Echoes of the Past
Stories, they seem like such simple things: stories found in books, tales told from memory, or those etched in our collective culture. There are stories with heroes and heroines, about good and evil, and stories of real people: people from our families long ago. The words of stories are like a canyon’s rivers: read or told often enough, they can change the internal landscape of our minds and hearts. They are the headwaters that came before us that shape us as we make our own way downstream.Long before the invention of writing, all stories were told aloud. They were passed down like sacred objects from generation to generation. In some cultures these stories were told by the actual “storyteller” of the tribe, and there are many societies around the globe where this is still the practice. These are the stories that define a culture: their creation story, moral myths, and tales rich with the values of their people. There are also the functional stories; those to help people know where to take their animals in case of drought, stories to help them remember which plants are good to eat and which should be avoided, or stories to explain the origins of ceremonies and rites of passage.
These stories help create culture. Children learn where their people came from, what it takes to be an adult in their society, and through the knowledge and lives of their predecessors, a little bit about what their own futures will hold.
I come from a family of storytellers. Not the kind of dramatic reenactments that are created by professionals, we are more the “pass the cornbread and remember that one time?..” variety. The dinner table was always the central place where these stories were shared. Both of my parents worked growing up, but these evening meals always happened. At the end of dinner my father would go get an apple from the kitchen, try to remove the skin so it came off in one piece, and hand out slices while we talked about our days and reminisced about our times both together and apart.
I heard stories about my parent’s childhood. There was the time my father found a snake in the bottom of the boat: chaos ensued as paddles quickly tried to remove the animal with the fear that can only be felt when trapped in a tiny space with a very long snake. Thinking they had resolved the problem by flipping the snake overboard, they later realized he was coiled around the motor in the back. What followed was terror as the engine was pummeled with paddles and someone jumped overboard. I learned there was a fine line between removing a snake and not destroying an engine. There was the time my mother and my aunt took a train from Texas to California where they met up with family to camp in Yosemite. To this day I think about what an incredible journey that must have been for my mother at the time. I imagine a dress-clad (with petticoat) 12 year old version of my mom watching the landscape slowly change as one only can from a train. I can picture her having her first avocado and sleeping in a tent; California must have seemed like another country.
There is an African saying that states, to paraphrase: when an elder dies it is like the burning of a library. The collective knowledge of a society is stored in the minds’ of the old. Many stories continue to be passed down orally around the globe, both in indigenous and more industrial societies. In the west when we think of stories, we tend to think of those that come in print format, be that hardback, paperback, or electronic. Our stories are much more private affairs; we read to ourselves, to our children, maybe we reread something out loud to a friend if it strikes us in a certain manner. And yet, beyond the written word, all families also have their own unique tales. Tales that are shared around the dinner table or at holidays. Tales that are told again and again, sometimes with such frequency that even the youngest members of the family pipe up when pieces are left out, or to share the ending. And just like native peoples have used them for thousands of years, families use them to transmit their own familial culture. It is our stories that define our values, how we deal with difficulties, help us reminisce about our joys and hopes, and find humor in our day to day lives. If our family is a tribe, it is our stories that help create the cohesion that binds us together.
My brother and I were also privy to stories that had been handed down from generation to generation. Stories about the relative in the daguerreotype who lived to be 104, who pulled a man off a battlefield during the Revolutionary War in a wheelbarrow, nursed him back to health and later married him. We also heard about the time his horse came back without him riding it. The war was still going on and his son later returned and told the tale of his end at the hands of the Loyalists. He had asked his captives for time to pray before they shot him and, in a true testament to his character, had prayed not only for his soul, but also those of the men who would end his life. There were stories about my great grandfather, the Latin teacher, who always wore a hat with pieces of paper in the hatband. He would let a young family member choose a piece of paper upon which was an article, a caption, or some other form of print that had caught his fancy and which he would then share. I know of a great aunt who would always tell my mother thinly veiled morality stories that just so happened to be told after she had done something naughty. I also know how, minutes into the story, my mom would declare “I don’t like this story”.
Over the years these stories have been told and retold. Pieces have been added to, and most certainly embellished, as the years have gone by. As teenagers there were many a groan of “I’ve heard this before!” at the dinner table. I might have endured multiple retellings, but I can also remember thinking how much I was going to miss these special times at dinner when I went away to college. Even at 16, I knew the shared stories were what defined our family and shaped our perception of the world.
