Monday, March 28, 2016

Telling Family Stories

A couple of weeks ago we had friends for dinner and my Dad. These friends are great listeners and enjoy a good yarn, so I prompted Dad to tell them some stories from his childhood in rural Georgia. He had us in stitches. They were in awe when I told them that ten years ago, he had given each of his children a copy of a book of these memories, about 100 pages bound together, that he had worked the previous year to write down for us. My children and I spent that winter reading and rereading them. Such a treasure.

Last summer my son-in-law traveled eight hours to his mother’s hometown to spend a day recording the recollections of her childhood housekeeper. Her health was failing and he wanted to capture things she remembered of his grandparents, mother and aunts, before her life ended and those tales were lost.

It seems to be essential to our human nature to gather together to tell stories about ourselves, a crucial impulse for us to continue the family narrative that strengthens our identity and our ties to one another. Even in reading aloud the moving story, “Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry,” by Mildred D. Taylor, it happened. Just picture this—smell it:
“In the heart of the house, where we had gathered after supper, freshly cut branches of long-needled pines lay over the fireplace mantle adorned by winding vines of winter holly and bright red Christmas berries. And in the fireplace itself, in a black pan set on a high wire rack, peanuts roasted over the hickory fire as the waning light of day swiftly declined into a fine velvet night speckled with white forerunners of a coming snow, and the warm sound of husky voices and rising laughter mingled in tales of sorrow and happiness of days past but not forgotten…"

The author then recounts some of these tales, followed by this nostalgic reminiscence:

“Through the evening Papa and Uncle Hammer and Big Ma and Mr. Morrison and Mama lent us their memories,acting out their tales with stage-worthy skills, imitating the characters in voice, manner and action so well that the listeners held their sides with laughter. It was a good warm time…”
The reality of that family’s daily life in Mississippi during the Depression was not side-splittingly funny. It’s a tough book to read without intense emotional responses to their daily pressure from the injustice, oppression, and cruelty they endured. Yet, there were these evenings, special holidays and gatherings, with stories. Family stories remind us of what is worth cherishing, pull us out of the daily grind toward what matters most, the people who make life worth living. The recollections of the length and breadth of life bring perspective and settle our turmoils. They also give children a vital connection to their own place and people.

These family stories and childhood tales were what made Kate Seredy a children’s author. Her publisher friend said, “Your stories of childhood in Hungary are so entertaining, you need to tell them.” So The Good Master and The Singing Tree came to life, along with many other less autobiographical children’s books, but Seredy weaves the stories elders pass on to children in all her books, those tales the bonds that hold families together and strengthen their connection to life and one another.

The stories told by the adults at my own family gatherings when I was young are distinct childhood memories. We kids would worm our way into their midst and listen spellbound to their accounts of relatives we had never met, experiences of their own childhoods we could barely believe possible. Some of them we heard over and over again, but we laughed as if it were the first time. As I became an adult, I remember sometimes wearying of my parents rambling tales of their childhood escapades—I could have recited them myself, but the stories have stayed with me long after the tellers have gone. Now we pass them on to our grandchildren.

This is probably why at every funeral gathering of my life, I have noticed what relief and comfort grieving friends and family find in turning to the stories of the deceased loved ones, retelling experiences with them, a sort of clinging to the stories to help hold that dear one close to our hearts where they belong and where we will miss them most, keeping them alive.

Surely it’s how those two travelers on the road to Emmaus felt. Luke’s description is so true to life we can vividly imagine it, the grieving friends, going over and over together the events of the past dramatic days. Oh, what were they going to do without Jesus—and then to have a stranger enter into their intimacy, unbelievably ignorant of the recent circumstances. He had his own stories to tell, but it wasn’t until they stopped to eat, in the ordinary daily act of breaking bread, that they realized the truth and heartache turned to fullness of joy as the story and storyteller became one.

What a story that would be to give to their children and grandchildren…and how thankful we are this Resurrection season that the story came down to us, still fresh for the telling. At the end of his life, Moses said, “We live our life as a tale that is told…”(Ps. 90:9), and while we live, let us tell the young listeners while we can.

For the joy of reading,



  1. Very excellent, Liz. When John was a boy he spent many a night with my parents. He would always crawl into bed with them and ask for a story, meaning, of course, one from their childhood. We have a family member who is well into his 90's. He was just a few yards away from the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. We love to get him off on stories of his childhood and his time in the war at every family gathering. You could hear a pin drop from the young people as they listen to true tales of an earlier time. Such a treasure. I believe this is a commandment of God. He continually tells us to "teach it to your children." May He give us ears to hear.

  2. Robin,

    It would be a blessing to generations to come for your boys to record those precious family stories while some of the tellers are still alive. Until this past summer, I regularly called an elderly aunt and would weasel another family tidbit out of her, about all the fuzzy details around distant relatives, and now that she is gone I can't check the facts anymore. Your boys are not just getting family history, but Tennessee history too. Thank you for sharing.