Saturday, February 9, 2019

The Power of Stories Repeated

Every now and then, I read things written by someone having absolutely nothing to do with genealogy, and yet—no surprise here—what I read leads back to thoughts about family history. Such was the case when, trying to catch up on my emails yesterday, I read a two-week-old blog post by marketing guru Seth Godin.

If you know anything about marketing, you may realize that successful selling is really about successful storytelling. Perhaps that was why, in one of his pithy daily posts, Mr. Godin remarked, "Forgotten stories have little power."

He went on to confirm the reverse: "Repeating stories (to ourselves and others)...makes those stories more powerful."

Thinking of the power of stories repeated reminded me of an old New York Times article by author Bruce Feiler. In "The Stories That Bind Us," published back in March, 2013, Mr. Feiler asserted that the best thing parents can do for their children is to "develop a strong family narrative." He cited a psychologist's observation that "the ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges."

That psychologist's observation, in working with children with learning disabilities, led researchers to develop a series of questions which they dubbed the "Do You Know?" scale—what people sometimes called the "20 Questions."

As one of the researchers, Robyn Fivush, later observed in an article she wrote for Psychology Today, "It is not knowledge of these specific facts [the answers to the twenty questions] that is important—it is the process of families sharing stories about their lives that is important."

Dr. Fivush urged families to "begin a family tradition of sharing the stories of our lives."

Her colleague in the research project, Marshall Duke—whose psychologist wife it was who had made the initial observation prompting him to develop the hypothesis—emphasized the same point: "Simply knowing the answers to questions will not produce the good outcomes" realized through their research. You cannot make your kids study for the "Do You Know?" test. Rather, "It is not the content of what is known that is the critical factor, but the process by which these things came to be known."

Because the twenty questions "test knowledge of things that children could not possibly have learned first hand"—in other words, details of the family's history before the children were even born, or were too young to personally remember—they would have had to receive it through person-to-person interaction, mainly through stories shared. Sharing stories takes time. And connects people.

Today is my last day in Florida, the land of my roots (well, at least the land of my grandmother's roots). It's likely all I'll be able to accomplish today will be to pack the bags and get us checked out of our hotel and into the airport shuttle.

Still, I can't help but think of one last episode on this epic family history research expedition. Like an encore to a wonderful performance, my mother's cousin—tour guide extraordinaire for our time, earlier this week, through the little town in northern Florida where my grandmother's family once lived—came back to visit me, once more.

After we had parted ways in Wellborn—she and her husband a day earlier than I and my long-suffering partner—the two of us had returned to visit my husband's sister and brother-in-law, relatively new year-round residents in Florida. From there, it was on to Orlando for business meetings for my better half.

Before we could even get to our next stop, this cousin had arrived home, still savoring thoughts of our wonderful visit to the land of our roots. I was hardly on the road when I got a message from her: "Call me right away." She had been thinking of all the family treasures she had received from my grandmother which she now wanted to pass on to me.

Underlying this thought process was the concern that someone would continue passing along the stories of our family's experiences over the generations. As we've seen all too clearly during our visit—and here, as I post my experience regarding the search for King Stockton—there are oral histories which have never found their way into print. There is no other way to preserve them than to insure that someone keeps the story alive for the next generation.

I had already known some of those unwritten stories. The story my mother told me, for instance, about the former slave who had had his story written in a book, was only something she told me. I have yet to find that book, but because of what I've been told, I know there was this certain man who did this certain thing. I want to pursue that story because I want to preserve that story.

But my mom's cousin had more of such stories to tell me. We talked almost constantly for the mere twenty four hours we were together, she telling me things that likely have not been written down anywhere—back when it happened, for the reason that it would meet with social censure, and recently, because we are at a loss for how to verify those "old stories."

With this in mind, she made arrangements to make the two-hour-long drive back to rendezvous with me at my hotel, bearing items which she dared not trust to the postal service. Her treasures included photo albums—thankfully with some pictures labeled—and various documents indicating the stepping stones of life's accomplishments.

No one in her immediate family was interested in these—besides, they weren't of her direct line, but materials concerning her aunt, who was my grandmother—and she knew I was keenly motivated to preserve such items.

She did, however, present them with one more question: was my daughter also taking an interest in these family stories? For, if she wasn't, who else could these family stories be passed down to? After all, it's in the repeating of these family stories that they provide strength. Remember, as Seth Godin observed, "Forgotten stories have little power."

It's in the stories remembered—and, thus, treasured—that we pass along the strength the next generation needs to grow and endure, despite adversity.


  1. Wow, what a wonderful gesture from your cousin. My own children are not really interested in my research. I am working to inspire my grandchildren. They are young, but plentiful. I have 10 under 10! Last summer I made all of them a picture book from Shutterfly. The first page is their story, then I have pictures from the next 3-5 generations with small stories. Luckily I have several war veterans, including at least 4 Civil War veterans and I have their stories for my older grandsons. I am hoping the photos and other pictures I did find for the books will inspire them to want to learn more as they get older. I am betting on the odds that one of them will be willing to be the family curator.

    1. Miss Merry, I am sure that one of your grandchildren will someday step up to be the one to whom you'll pass the family records. Your idea of the Shutterfly books is wonderful!

  2. How nice of your cousin to give you photos etc...I hope your daughter appreciates them as much as you do! Hope you had a safe trip home:)

    1. It's interesting, Far Side, when I realize that my mother's cousin wasn't the first in her family line to pursue family history. I remember her father before her doing research on our ancestors, as well. Of course, we always wonder who, in the next generation, will become "the one." But I have always subscribed to that confidence that there will eventually be someone to pick up the task.

  3. Your treasure-hunt is very interesting to follow. I look forward to your detective work. I know that book is out there somewhere-and that you will find it.

    1. Glad you are enjoying following the research trail with me, Lisa! And yes, as it turns out, there is a possible book out there. All that needs to happen, at this point, is for my best attempt at persuasive communication skills to meet up with a sympathetic keeper of the item that I think is the right one. Apparently, there is only one copy in the whole wide world, at least that I can find, so far.


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