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Monday, March 7, 2011

Sharing Family Stories

There is a big difference between my family and my husband’s family.  My family relies on humor as the glue to hold us all together—the funnier the story at the dinner table, the better digested the meal.  We all eventually begin talking over one another, finishing each other’s sentences, eager to have the last word.  We all want to get the biggest laugh, to be part of the family narrative.  The focus in my husband’s family lies more on family loyalty—the nutritional content of the meal, the garden where the ingredients grow, and how it all looks.  My kids value greatly what they learn whilst hanging out on the limbs of each branch of our family tree.  But guess at whose table my kids are learning to become master story-tellers? 

(Not Lisa's real ancestors, they look like they had way more fun than these folks, but you get the point!)

It’s not as if my children don’t appreciate all they learn at my mother-in-law’s table, or most memorably in her kitchen and garden.  It’s just I think I’ve taught them to look more for the funny in life, and less at the ingredients needed for the perfect pie.  Comedy, it has often been said, is = tragedy + time.  So, in my extended family (where we've faced divorce, addiction, death, and other losses and have needed some courage!) we’ve learned to savor the moments together and focus on the funny.  So, it was with great delight that I noticed a warming shift at my in-law’s table during our recent visit:  my kids and their cousins were rising in their ranks, breaking the ice, and becoming leaders in the family discussions by telling their funny stories!

Every summer, when we return home to the West Coast of Canada for a family fill-up, my kids beg their great uncles to tell the stories of their madcap youth.  My kids love to hear the pranks they’ve played on each other, their childhood adventures during a time when kids played regularly together in their neighborhoods unsupervised until someone's mother called you all home.  My kids especially love tales of my uncles' feats of daring during those less litigious times when the biggest threat was their dad’s belt hanging by the stairs to the basement.

During these family visits, my kids are hungry for stories.  You can almost see them sorting all the pieces to their family puzzle.  Puzzle pieces that I alone can’t provide.  These visits live long in my children’s memories. 

They repeat my uncles’ stories, checking in with me to make sure they’ve remembered ALL the details—especially the funny bits.  These stories are touchstones of family connection.  Before they are done retelling the time my one uncle awoke bleary-eyed to the inside of a spitball-covered hotel room, rolling over to find his 13 year-old’s birthday cake smeared with hand prints and whole chunks missing, the floor covered in wet towels; my kids and I are crying with laughter.  While my uncle had slept peacefully after hearing the polite goodnights from their adjoining room, my cousin and his pals had roamed the hotel where he hosted his 13th birthday party that year.  Included was a midnight swim in the off-limits moat surrounding the main hotel concourse, covering both rooms with a splattering of spitballs (you couldn’t see the screen of the TV), and the requisite game of ‘Nicky-Nicky Nine-Doors’ to keep all their fellow guests guessing as to the ruckus through the night.  Imagining my uncle marching out of the hotel, telling my cousin and his pals (through clenched teeth) to keep walking “heads down”—hoping to avoid the consternation of the hotel clerk and a huge hotel bill—evokes memories of our own most embarrassing moments when we’ve wished the floor would open up and swallow us whole.

The greater truth in any family is one woven of collective perspectives.  My one uncle was the long-suffering son under his father’s brutality when he was still drinking; miraculously he's also the funniest and most resilient of the bunch.  Laughter is, after all, a powerful antidote to fear.  My other uncle, the responsible elder brother, recalls a hard-driven father who mentored him and from whom he inherited the family business.  I remember a grandfather who could be grumpy and never let anyone sit in his TV room chair.  A man who also tried endlessly to teach me how to sail and appreciate the art of carpentry.  Most of all, I remember his kindness in allowing me to visit every second weekend of my childhood to be filled up with the security and safety of his and my nana’s routines.  I loved him with the unconditional innocence of a child.  I now know that none of us can be easily summarized in one story, one escapade, or by one mortifying moment.

It is through the collective lenses of family stories that my children are able to glimpse the family they come from, to understand more about themselves, and imagine what they may be capable of achieving.  One of our family members just need start with “Remember when…” and my kids are glued to the dinner table.  No iPod, TV show, or YouTube sensation can capture their attention the same way a funny family story can. 

Ultimately, armed with the knowledge that their relatives, too, have survived embarrassment, a first kiss, a painful break-up due to a bad haircut, bankruptcy, and even a close call with a grey whale, I hope they feel less alone (and more compassionate with themselves) in facing some of the challenges, failures, successes, and other milestones on the road ahead. 

It is those of us who continue to have the courage to get up, dust ourselves off, and tell a good story about our lives that capture the imaginations of the rest of us! 

A footnote:  After living in Saratoga Springs, NY for almost four years I recently learned that my maternal ancestors were actually born in Saratoga.  A distant relative filled in the blanks for me about that particular branch of my children's family tree, put it into a book full of family stories and archive photos, and mailed it to us.  It turns out that having the courage to travel, uproot your family, and follow employment to new lands may just bring you back to brave new beginnings, a little older but perhaps wiser!

Tell us one of your favorite family stories--we'd love to hear your voice, too!

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