From the Southern Order of Storytellers Newsletter, August/September 1992
I once read about a nine-year-old who went to a family reunion and met relatives even her mother hardly knew. Back home, she wanted to keep in touch with these persons to whom she was related by blood. For one so young, she accomplished the remarkable task of starting a family newsletter. She asked relatives to submit articles every month to keep all the members of the extended family up-to-date on their latest experiences. Her relatives were eager to participate in the project and some offered to defray expenses. Why did this little girl’s idea catch on so successfully with her kinfolk?
Because feeling a sense of belonging to a family has two aspects. The first, is, of course, biological – the bond of blood. The second is emotional kinship and this bond is formed by family culture – history, values, practices, etc. The culture itself is preserved and transmitted through family narratives and shared experiences. When a extended family becomes scattered, the blood tie lasts but the emotional kinship can wane. The shared past has to be augmented with the sharing of present experiences in order to maintain the emotional bond. The family whose members tell their life stories to each other is the family that keeps up the emotional kinship. In others words, the family that “stories” together stays together. The family newsletter the little girl started arrested the drifting away from one another that her relatives felt. Their thirst for togetherness was satisfied with the life-giving waters of storytelling.
Many of us have lived our adults years away from our parents and siblings, extended families and the communities that shaped our personalities and lives. Our children see grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins only on special occasions when we return to our hometowns. In sharp contrast to my children’s nuclear family life in Atlanta is my background of growing up within an extended family in a very small city of the Mississippi Delta. Seeing my maternal relatives was an almost daily experience. In addition, there were weekly gatherings of the clan in my grandmother’s house for Sunday noon dinners and the grand occasions of holiday celebrations. At these times it was not unusual for twenty to thirty folks to gather for a meal, which was consumed quickly, and for conversation, which stretched for hours. Family history and genealogy were frequent topics. I can remember how confused I was as a boy when hearing that the same person could be my grandfather’s nephew and my grandmother’s first cousin, since Pappaw’s sister married Mammaw’s uncle. We shared a past, which the elders rehearsed, and a present, in which we all participated. What was withheld from us was the future. Distance and death have weakened the bonds. Now only one person of my mother’s nuclear family is still living, a sister who was the youngest of five children.
On three of the last five occasions when I have seen her the family was gathered for a funeral of one of our own. My aunt laments the losses and says the family is gone except for her. The irony is that there are now in 1992 more individuals in the extended family than there were in the 1950’s, but we do not have the same sense of togetherness, since we are scattered over four states from Georgia to Texas, not to mention several cousins above the Mason-Dixon Line. Yes, viewed from the aspect of emotional kinship, my extended family is fading.
Family historians are self-selected and I am the one for my generation. I can trace my interest in American and Southern history to my years in elementary school. By the age of nine my extracurricular reading was biography, in particular the lives of famous Americans as rendered in the Random House Landmark Series. In college history courses I learned the value of primary sources, diaries, letters and journals. However, what I knew of my family’s history I had learned not from reading but from hearing. It had been oral transmission, pure and simple. For over twenty years I have been writing copious notes, capturing remembrances of persons, places and particulars randomly triggered by daily events. Almost all of my elders are gone; only their stories remain. To compensate for the loosening of bonds due to time and distance, I make the records and tell the stories. To recall is to keep alive some emotional kinship. As a rabbi, I have developed the skill for finding the story of a person’s life and giving it a voice through a eulogy. Because of this facility I have become the designated family eulogist.
In his later years my father drew some family trees. Whenever I returned home for a visit, I would sit down with him and with the family trees spread out before us, I would start asking him questions. As he spoke, I wrote notes by the names. Still there was much I missed. When he died on August 27, 1989, there were stories that went down with him. In his eulogy I recalled the African proverb, “When an old man dies, a whole library is lost.”
I do not wait for occasional trips back to my hometown to interview my 77-year-old second cousin. At the times when I am working on family records I will usually call him long-distance. With paper and pen ready I have to ask him only one question. Getting him started is easier than getting him stopped, since at the end of one memory trail he hops onto another trail. I love the metaphor my cousin uses to describe my interviewing him. He spent his working life on a cotton plantation and in his rustic charm he says that I “milk” him. He is a seemingly bottomless well of stories with a gift for telling them orally. He and I have long been simpatico and it is a joy to join with him in reminiscing about family history.
Good storytelling is based on details and it is easy to forget how much we know. As one writer has noted, “our memories are an untidy family album crammed with images and dreams, scattered and uncatalogued, and their sudden recurrence is wholly unpredictable.” The columnist George Will has written: “It is said that God gave us memory so we would have roses in winter. But it is also true that without memory we would not have a self in any season. The more memories you have, the more ‘you’ you have.” There are three R’s in this adventure of having more of yourself: Remember, Record and Relate.