Telling Tales: What Your Family Says About You
Posted on July 7, 2016 by Julie Smead
I come from a long line of “talkers.”
My mom is first-generation Irish-American, and her family nickname is Parrot, if that tells you anything. The gift of the gab is strong in us. But I didn’t always appreciate the jabber.
As a child, visits to grandpa’s house were predictable: aunts, uncles and older cousins would sit around the kitchen table for hours, talking, laughing and sharing stories. Eventually, my grandpa would grow nostalgic, even misty-eyed, and put on old Irish music records. That was my cue to escape outside to play.
Today, I wish I’d been a fly on that kitchen wall – an older fly with a notepad or tape recorder who appreciated the value of times like these. But I was too young to know that the gold was in the gathering – not the food, the gifts or whatever occasion brought us together.
My grandpa died while I was away at college, so I never got to know him well. Over the years, my mom passed along his stories. But had I been able, I would have asked deeper questions and written everything down.
For instance, I’d give anything to hear him describe his life in the West of Ireland, his siblings, parents, grandparents and so on. My mom and I have the family tree worked out. But the parts that give the tree personality – the leaves – have fallen away and crumbled.
As performance artist Laurie Anderson wrote, “When my father died, it was like a whole library had burned down.”
Listen to your elders
Anthropologists say human survival itself relied on the knowledge and stories of a tribe’s oldest members. Elders were highly respected and revered. They were the “experts” on living after all, so their insights were invaluable.
Also, they were the keepers of traditions, stories and clan lineage. Before written language existed, tribal members handed down stories to their children and grand-children through ritual and repetition – with no TV, cell phones or full-time jobs to distract them.
Today, our elders offer a different kind of wisdom. They’ve witnessed radical changes in society, culture, technology and more. By sharing their firsthand perspectives, they help us understand our world and ourselves a bit better.
On a personal level, storytelling provides clues about you and where you came from. For instance, almost all my relatives on my mom’s side still live in Ireland, so I’ve never had a clear picture of what kind of people we are.
On my first trip to Ireland, I met dozens of cousins who, surprisingly enough, shared some of the same mannerisms and speech cadences I recognized in my aunts back home. Even their playful sense of humor was like my own.
But the stories I heard are what changed my life. It was empowering to learn my relatives include professional musicians, dancers, firefighters, veterinarians, architects, bridge builders and farmers. There’s more to my family than I ever imagined, and it makes me feel proud.
It’s proof that family stories give us a stronger sense of identity and belonging. They strengthen family ties. Heart-warming, funny, tragic or heroic, stories can also transform a seemingly ordinary group of people into anything but. Like a fingerprint, each family’s narrative is unique.
A gift to your future self
The tellers of stories benefit as much as the listeners. Like tribal elders, today’s seniors can reclaim their position of reverence and respect by passing along their time-earned wisdom. Telling stories confirms the relevance of their opinions and insights. Research has found that reminiscing boosts a senior’s self-esteem and combats feelings of depression and isolation, conditions common in older people – especially those who live alone.
In fact, studies show that older adults who reflect on their experiences with family report more positive feelings about their life choices. It increases their overall sense of achievement and life satisfaction.
For children, the grandchild-grandparent connection can have a tremendous impact on a little one’s personal development. It can also change their perceptions of seniors in general.
“Research shows that as many as nine out of 10 adult grandchildren feel their grandparents influenced their values and behaviors,” said Cornell University Gerontologist, Dr. Karl Pillemer. “Grandparents transmit to their grandchildren the values and norms of social order.”
In studies conducted by psychologists Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush of Emory University, children who knew the most about their families’ stories and history tended to possess higher self-esteem and a more solid sense of control over their own lives.
Stories strengthen what Drs. Duke and Fivush call a younger person’s intergenerational self, or place within the family narrative. Their sense of self is strengthened and anchored in this larger context, and hence, in the world.
It’s never too late – until it is
For all the talking he did, my grandpa passed away with much of his library intact – or forgotten. I know the gist of many tales, but I don’t have the deeper backstories.
I’ll never hear him describe his boyhood fear and excitement that night the Black and Tans pounded on his family’s door, in search of the IRA. I’ll never get to ask how he found the courage to immigrate to the United States, not knowing at the time he’d never see his mother again. I’ll never have the advantage of his life-earned advice.
But, I’ve learned. I’ve started recording my mother’s stories to share later with my niece and nephew. She’s also writing some down.
So, a piece of advice: call your parents and grandparents today. Make time to share and record the tales of their lives so you can pass them down the family line. They’ll be honored and you’ll understand more about what made you the way you are.
Storytelling is a precious gift. Best of all, it’s free for anyone to give.
Learn more about recording stories and get great interview questions from StoryCorps.
Category: Wit & Wisdom