Saturday, December 9, 2023

What if There Weren't any Stories?


Learning the life stories of ancestors helps us understand them better. Perhaps that's why I feel such a need to focus on the stories. And it doesn't take long to find yet another story to share from the family tree—at least it seems that way.

Once I say that, though, someone inevitably responds to that statement with the question: What if there weren't any stories in their family's past? 

Most of the people who present me with that question usually rehearse their ancestral heritage: just "plain ol' farmers" who had no claim to fame, who spent their entire life working the land. What gets discounted with that frame of mind is the fact that, no matter how "average" or "boring" a life might seem to be, it can still come with the ups and downs, the disappointments, the hopes, the small triumphs, the perseverance-in-spite-of that made that person what, in the end, he or she turned out to be.

My dad, for instance, was a rather quiet man. I knew he had been a lifelong musician—well, except for one brief moment in his life when he tried to work at a "real" job—but because he never talked about himself, I never learned, for instance, about his chances for significant recognition for his talent, or even the sad episode in his younger years of losing a firstborn child. Now, of course, thanks to digitized records, I can find stories such as these—or at least learn how to read between the lines when the script remains silent—and begin to see him in a more three-dimensional light. Where no story seemed to exist, multiple story lines begin to appear.

When we examine the process of how a family member evolved into the person we may later have come to know them as, it makes it slightly more possible for us to understand—or, if you will forgive the term, how we can relate to that person from previous generations. That process, incidentally, is what is filled with stories. We just need to find the way to discover the details, follow the unfolding of the situation, ask questions and learn from what we observe—whether from family diaries and letters, from newspaper reports or old photo albums and scrapbooks, or even from dull, dry, government records. The story is there; it's our task to find it.

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