My mother always says “you are your ancestors”. I am sure she says this because someone in the family once told it to her, but it is something I too now strongly believe. I am the people who came before myself. As I have listened for years to their tales I have learned about things like honesty, bravery, and perseverance. As an eleven year old I once went waterskiing at camp. The counselors had tied the skis together to help us keep our feet under our body. The downside of this was that it was very difficult to right yourself if you flipped forward. As I was being pulled back towards the boat on my belly I came face to face with a water snake. I immediately tucked my head under and it swam over my head and down my life jacket. I came up gulping air and shaking. Thankfully lunch on shore followed the incident, but after I ate I thought long and hard about whether or not I was going to get back in the water. I thought about what my father would do, I thought about all the snake stories I had heard growing up from when he was waterskiing. I thought about how he wouldn’t have let a snake ruin his day, and I spent the rest of the afternoon skiing on the lake.
Hearing his stories about encountering small trials and how he handled them built me up. If children are a tabula rasa, some of their first impressions and deepest marks on their slate come from the stories they hear. As an adolescent my snake encounter was just scary enough to allow me to test my own mettle, and I knew it would make a great story to share later with my family.
My ancestors have a common thread that runs through my mother’s lineage: teachers and adventurers. I have a great great aunt who took a ship to South America to be a missionary. She fell in love with the sea captain of the boat, but had promised to work in Brazil for seven years. When she got ready to sail back to the United States that same sea captain manned the ship. Upon their return to land they married, an ending I was skeptical of until I found the yellowed obituary tucked in a book of our family’s history at my great aunt’s house a few years ago.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that with a double major in Anthropology and African Studies and a Masters in Educational Psychology it was not just my character that was shaped by my ancestors, but my vocation as well. These stories had imprinted themselves not only on how I think, but also upon who I was to become. I have an aunt on my father’s side who was also a teacher. We spent many family vacations sharing a room together and, in the evening, she would tell me stories from her life. Always the adventurer herself, when she left college she had signed up for both the Peace Corps and to teach with the military. She then had a choice between working in Iceland for the Peace Corps, or teaching on a military base in Japan. She packed her bags and the family drove her to California where she boarded a ship to Okinawa. It was in part because of her stories that I was drawn to teaching. Teaching was a job where I could not only make a difference, but also live anywhere as I had learned from listening to her stories of later working in Germany, Italy, and Cuba.
As an adult, I can’t imagine not having grown up with these stories. They have helped define who we are as a family, the difficulties we have overcome, and the joy and laughter we have shared together. They are, quite simply, what makes us “us”.
My boys are still young. The stories that our oldest is told are about simple things: the cardinal who leaves for months at a time only to return and follow us from window to window in our house, the time when it snowed so much he and his Dad built an igloo in the yard, or the family fishing trip when no one caught anything but it rained so hard we all huddled together while Daddy rowed and lightning flashed on the buttes around us.
His favorite story at the moment is how I thought he was going to be a girl before he was born. He asks for it often, prompts me for the parts I leave out, and always likes to share his favorite bits: “tell the part about what types of tea parties you imagined you’d have”, or “but then you realized you could still have fairy tea parties if I was a boy too, right?” This story is important to him. The idea that we thought, planned, and imagined what our life would be like when he was “still on a cloud” as he says, thrills him. It makes him feel important and a part of the whole that is our little family.
When we visit my husband’s family I listen to their tales too. His aunts, in particular, are the keepers of the stories from his father’s side. I listen deeply so I can later help add these to our lists of oft repeated tales. My husband’s family is composed of pioneers. People who long ago left the east coast and settled in Wyoming to carve out a new life for themselves. His family stories are about survival, overcoming odds, and the ingenuity and skills that came with homesteading, cowboying, fishing, and creative problem solving.
If our sons are to be shaped by their ancestors these stories are crucial. It takes many tellings for them to become part of our shared tradition. There will need to be many meals around the table, times in boats, campfires, nights under the stars, long road trips, and miles on trails. I hope they will be able to listen and be inspired by the voices of people from the past. I hope they will have their own favorite stories they want to hear again and again. My wish for my children is that, like the river in the canyon, they too will hear the stories of those that came before them to better understand where the water up ahead might lead.