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Family Stories: the things we know by heart

“Every family has a story that it tells itself, that it passes on to the children and grandchildren. The story grows over the years, mutates, some parts are sharpened, others dropped, and there is often debate about what really happened. But even with these different sides of the same story, there is still agreement that this is the family story. And in the absence of other narratives, it becomes the flagpole that the family hangs its identity from.” – AM HOMES

ImageSometimes I feel for my older sister. Almost as soon as she opens her mouth, one or all of us will grumble “get some new material!” You see, blessed with a memory fit to shame an elephant, she has taken on the role of the family story teller, the keeper of our collective histories, a walking reminder of all things forgotten… and sometimes repressed!

I might remind myself (and the rest of my eye-rolling tribe) that storytellers were once revered. Indeed, they were our first historians. In my sister’s defence, she is part of a grand tradition spanning back to the very beginnings of the human experience…

It is understood that humans could speak for a couple of hundred thousand years before we undertook to write stuff down. There is not much consensus on dates, but the latest evidence seems to indicate that it was as late as 2900 BCE. Around this time, so bountiful were the food stores of Mesopotamia, that memory no longer served and the Sumerians were forced to resort to keeping written records of their animal and grain supplies.

Prior to this, the memory was one of our greatest tools. Unlike the present day, where we need remember nothing but our passwords and all information is uploaded and downloaded from a digital “somewhere out there”, our oral traditions were essential, not only to our identity, but to our very survival. The stories passed down through the generations contained vital information about how to find and safely prepare food, treat illness, spot and outsmart predators and also offered inspirational or cautionary tales of those who had gone before and what we could learn from their mistakes and victories.

It has always been the sharing of (and learning from) this, the most ancient of narratives, the human family story, which has provided the primary way for each generation to progress, to become something “more” by adding a new chapter.

This is why the technologies of communication have always had such an immense impact on our development, both scientifically and socially. The invention of writing, the first library, the printing press, the telephone, the cinema, the radio, the television, the computer, the mobile phone, the internet… what these technologies have in common is what they have done to broaden and speed up our ability to share our stories.

But what of the little histories that do not make the TV news or even rate a “tweet” amongst friends. What happens to our family stories?

These are the tales nannas tell at Christmas lunch after a few too many shandies, embarrassing uncles loudly thigh-slap in impromptu weddings speeches and mothers lovingly whisper to their children as bedtime stories. They are the anecdotes that are always soothing, funny, thrilling or shocking no matter how many times they are heard, not least of all because they are always just a little wilder in the retelling.

Some cultures pass on a short summary of the family story, a strange sort of mission statement in the form of a family motto. My husband and I both happen to descend (on our respective paternal sides) from two Scottish clans. It is interesting to me to see my husband’s clan’s motto (“Either action or death”) reflected in him (rather amusingly) in his impulsive nature and inability to “do nothing” in any situation. My family’s motto was “They flourished despite it all” – unfortunately very apt in my family’s case. Perhaps this explains our resilience…?

For my part, I have had the benefit of living in a family of great story tellers. I know all about my great grandmother’s prize winning chocolate cake, my nanna painting “seams” along the back of her sisters’ legs to look like stockings during the war, my mother running away from home (aged three-and-a-half) and wandering down High Street Northcote to the cinema, where she snuck in with a band of older girls and stayed all day (meanwhile, nearly the whole suburb was out searching for her). I love my dad’s stories of wandering his family’s sheep farm conducting whole games of cricket in his head and his life at boarding school which sounds at once severe and cosy.

I know that these are the tales I will tell my children about their family before them. They will add these to my husband’s family stories and start a new book all of their own.  

This passing down of family history has a greater impact, however, than just mere entertainment. A psychological study, conducted by Dr Marshall Duke and Dr Robyn Fivush, showed that the more a child knows about their family’s past, the more resilient they will be. Referred to as the “Do You Know?” scale, the doctors were astonished to find that this was the single best predictor of a child’s emotional health and happiness.

It makes sense when you unpack this idea. When you have some impression of the trials your ancestors have survived and the great achievements they have accomplished, in hard times you can turn your mind to those characters and say “I have that inside of me, somewhere”.

So it would seem that we should be grateful for our retrospective relatives and groan no more. They are performing a most important task.

And to my darling sister, on behalf of us all… sorry xoxo


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