Smack In The Middle:
Want A Happy Family? Tell Stories!
Practically everything we experience on a daily basis started with a story. Everybody you meet—yes, even the most boring people—have great stories to tell. When I was a teacher and I really wanted my students to pay attention and absorb whatever I was trying to teach, I would start by saying, “let me tell you a story.” Most of us hate lectures, but who doesn’t love a good story? Stories give context and meaning to everything and they help us make sense of the world around us.
Last spring, I read this article in The New York Times that explains how family stories bind us. That made perfect sense to me because I’ve seen how narratives can bring strangers together. Surely, they could do the same for families. The writer posed a serious question that as a mother, I’ve wondered myself: What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, and happy?
In order to answer this question, the writer gathered information and interviewed various types of people for years. He found a common theme and the answer is remarkably simple. The single most important thing you can do for your family is to develop a strong family narrative. I filed this information away in my brain, knowing that it would be useful later.
This year, I had the pleasure of spending Thanksgiving in Fordyce, Arkansas. My mother and her siblings were born and raised there. This was a reunion of all my grandparents’ descendants. My grandparents had 12 children, all of whom are still alive and well and range in age from 65 to 88. In fact, with the exception of one, all of their descendants are still alive.
My grandparents, Jewell and Lillie McNair were married in 1925. My grandfather died when I was 12, but I remember him as a very serious man who didn’t talk a lot. When he did, it always meant something. He was very much a man who said what he meant and meant what he said.
It was not a surprise when I learned that he was not someone who wanted to work for anyone. Ever. He lived at a time when many African-Americans in the South were tenant farmers. It was difficult to come up with the money to buy land, yet that’s exactly what my grandfather did. In 1936, he purchased 90 acres of land and became a successful produce farmer. That land was passed on to my mother and her siblings and it’s still in the family today.
My sisters and I were telling our children stories about the times we visited the farm when we ourselves were children. I have very specific and pleasurable memories about my grandmother’s peach preserves, taking walks to the pond on the property, and the general mischief that children will get into when let loose on all that land. Our children were fascinated with the stories wanting to know more details, more information, more about our thoughts and feelings.
And then I reflected on The New York Times article, and it all came together. The writer refers to his discussions with a psychologist who conducted a study with children to find out what they knew about their families. The conclusion was that “the more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”
I feel like this was my experience growing up and, of course, I want the same for my children and my nieces and nephews. Our history—as all family histories do—have transcended time and connected people who will never meet. The generation after mine will not know their great-grandparents, but they are tangibly connected to them through the land my grandfather left for future generations. They are connected through the stories of their parents (my cousins) and grandparents (my aunts and uncles).
When you really ponder it, we all have long histories in our families. Think about how many people it took for you to be born. You know you have two parents, but have you ever thought about the fact that you have 16 great-great grandparents? You’ve experienced that if you’ve ever had the opportunity to hear your grandparents talk about their own grandparents. We’re all connected to something bigger than ourselves, something unfathomably huge.
I will continue to make sure that my family is effective, resilient, and happy and one of the ways I will do it is with lots of family stories. I will get more stories from my mother and my aunts and uncles. I will share the triumphs and the tragedies because they all carried us to this day. I will show my children that they come from something wonderful.
How about you? What are some of the family stories you share with your children? Do you think that sharing stories can contribute to a happy family?
Alexis Trass Walker lives in Gary, Indiana, with her husband and four children. She is a writer, a work at home mother, and a new business owner. Read more about Alexis on her blog www.lilliebelle.org, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter @LillieBelle5.