January 31, 2005

How oral is your family?

I recently read Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. The basic premise of the book was a young man grows up with no real knowledge of his family’s rich heritage. He goes on a life-changing journey to find this family’s roots and discovers they have a fascinating oral history. It wasn’t until the end of the book that I really came to appreciate one of its most basic messages – that oral traditions of a family can be important. Since I come from a long line of verbose storytellers, I realize I have taken it for granted that all families pass down stories. I grew up hearing Civil War tales from my great-grandmother that had been told to her by HER grandfather. When I was little, and couldn’t sleep, my grandma would tell all sorts of stories, long into the night, about exactly how life was for her when she was a little girl growing up during the Depression (Only 2 pairs of new shoes a year?? Only the radio? Only the Sears-Roebuck catalog? “The madness!”, my 7-year old brain screamed.) When the family is together, we of the younger generation laugh right along with my grandma and her siblings as they tell the same silly stories over and over – we have heard them so often by now, it’s as if we were there, also.

One of my grandma’s brothers (the “baby” of the family) passed away on Saturday. He was only 68 and as my family tends to live well into their 80s and beyond, we are in a bit of shock – with the overlap of generations my great-uncle was not much older than my own father and in fact, his son is my age. It’s all starting to become clear that the older generation will not be here forever. We’ve been so incredibly fortunate to have lost so few, but frankly, the writing is on the wall. Since we aren’t the Kennedys (our Irish surname is certainly less illustrious. Buh-lieve you me.), one of my cousins and I are afraid that many of these stories will be lost. Therefore, over the next few months, we are going to work on documenting as many of these stories and memories that we can.

While many of my posts this week may be family-oriented or slightly philosophical, don’t be surprised if there is some humor in them as well. My family can’t resist telling a good off-color joke or relating a funny memory. Even at funerals. Although they are a little repressed and they’d rather remember only the good times and pretend the bad never happened, that is just the way they are. They grieve the same way, too.

And I am glad for it.


Rozanne said...

Cool! One of the reasons I started my blog was to force myself to document some family stories before my rapidly deteriorating memory loses hold of them entirely! I haven't been very good about following through with that goal so far.

I look forward to reading your family's stories!

Cagey said...

One thing I really recommend is one of those 'memory' books. I gave one to my Grandma a long time ago. She had it for a year, but man, she really filled it out. I plan on using it a bit for our "family memories" booklet.

An interesting thing - how history really does change in character over time. My great-grandpa was a moonshiner, which of course, I think is SO COOL. However, my grandma is still very reluctant to talk about it because it was a very shameful thing for her when she was growing up - downright embarrassing. Another piece is that my great-great grandma was full-blooded native american. However, we have little clue as to what tribe she came from because again, it was a shameful thing back then and people didn't talk about it. As you can see, my cousin and I have our work cut out for us.