We begin with stories. Within families, we tell stories about family adventures, our ancestors, our black sheep and our kissing cousins. As we share family stories with our children, and grandchildren, implicit messages come through about who we are, where we have come from and the shared beliefs and traditions of our families.
Stories told within families provide a combination of family myth, folklore and information about family experiences and relationships between family members. Why is Uncle Jack considered the “Black Sheep?” Why is Aunt Mary considered the family “Saint?” Stories about Uncle Jack’s wild adventures travelling the world, while Aunt Mary (his devoted sister) was always there to help with any crisis in the extended family provide us with a sense of family dynamics, family history and family roles.
Many stories become narrative-based life lessons that give direction to where we are going and where we are expected to fit within our family. These stories, while perhaps not totally devoid of truth, often become reshaped as the years go by with (perhaps) unintentional exaggeration that reinforces family dynamics and expectations. The story varies with the teller, and the interpretation varies with the listener.
Family stories are often told to children anecdotally and incorporate a message that will serve as a lifetime guide. One such story was told to me by a sociology professor of Irish descent. At the time of telling me his story, he was in his late 40s, yet the memory of his mother’s message and how the story had influenced his life was vivid. In sharing his birth story, Howard’s mother told him that he had a special birth and in fact was “born twice.”
In a regular delivery the amniotic sac breaks before the baby is born (commonly known as when “the water breaks”). After the water breaks, delivery follows. However, when the sac does not break, the amniotic sac must be broken after the delivery of the baby. When this happens, according to Irish mythology, the baby is considered “born twice.”
Howard’s mother, an avid believer in Irish folklore and superstition, told him that children who are “born twice” are protected by the leprechauns. His mother assured him that the leprechauns had given him a special gift of an invisible blue light that would protect him from harm and enable him to perform feats far beyond normal ability.
As a result of hearing this story repeatedly during childhood, he grew up experiencing a feeling of invulnerability and confidence that stayed with him into adulthood. He wasn’t sure if it was the protection of the blue light, or his belief in the leprechaun’s gift but, even as an adult, Howard was convinced his belief in the story contributed to his overall success.
The way children retell and interpret stories changes as they get older. During this transition, the meaning attributed to the story shifts from an understanding at the “landscape of action” to the “landscape of consciousness.”
As children progress through adolescence, the way their family stories are remembered and interpreted becomes more complex and conceptual. The stories become longer with increasingly detailed descriptions of the event. In addition to the increasing complexity of the stories, when asked the question “What does the story mean to you?” by age 18, most interpretations include abstract concepts. These concepts, such as the importance of an education, the meaning of money, the sacrifice of parents (emigration stories) to provide better lives for their children and other intangible concepts can be generalized at the societal, as well as the individual, level.
For example, at 18, Joan began with: “This story is one that was told by my dad. It has to do with the fact that my dad does not like pets and will not let any of us keep pets while at home.” Joan retells the story she had heard from her father about when her dad was young and he had to help his parents raise and train dogs. This work included before and after school chores and expectations that left her dad with little time for anything else. Joan’s retelling of the story finished with “And every time one of the family members now wants a pet, we get this big long story about how much work it is.”
When asked what the story meant, Joan described: “He (dad) was trying to teach me that, in life, it’s not all fun and games and that there’s a lot of hard work and it shall forever be that way, you know, from now on. It’s not going to be easy, and that there’s a reward at the end of it, like his reward is that he doesn’t have to look after any more pets (laughs).
But now I can read a little more into this story. Dad has a few companies he owns, and he’s worked hard all his life for what he’s wanted. He wouldn’t want to see anything else for his kids, and if he sees us sloughing off, he wants to keep us on track, to keep trying. Not everybody has it easy, in fact not very many do, if any, so we’re all trying.”
Joan’s interpretation of the meaning has no mention of caring for dogs and bears no resemblance to the content of the events within the family story as told by her dad. In remembering the story, Joan had pulled out the “life lesson” passed on by her father and was able to generalize this message at the societal level with the words “not everybody has it easy… so we’re all trying.”
The universal nature of stories and storytelling suggests that, as humans, we have an innate need to have a “story to live by.” Our own personal narratives evolve as we build upon family stories that tell us who we are, individually and collectively, within our family and our cultures, providing a sense of history and giving direction to where we are going.
When family stories are shared at your next gathering and new family stories are created, consider what these stories mean to you. Have they subtly influenced your life choices? Has the story and your interpretation changed over the years? Is yesterday’s black sheep evolving into tomorrow’s adventurous hero? What might the young listeners remember from these stories and how will they interpret and internalize their family narratives?
Our stories are diverse, they differ in substance and meaning, but we all have stories to tell and these stories are significant meaning makers for ourselves and for future generations. In the words of one of my young storytellers, “The whole story is about memories, right? And it’s just important to everybody to have memories from their past, and to have a story like that, or something they can remember. I think that’s just so important.”
The ideas expressed in this article are based on the author’s Master’s Thesis Interpreting Family Narrative. Diane is continuing to gather family stories. If you have a family story that you would like to share, contact Diane at email@example.com with a brief description of your story and your contact information.