When I was still teaching, I had a writing prompt that I used for any writing class– I’d ask students to write what their earliest memory was. From that, we’d talk about our answers and about the nature of memory. Did we really remember on our own, I’d ask, or did we “remember” because we’d heard about something for so long? Our discussions were wide-ranging and interesting.
The nature of memory has intrigued me for many years. In two families of storytellers, I grew up hearing family stories. Now that my parents and grandparents are dead, my sister and I often find ourselves wishing we had one more opportunity to ask questions of them. Just what would we hear? Would those stories confirm or refute what we ourselves remember?
Obviously, perspective makes a difference. I mean, my sister and I — though 7 years apart in age– experienced some of the same family events. Yet, if you talked to us, you might think we had not.
Recently, my cousin DD (her mother was my first cousin) has been eager to get together with me, my sister Kay, and her Aunt Carolyn (her late mother’s sister and my first cousin). She’s curious to hear more about her great-grandmother Ella (my maternal grandmother), my mother, and my family. Her grandmother (my mother’s sister) died a few years ago. That means, as Carolyn and I have discussed, that the two of us now are the “eldermothers.” We now are responsible for passing on the knowledge and the memories.
When my mother was alive, we could ask her about the same things her sister talked about, and by comparing their stories, we could analyze what happened or probably had happened. In our family, it was common to embellish stories, to soften stories, to invent — whether out of a desire to hide truth or embarrassment, who knows. My grandmother Ella was quite a colorful character — married four times and an independent businesswoman, her Irish/Cajun/Catholic family often found her both a rock and something of an embarrassment. To be fair, consider her time and its standards: she was born in 1908. Divorce was not common and was something to be ashamed of.
So sometimes the stories grew up to obfuscate the reality that was distasteful or embarrassing. Later, when times had changed and people regarded divorce and remarriage differently, it was easy to see the lingering condemnations of the past.
A common event, at various times, found one person pretending to be another (via a letter) in order to elicit information. The results, though, weren’t always what was anticipated. Thus my Aunt Dottie once pretended that she was my mother when she wrote to my mother’s biological father’s family — to let them know what they’d missed by never connecting with mother and her children. And my grandmother wrote to the Veteran’s Administration to get my biological grandfather’s WWI war record — only to discover that he had actually abandoned her (and my mother) rather than having disappeared and “died” (as his family continued to tell her). Grandmother was in her 70s at the time, and I think that broke her heart, even though she’d been 18 when that happened, and had married twice more and had a fine life.
Since part of our family’s heritage is Irish (my great-great-great-great grandfather immigrated to New Orleans in 1851), I sometimes refer to the “Irish-drama-queen” tendency in our family. Telling stories? Just as natural as breathing.
Sometimes Carolyn and I discuss what we grew up hearing. Between us, we try to re-construct a reality. Perhaps, though, it is just as correct to say that we construct a reality.
Only yesterday I was reading an article in the New York Times. As John Leland noted in that article, “Memory is a tricky thing: subjective, malleable to the needs of narrative or the fog of time. Some linguists believe that preliterate societies used myths to preserve their collective memories, and it seems possible, or at least poetic, that the style of memory is toward constructive story-making, not simple retention. We remember the stories we tell about our lives; we invent our lives in the remembering.”
Leland’s words struck me so much that I cut and pasted them into a note to myself. As a teacher of literature, I’ve always held with the notion that narrative is the most basic mode of writing. That urge to tell a story — our own stories, those of others, whatever — is perhaps intrinsic to human nature.
And long before we had written language, and thus written literature, we had oral traditions. History and literature and sacred texts were transmitted over time by word of mouth. Only later were they written down and even made standard.
As someone for whom Southern American literature was a speciality, I found myself responding to much of that literature with a kind of unconscious recognition. Thte patterns of speech and very narrative structures of Faulkner and Welty, among others, were part of what I knew from experience. The jump from my Granddaddy Ware’s front-porch stories to Southern authors’ short stories and novels was natural.
Stories could be repeated — and even were requested — as we’d sit there as time passed from day to evening. We knew what was coming, anticipated the known conclusion. Yet we continued to listen, to request, and to enjoy. The person telling the story might vary it to some degree each time, but the “truth” of the story didn’t.
My father, for example, could tell the same stories over and over, and each time was fresh. He’d pause at times, with what I came to recognize as a sense of timing. Whether that was conditioned and learned or inborn, I’ll never know. But I know that he could tell a story. Just as his father could. And other members of the family could and still do.
Soon I’ll meet cousins and my two aunts in East Texas for this year’s family reunion. There will be stories, believe me, many I’ve heard before. But I listen every year.
All too soon, I know, my generation will be the elders. WIll we be able to continue those family stories, those collective memories?
In part, I think, that’s why I write. It’s a way to process memories as well as to consciously construct a narrative. To re-create and to capture as well as to create.
Certainly I like to think it’s more than just my liking to “talk,” though Lord knows that’s true too. I can “talk” to the page as I talk to my cousins or to friends — but writing is more consciously constructed.
Passing our stories along becomes more important as we grow older, as we gradually become the elders of our families.
Trying to keep family units viable and active doesn’t mean being static. Stories of the past anchor us, help us know who we are, where we come from.
But family stories also reflect what we ourselves go through, what experiences we share. Telling those stories is equally important. Just as a family is a dynamic, changing entity (and as individuals we too are constantly evolving and growing), then our stories must grow, must add to the stories we inherit.
Soon I’ll be meeting with my cousin DD and Kay and Carolyn as we sift through family photographs and collectively capture the stories of my grandmother Ella and her family. Soon I’ll be joining my Ware and Richards cousins on the front porch of the farmhouse my Granddad Ware built.
Time to talk, to tell those stories, to consciously talk about what versions we know, and to make our own stories.
Some of those stories will be sad, to be sure, but many will be funny as well. We’ll learn new things and cement what we already know. There’ll be tears at times.
But there will also be laughter.