse one stormy morning. Grandpa Fenner had a small mirror perched on the windowsill at the time. As he reached down to rinse his blade in a bowl of sudsy water, he was struck by lightning and thrown across the kitchen. He survived, and this event took on an almost prophetic meaning as his life continued to unfold.Grandpa’s theme song became one of endurance in hardship. The first evidence of this song was the early death of his own father when he was seven. A short time later, he and four brothers were placed in an orphanage. Even though his mother and her new husband retrieved them several years later, he often felt uneasy and detached. Grandpa had also experienced rejection from his family when he married and converted to Catholicism. And after that, Grandpa’s life involved the hardship of raising twelve children. The last four were born while Grandma had diabetes, a very serious condition at the time. And then, finally, he endured her death at age fifty-five. So we could say that Grandpa was jolted by a lot more than lightning.
Flesh and blood ancestors
When we are aware of the power of the story telling process, it’s easier to explore past, present, and future together, as we offer first-hand insights into family life. In a fast paced world, sharing our experiences can create a sense of belonging, and a kinship with the flesh and blood ancestors who weathered so many centuries before us. The family storyteller becomes a living representative of a shared history and helps create a sense of belonging to important ethnic groups, to lively cultures, and a to a very large human family.
I once attended a lecture on French-Canadian heritage that I don’t even remember two sentences that were said. But I do remember a second session about early settlers and fur traders, presented by a costumed voyageur. This is what I remember! Contact with a human person, who shares photos, documents and a tactile dimension to storytelling leaves a lasting impression. So anyone of us can be a guide, offering first-hand insights into the historical events of earlier generations. Luke’s grandfather has shared about what it was like to be a soldier during World War II, so Luke knows about operations near Okinawa and about Dengue fever. And he also experienced his grandfather’s excitement about being discharged on Christmas Eve, and his ongoing desire for the elimination of global wars. Luke has learned more than what is in history books. His grandfather has taught him what war feels like, and what it means. This gives Luke a broader outlook on life than what his own culture would dictate. If you have an interest in sharing photos, birth records and memorabilia, or a period doll, then you can also add a tactile dimension to your stories.
History comes to life
We can also offer a genealogical perspective on life. Each of us is a unique product of scores of families and marriages. Genealogy can become a sturdy framework for individual mini-biographies and stories. I myself became very interested in genealogy and in taking notes about family member’s experiences when we moved from Massachusetts to the Midwest. I was thrilled when I found my great-grandmother’s birth record in a library 1,500 miles from the city where I knew and loved her as a child. I also discovered pre-teens who worked in textile mills, a young mother who died of diphtheria, a widow whose husband was killed by a mad dog, and a Civil War soldier who was wounded in the elbow. I met grandparents who crafted violins, sang at town gatherings, made astronaut suits, built crystal sets, and brewed root beer in the cellar. Knowing all of them has given me a new appreciation for their strengths and talents.
We have an incredible cast of characters to choose from when sharing family stories, no matter how much we know about them. What counts is our interest in several generations and our willingness to share what we find. We also hold an ace as far as knowledge about important figures goes. Often the kind of stories children enjoy most are the stories about their own parents when they were kids. Grandparents are official biographers for those mysterious times when Mom and Dad were real people, real kids, not just “grown-up dullts,” as one of our children used to say.Our kids gloated with satisfaction when Memere told them the real truth about their straight-laced toddler father who used to take his shoes off in the snow. Better yet, when he was seven, brother Gerry found John and his two cousins in the barn playing with his chemistry set. Gerry was so mad he nailed their pants to the porch steps.
Consider your spiritual heritage
And if faith is important to you, then you can also add elements of your spiritual heritage, your insights into God’s presence, key moments that pointed toward the meaning of life, and your experiences with a worshiping community. This kind of sharing requires a bit more sensitivity but can provide a foundation for a young person’s ability to cope with life. Your family may not be interested in faith stories or even family stories just yet. But that isn’t important. Be patient and let people know about your search, so that anyone who is history-minded will hear about your efforts. The more you value your family’s personal and spiritual history, the more intriguing your efforts will become. You might also generate interest by asking for young people for help in telling your story through photos, video or blogging. Then several generations will generate a new appreciation for the stories that shaped your family and your family’s unique spiritual roots.
We began with the Statue of Liberty and moved on to soldiering and lightning. Such is the nature of storytelling. But I left out the one about Walter who was picking blueberries with his fiancée when a snake crawled up his pant leg. Each of us is a unique collection of adventure stories, and lucky for us, children are drawn to adventure by an inner magnetic force. It is up to us to re-examine the events of our lives, and our family member’s lives, as colored by emotion, meaning, and adventure; then share that meaning through family storytelling. No matter what our past was like, each of us IS a novel, a mystery, a fable, and an encyclopedia for our families. So let’s get started –with a few photos, a handful of memories, a video camera, or whatever gets you excited about your important family moments.
Copyright Therese Boucher © 1991, 2010