During this quarantine and period of reflection my daughter and I have been ordering in food on Sunday evenings and the three of us(my dog) enjoy each other’s company for a couple hours. We sit in her living room and watch movies on her super gigantic Smart TV screen. The movies we have watched are mostly historical in nature and have led to some very interesting conversations afterwards.
Let me preface this by explaining that I am the sole survivor of my family with the exception of my kids. I regretted not asking a million questions of my aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents. Not to mention my brother who for the last few years before his death was the verifier of family lore and associated historical family events!
Last Sunday we settled down with Mexican food and watched a movie called, “Motherless Brooklyn.” It took place in the 50’s in Brooklyn and Queens and dealt with racial discrimination and unethical politics. Very timely and appropriate to today’s conditions. After the movie ended my daughter asked if that was what it was like in the 50’s in the boroughs. Of course the cars and the architecture took me back to my childhood, but so did the politics of the time and the accents. And at that moment I had that “AH HA!” realization. I said to her that I regretted never asking my family about so many things. Did my grandparents ever become citizens? What was life like in the little hill town of Pietrapertosa in Basilicata? What happened to Gramma’s brothers when they arrived in Ellis Island and had their names changed from Matiacchio to Madison and why did they lose touch? And a million other questions that I am still sorry I never asked.
I then told her, with tears in both our eyes, to ask away. Now is the time! We don’t know how long we have together to fill in the blanks, and I don’t want her to regret living with all those unanswered questions like I have to do. Her questions began to spill out. She had heard stories all her life about Holy Mary, better known as Aunt Mary, who we would always laugh about because she would always tell us to say a Holy Mary, meaning Hail Mary, after we prayed each night. My brother and I coined that name for her and would laugh whenever we thought of her. She was my dad’s uncle’s wife. My daughter never met her but heard about her her whole life. And who was Muddy Ette? Another name she had heard about her entire life and had no idea who we were talking about. That was Aunt Eleanor’s best friend in NYC who grew up with her. Her parents came from the same town in Italy as our family. Her name was Marietta but with our regional accent it sounded like Muddy Ette!
We sat that night laughing and crying together as her questions kept coming. I know there will be more thoughtful questions coming and I welcome them. I look forward to sharing whatever I know about our family with her. It was a significant moment in our relationship and so glad I had thought to open that door for her. It was apparent she has a lot of questions to ask. I savor the opportunity to share these moments with her! We said good night and gave each other a long overdue, real, long lasting, unmasked hug for the first time in 5 months. Covid-19 be damned!
The Story of Us
I took away two major conclusions from George’s piece: a) the sweet need to connect to a story and b) the importance of making the story interesting.
After all, we are simply the latest product of a long line of forebears – we’re one chapter in a very large book. In a world that hungers for prequels and sequels, it’s no wonder that we dig in to our origin stories – the story of us. What’s really nice is the closeness it can bring to the teller and the listener. It says you are not alone in the wide world – and we have special stories that should be handed down, so that ‘our’ people are not lost. How many of us have boxes of old photographs that are not labeled, featuring individuals we can no longer identify? I know that I do. Seems a shame.
Of course, our stories need to be interesting in the telling. Carl Jung called this myth making – in a positive sense. A friend of ours – possibly, the best story-teller I have met – explained it this way: she read a book which detailed a series of dramatic events in an elderly woman’s life. However, the book did not develop the characters very well; the facts were simply stated. So, even though the events were compelling, the reader remained disengaged, because it was hard to care about the central character. She said that it could have been an excellent multi-generational saga, if the author had spent some time putting the events in a larger context, making the character more three dimensional.
George uses the story teller’s hook to make his history interesting: providing monikers that have a back story. It makes Holy Mary and Muddy Etta special. They have earned a brand for which they are remembered! They are elevated into heroes and heroines – legends of a sort. Our story teller friend also populates her tellings with individuals whose Damon Runyon sobriquets include Wayne the Flame (alleged arsonist), Lancer the Romancer (local playboy), and Dead Betty’s house (used to be Live Betty’s). Now, here are characters who are larger than life (except poor Betty)! It makes you want to know more about them.
How do you pass along your family stories?
Tell Me a Story
When my grandchildren were younger, the first thing they would ask me as soon as we got into my car was to tell them a story. It didn’t matter if it was something I recently remembered and hadn’t yet told them or if it was one of the stories that they heard me tell dozens of times before. Over the years we’ve spent hours laughing at my childhood and family adventures and mishaps. They especially enjoyed hearing stories of their mom when she was a little girl.
As they got older and it was harder for me to infuse my energy and silliness into stories I’d told over and over, so I introduced them to a new approach. We began to use “…and then!” to mix fantasy with family memories. We took turns starting a story, usually made up, and after a few minutes of developing a character or plot the speaker would stop at a critical juncture and turn to the next person and say, … and then! Of course it was then that person’s turn to continue the story in his or her own way. It provided wonderful opportunities for us to share ideas, our fears, and, of course our silliness, while passing the time and having fun.
More recently, we would play “farm.” Each of us assumed a role as a member of a family who lives on a farm and, while tending to our animals, had to prepare for a town festival on our property. Either we were driving to pick up materials or food or delivering horses or pigs, or we would scatter about the property of whose ever house we were at, pretending to set up booths and parking areas, etc. I’m wondering if these times will be the family stories my grandchildren will tell when their children ask them about the “old days.”
George reminds me of the importance of family connection and history through story and conversation. While my playtime with my grandchildren is now limited, I do spend more time with my children on the phone or in weekly video-chats. Perhaps the next time I speak with them, I’ll ask them if there are any questions they have or stories they might want to hear of days gone by.