Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.
By Robert Penn Warren, From: “Tell Me a Story,” in New and Selected Poems 1923-1985
November, and my thoughts always return to my father,: his chuckle, the restless twitch of his foot—a sure give-away to his impatience with household tasks assigned to him by my mother, his conspiratorial wink at a joke shared between us, his strikingly handsome face in old photographs, and the weathered face of an older man whose addiction to cigarettes could not be quelled.
My father died of lung cancer in 1992, after the Thanksgiving meal and his traditional double Jack Daniels. His death marked the end of family as I once knew it, and, although I didn’t realize it at the time, the loss of his stories, yarns spun from his childhood, enlarged and fabricated, threads of family history woven among his tall tales. They were the stories we begged for at bedtime. He didn’t like to read us books. He was a storyteller, and our nighttime dreams colored and enlarged by the tales he told, of “Big Chief,” his horse “Pard,” of a young Navy recruit in Hawaii during World War II, or my fun-loving grandmother’s practical jokes sprung on her husband. I remember fragments of those stories, remember how, when I became a mother, he repeated the same humorous tales to my young daughters and how I would stand, listening outside their bedroom, smiling as I heard them laughing, begging him as we had done so many years before: “Tell us another story, Grandpa!”
Oral storytelling has been part of humanity for thousands of years. Stories were how we made sense of the world, how we passed traditions and wisdom from one generation to another. “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel,” author Ursula LeGuin said, “but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”
I miss those family stories, the tradition of their telling and re-telling at every gathering of my father’s large extended family. Perhaps sixty of us, all ages, gathered each year to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. There were tables set all around my aunt’s front room, grouping us by age, and the longest (and most coveted by the younger of us) the adult table, where aunts and uncles regaled everyone with stories passed from generation to generation. As a recent article in The Atlantic stated, “Books contain narratives, but only family stories contain your family’s personal narratives. Fortunate children get both. They hear and read stories from books to become part of other people’s worlds, and they hear and tell stories of their family to understand who they are and from whence they came.”
In the years after my first husband’s death, my daughters and I spent many holidays alone before we began to invite other friends, similarly without family nearby, to share in our holiday meals. It helped ease the loneliness; there was laughter and good food, but something was always missing: the sense of family that came from the stories shared year after year. My siblings and I grew apart in the years I lived in Canada and the tumultuous years after my father’s death and mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s. It’s become chasm I can no longer traverse, and yet, I look back to those times we were truly a family, bound together, in part, by shared traditions and stories.
It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.
At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.
Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.
(From “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” by Joy Harjo, in The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, 1994)
But I left, lived in another country, admitting my restlessness, the yearning to leave that small town and see the world, just as my father did as a young man. History repeats itself. Now, my daughters, like so many of their age, have traveled and resided in places thousands of miles away; our family get-togethers fewer, and, as their children arrived, even less has been possible, so dispersed we all are. Yet I think about the power of family stories once shared around the table or at bedtime. “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative,” Bruce Feiler wrote in a 2013 New York Times article, “The Stories that Bind Us.” h
Citing research from Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush of Emory University, Feiler wrote that children who know a lot about their families appear to do better when facing challenges. “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.”
I’m trying now to capture in writing the few stories I remember, ones my father told, to fill out the gaps in family history that resulted from distance and family losses. In this world of our mobility, of Facebook, Skype and other forms of high-tech communication, I worry that my stories will be lost–stories that told me who my family was and what they experienced, stories that cemented my sense of place and belonging.
This week, imagine you are the last storyteller of your family tribe. What is the story you most want to tell? What other stories do you want to remember, the ones that define your legacy? Why not write them?