The teacups always rested at the back of the china cabinet, and I was twenty years old before I finally touched one. I knew these cups were special, but I didn’t know why. “Where did you get these?” I asked my grandmother.

“There’re from the farm,” she said, and the image of her Minnesota homestead sprang to mind. A big Norwegian family, stern faced in their photographs, taciturn in their language, people Garrison Keillor tells stories about: people who didn’t tell stories of their own.

Grandma’s teacups went to my mother, who at eighty-five is sorting the contents of her own china cabinet. “Who wants these?” she asks me, her fifty-something daughter arrived to help her move into a condo. I know she is listing her granddaughters in her mind and dividing up the collection.

“No one wants them,” I tell her as gently as I can. “They are all hip, mod girls who haven’t started to settle down. The cups are not meaningful to them, at least not now.” I watch my mother’s eyes for sadness…

“Why?”

“Because they have no story. To be valuable they have to be part of our family story, part of their childhood memories.”

Story is really all we leave each other. Even the most precious heirlooms, including the ones I tend in my own home, will not last: someday they’ll end up in an estate sale or a house will burn down or they will simply lose meaning. What has the most lasting value is the story of who we are, who we come from, where we aspire to go. “You want to give these girls something?” I ask,  “Write your story. Tell them what it was like to grow up in the Depression, to marry during World War II, to raise children in the 1950’s, to wake up to feminism in the 1970’s … Write about that.” The cups sit around her on the carpet waiting to be filled, not with tea or coffee, but with my mother’s life.

Story gives objects meaning, and meaning increases value. When I turned fifty, my mother had a ring designed for me that incorporates my grandmother’s wedding band, a diamond from my father’s aunt and birthstones representing three generations. Even diamonds and gold have value added by story. 

Story is legacy. My mother is a talking history lesson of the twentieth century. And because she carries stories of her parents, and grandparent’s lives, she carries a family memory that spans nearly 150 years. If I can help her save these stories, in writing, recorded on tape, transferring stories and photos in ever changing technology, I will carry a family memory of about 200 years. And if I speak these stories to my grandchild generation, they will have memories of over 300 years. 

What good this will do them, how stories of family will serve them in a future I won’t live to see is a mystery. What I know is that seemingly insignificant stories of my parents parents parents have meaning to me that they could not suppose; and this leads me to believe that my stories will have meaning in the future that I cannot suppose. So I gather and preserve stories and trust the mystery.

Here are suggested ways to work with story as legacy.

When you look at the things around your house that you want to bequeath family members, write down what makes them interesting and valuable in a personal way. Literally attach the story to the object. I have a Victorian loveseat that came to me because my aunt taped a card on the back that read, “For Christina, someday.” I put a card in the wooden box in the corner of the living room that explains this is the chest our Norwegian great-grandmother carried onto the boat that brought her to America.

A grandmother I know set aside a year to write a letter to each of her twelve grandchildren. The letters are not to be mailed, but when she is gone each young adult will have a loving statement of her special regard.

While cleaning out her parents’ estate, my sister-in-law discovered a box of old photos and swiftly went to visit a remaining elderly aunt. They spent hours with a magnifying glass and archivist pen, identifying people in the pictures.

A Jewish friend reports, “Celebrating Seder, the youngest person present asks the questions that elicit the story of the Passover. We adapted this tradition to help the children develop questions to elicit stories about our own family. When Aunt Esther broke her hip she transcribed five years of intergenerational interviews, so now we’ve started a notebook for everybody.”

Story can also heal legacy. A seventy-five year old friend openly shares the story of five generations of alcoholism in her family because she sees the benefit of this work,  “It took my grandfather his whole life to sober up, and if my father hadn’t gotten sober and shown me the way, I might not have been able to do it at forty-three… When my grandson showed up alcoholic at age twenty, he had a mom and uncle ready to intervene, and a grandma carrying everything I’d learned from his great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather. Understanding the story of his vulnerability helped him out of abuse in just a year.”

Even a few words can be precious. A little notebook in a purse or pocket in which you jots notes. Notations made on a calendar. Little anecdotes to accompany photos that expand or explain the scene. Something you wish you’d said in a moment long gone by can still be shared. In our families and among our long-time friends there are people who want to know what we carry in our hearts, our histories, our philosophies of life. Our invitation is to sip tea from an antique cup and speak anyway, write anyway, contributing our stories to never ending tale.

 

Christina Baldwin is the author of Storycatcher, Making Sense of our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story. She has devoted her life work to helping people honor the importance of story. www.storycatcher.net  

Based on the book Storyccatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives Through the Power and Practice of Story © 2007 by Christina Baldwin. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com or 800-972-6657 ext. 52.

 

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