Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Family Stories -- Don't Just Tell Them, Get Them Right

By Janet Brigham
We heard the stories from our grandparents and parents so long ago that we can’t remember when we first heard the stories or who first told us:
· One of our ancestors was a miner in the California gold rush.
· Hordes of crickets attacked great-grandpa’s crops, but he beat them off with brooms and shovels.
· Grandma once went underwater in a diving bell.
The family stories become part of our family narrative, part of how we perceive ourselves and how far back we connect to family. And what family we connect to.
Passing along family stories is actually serious business. Online services anxious to collect our stories, such as Family, seem less interested in the veracity of the account than in the fact that we record it. One problem with that approach, however, is that often we don’t know the story until we do some research.
Case in point: A young mother named Nellie lost her husband in a hunting accident. Her descendants heard about the incident over the years but did not know that she and her husband already had buried an infant daughter in 1904. They also were not aware of the extent to which Nellie’s family stepped in to help care for her and her children.
On the headstone, Nellie and her husband are in the center, and the buried infant is at the left. Who’s that at the right? That would be Nellie’s devoted younger brother George, who, we learn from censuses and other documents, moved in with Nellie after her husband died and stayed with her for decades, supporting the family and stepping up as surrogate father to his nieces and nephews. 
Some of Nellie’s descendants remember their Uncle George, who died in 1958, as a kind man. Few realize the depth of his personal sacrifice for the sake of his sister and her offspring. 
Just passing along the family story about Nellie’s husband’s accident didn’t tell the whole story. Only by looking up records about Uncle George, including finding his shared headstone on Find and his vital and census records, do we begin to see the enormity of his contribution to his sister and her family.
The family accounts add considerably  — particularly accounts from those who knew George. One of Nellie’s descendants recalls that after George died in 1958, no one knew if he had any money, or where it might be. They knew of no bank accounts, but they knew he had worked many years. They did find his money eventually, rolled up inside his socks in his bedroom closet. They hadn’t known that he didn’t trust banks.
Such fully told family stories can become part of a rich family narrative that helps children develop resilience, self-esteem, and a belief in their ability to cope with life events, as they perceive themselves as belonging to an intergenerational family that has faced adversity together and survived it together.

Feiler, Bruce. (2013, March 15). The family stories that bind us. New York Times.
Duke, Marshall P. (2009, March 23). The stories that bind us: What are the twenty questions?


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