Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Stories They Told Us

As far as I know, my mother only had two children. I say that because even the most sainted, apple-pied mothers among us have been revealed to have birthed unexpected others. We've learned that DNA can now tell us those most hidden of our ancestors' secrets.

That said, our mothers can turn out to be two totally different people in the eyes of their descendants, even when they were ever-present and always accounted for. We discover that when we learn how different the stories told to us turn out to be, when compared with the stories told to our siblings.

I've been thinking, lately, about one such eye-opening experience when I realized that the stories my mother had told my sister were totally different than those she shared with me. Not that I'm inferring that my mother fabricated events or experiences, but simply that the course of conversation with one person can lead to revelations which were never shared with another person.

Think about it: if you have specific interests, it would be no surprise to learn that, in the course of conversation with others, your favorite topics would naturally come up as subjects to discuss—if the others in the conversation shared that interest. If, in moving to another group holding no interest in common with that first group, it wouldn't be a surprise to learn that the topics discussed with that second group would be quite different than those in the first.

Since my sister and I are two totally different people—I have a bent for the creative, pursuing music and writing, while my sister is all about business and finance—it is no surprise to learn that the same woman who was mother to both of us would nevertheless engage in totally different topics of conversation when she visited each of us in our adult years. Yet I never gave that dynamic much thought until my sister nonchalantly mentioned something about my mother in one of our phone calls a few years ago.

"What?" was my immediate response. "When did she tell you that?" I had never heard such a thing.

It might sound as if my mother were two different people from an incident like that, but it's likely that you may have experienced the same thing, too, if you have siblings. I can think of moms who drag themselves to their kids' sporting events—all the while secretly hating the dust mixed with sweat under the roasting sun—leaving their children to assume that their mother loved baseball. Or dads who would never otherwise have stepped inside a theater to experience a ballet performance, if it weren't for the fact that his little cherub was up on stage with the rest of those angels in tutus for this year's iteration of The Nutcracker.

All that to say, last week I was teaching my beginning genealogy class and going through the usual routine of urging students to begin their research by gathering the oral history of their family from family members. When we were younger, we could perform such information-gathering exercises by reaching out to parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles. But this was a lifelong-learning class comprised of retirees, many of them who can no longer discuss such questions with their parents. Some of them are now left with only their siblings—sometimes, only the younger siblings who weren't around in those early years to even have met the older relatives.

In that case, I suggested, ask your siblings about what they do remember. After all, if the stories my mother told my sister were so different than those she shared with me, if the two of us piece together our joint memories, we'll have a more complete picture of the person my mother actually was.

Not only is that relative someone each family member experiences differently, but each of us interprets our memories differently, too. As detectives have learned, in questioning witnesses to crimes and other traumatic events, one person may notice a specific detail in the episode while another witness might focus on a totally different part of the scene. It's not that their memories are flawed, but just that each person takes in a different picture as the event is unfolding. Because the same process impacts our observations about everyday life as well, it makes sense to share our family stories with each other as we compile our reflections on our recent ancestors.

I sometimes view compiling a family history much the same as seeing an artist create a scene in mosaic form. Each tiny chip of tile or glass, while in itself merely a flat color, is worked into the broader picture to not only create the nuances of an accurate portrait, but to reflect the flavor of each beholder's subjective experience in the portraying of that life. Preserving the full aspect of the stories our parents and grandparents told us means inserting that multi-faceted mosaic of viewpoints we gain by encouraging the others in our generation to contribute to the process.

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