The Family Storyteller: Before It’s Too Late

WE ARE EXPERIENCING A TEMPORARY cold front in the South, prompting memories of the magical snowy days of my youth in Indiana and West Virginia (although we are not expecting snow in Charlotte NC).
winter

AS THE HOLIDAYS DRAW NEARER, my thoughts drift to family members who are no longer with us for gatherings of the clan as in past Thanksgivings and Christmases. When I was a young adult, I gave little thought to the temporal aspect of life, as if we would all be here together for years to come – holidays at grandmother’s house – then mother’s house – and then – the gathering was at my house. As we come together, we celebrate, eat and share family stories – usually funny or touching ones -and we laugh and bond as a family.

I WAS FORTUNATE that Mom was a born storyteller with an exceptional memory. She shared much of her growing up and my siblings and I learned about not only our family roots, but the townspeople and the issues of life in the generations before us. What a treasure!

NOW, AS AN OLDER ADULT, my interest in family history is piqued even more, likely because I am a little closer to the end of my journey (not for many years yet, I hope) – and maybe too because I value the importance of connecting the generations. There are lessons to be learned, even from unproductive decisions made by someone in the past. In Mom’s last years, I made a greater effort to ask questions and write notes on history she shared. Although – now that she is no longer here, there are so many things that I wish I had asked her.

AS THANKSGIVING APPROACHES, and we become engaged in the hustle and bustle of holiday activities, it may be prudent to take time-out to invite…. to question… and to listen to the older adults of our families, to learn where we came from, and our ancestors journeys along the way.

WHEN I TAUGHT A UNIVERSITY GRADUATE COURSE in life span development, I frequently gave an assignment for the students to complete over the holidays. They were asked to interview the oldest member of their family, or the oldest family storyteller (not all folks have the gift of remembrance). To prepare for this interview, they were to prepare a timeline. They wrote the years of the family member’s life and beside the years, wrote major events that were occurring (war, disease epidemics, new inventions, politics, etc)… Then they could begin at the earliest memories and ask how these events influenced the family (e.g., you were 14 when the polio epidemic was at its worst. What do you remember about it?).

THANKSGIVING AND CHRISTMAS are family holidays, and various things stimulate recall of holidays past. I remember with deep affection, family and close friends that are no longer here to share this holiday season with us. I am grateful we traveled together for a time. My life is richer for knowing them. As I reflected recently on the blessings of our family (and a few close friends), I wrote two poems to try to capture a few of my thoughts.

Someone Left the Window Open

Someone left the window open and they are slipping through,
One by one – and two by two.
Drum majors of a parade,
loving grandparents marched on
leaving us behind
to find a way to make our lives rewind.

Uncle Don, who drove me everywhere
looking for little pink pigs –
like ones in my storybook;

Betty Davis, a dear childhood friend,
named for a movie star,
who survived polio to be felled
by its re-awakening in later years;

Uncle William who lived a formal life
as a Presbyterian pastor,
till he retired in Asheville
and put away his suits for denims and blue grass;

Aunt Erm, Dietition for Cumberland College,
who oved the game Sorry and
made memories with her fruitcakes and jam cakes;

Aunt Verna, who loved books and learning,
and cared for her community in New Bern
as county public health physician;

Aunt Maggie, who liked brandy alexanders’s,
managed her own business in Charleston and
parachuted from a plane in her 80’s;

Aunt Shirley, who enjoyed taking care of her home
and sang country songs
while she washed the dishes;

Aunt Fanella, twin sister of my father,
who kept the family connected
and her faith strong;

Dottie, my 6 foot tall college roommate,
who had a big heart, a hearty laugh,
and was a wonderful nurse;

Sweet Alice, my university officemate,
loyal to her friends,
who found love in late life;

Mother-in-law Nora, loving mother and grandmother,
and beloved teacher
who taught first grade for 52 years.

Brother-in-law Don,
who went at life in a run,
and took good care of my sister;

Dad, a talented man
who loved big band music, dancing-
and all competitive games;

Mom, who loved her family
and her home in Madison –
lived to 91 – still interested
in politics and new experiences.

Someone left the window open,
and we keep slipping through.

Sue Marquis Bishop 2013

The Family Storyteller

Our family storyteller knows.
Stories – old and true:
hardships overcome,
milestones reached,
loves that endured,
passions unrequited,
adventures undertaken,
family secrets held,
laugh-out-loud episodes,
family builders, dreamers
and schemers known,
lessons learned,
worth of our land revealed,
challenges met,
history witnessed,
heritage passed on.
We thought
there was time.
To listen.
Too late.
Our legacy lost.

Sue Marquis Bishop 2013

AS WE GATHER FOR THE COMING HOLIDAYS, may we have the foresight to engage our own FAMILY STORYTELLERS to enlighten our lives.