I believe wholeheartedly that family stories matter. It is important to know them and to understand their meaning.
My graduate school thesis was titled, Family Folklore and the Role of Storytelling.
Here’s an excerpt.
Both of my grandmothers, my mother, and my aunt married by the time they were 18 years old, but I believed this was the custom of their generation, something old-fashioned and not relevant to my life. These women grew up in Jewish communities in Brooklyn, fourteen hundred miles from where I was raised in New Orleans, and yet their marriage stories were remarkably similar to my own. Through my research on family folklore and the role of storytelling, I learned that this was no coincidence. I learned that the values and beliefs of my family had been passed down through stories, and for the first time in my life, I understood that the choices I made as an adult were not always random, individual choices but actually family policy.
I go on to ask,
How free are we to choose our destiny?
How much of what we do is dictated to us by the generations before us?
Every family has its lore and without awareness our individual choices may not really be choices. We may simply be following a path that someone else has determined for us.
“History is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” - James Baldwin
In doing family research, I came to realize how my ancestors and their stories (including family lessons, rules, and expectations) have swayed me.
Could it be true that I might have made different choices if family history had been analyzed?
It’s hard to know for certain but in understanding that family stories shape us, it seems essential that we continue to explore our cultural heritage.
You can chose to repeat your family history, or parts of it, but maybe you don't have to. You can create your own story: take what you need and leave the rest.
Here’s an idea to get your family stories going…
Folklorists have observed that courtship stories are staples in all families. These stories often describe how the family began.
Next time you're sitting around with your family, share your courtship stories.
How are the stories the same or different?
Did you discover anything that surprised you?