Friday, November 8, 2013

Telling stories

The other night at dinner we were telling family stories. A newspaper photograph of someone riding a bike through snow had led to an account of my Colorado ski town days of riding a “townie” bike around snowy streets. That tale set all three children to clamoring for my husband and me to, “Tell us a story from when you were little!”

I remember asking my parents to tell us stories when my brothers and I were kids. We heard the sad account of when my father had scarlet fever and his teddy bear had to be burned. We know about the day he was lost in the neighborhood park of the city where he grew up, and that when he finally returned home, his mother didn’t know whether to hug her little boy or spank him, so overwhelming were both her relief at having him home and her angst over his wandering away.

We’ve heard my mother’s memories of being allowed to watch the Mickey Mouse Show if she finished her homework on time. She has told us of endless afternoons wandering the woods around home with her English setter, Lucky, and that she once fell from a tree and landed flat on her back, momentarily knocking the air from her lungs and frightening her own mother into thinking she was dead.

As a kid, I could scarcely picture my parents as children, climbing trees and wandering unfamiliar parks. It wasn’t until I was in college, making the long drive home one Thanksgiving weekend with my dad that I finally had the epiphany – as he was telling me a story from his past – that my parents were people long before I came into the world, with separate lives filled with stories all their own. But I still loved hearing those stories as a little girl, even if the characters within were mostly imagined to me.

It is the same for my children, as they beseech us to tell our childhood tales. Probably there is magic in knowing Mama and Papa used to be kids who fell down and got into trouble, played with and fought with their siblings, built forts in the woods, and were sometimes sent to their rooms.

Sharing stories is also a way for our kids to get to know other members of our family. Our children know that one uncle, sent to his room as a boy, lit a model rocket from an electrical outlet, sending it zooming across the hallway where it landed on a bed and nearly sparked a fire. They’ve heard about a family hiking trip when another uncle, then only 5 years old or so, started the trek with only a teddy bear in his backpack and ended it with a pack heavy with dozens of interesting rocks he’d collected along the way. (The former is just plain funny. The latter has been shared on the many occasions our children fill their pockets with seemingly arbitrary rocks.)

The kids already have their own stories to tell. Usually these begin, “Mama, remember when…?” As in, “Remember when the bears were in our sandbox?” The bears visited our sandbox when the children were too small to actually remember, but it’s one of the stories we tell, and so it has become a part of our family’s collective memory.

We pass many things onto our children, both intentionally and inadvertently – physical traits and bits of our own personalities, our likes and dislikes, our family traditions. They learn from watching us, from living with us for the first however many years of their lives, and from the stories we tell – and the ones we are creating together. For along with telling stories, we are all the while players in our children’s own life narratives, participating in the tales they will someday tell.

Which memories will stand out in their future minds, I don’t know. I hope with the stories they make their own, my children’s chronicles will include some family history – silly stories like their great-grandfather preferring to eat his cake covered in gravy, or hopeful ones like their great-great-grandmother arriving in the U.S. from Sweden as a teenager whose only English words were “please” and “thank you.”

Most of all, I hope my kids will have a wealth of entertaining and enlightening material to share someday, years from now, when their own children beg, “Tell us a story from when you were little.”

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted on her Blog: Writings from a full life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the November 8, 2013 edition of the Littleton Record.

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