November 18, 2012
Sometime in the next few weeks — Thanksgiving Day, maybe — you're likely to sit down at a holiday table with family members and start trading stories about your shared past.
Preserving family stories, I think, is one mission of the holidays. No other time of year is as conducive to sitting down together to talk, to remember, to stitch the pieces of the past into a crazy quilt.
Remember the time? Someone will say that. Remember the time dad did this or mom did that or loopy old Aunt Betty Jean did that thing?
Someone will start the story, then someone else will chime in, and if you're paying attention you'll realize that every time the storyteller changes, so does the story.
There's nothing like telling a shared story in a group, person by person, to make you realize that your version of it is incomplete. Telling a story collectively — a new detail here, a different shade of color there — moves it closer to whole.
I come from a big family and I notice how differently my siblings and I remember what happened to us as children. We usually agree on the broad outlines of events that we mutually witnessed. We often extract similar lessons.
But for each of us the details and the emphases are different. Like cameras that snap photos from different angles at a single event, we have retained different images.
I started thinking about this a few years ago when I was talking over dinner with my mother and my brother Joe. The conversation turned to the time when my financially distressed family moved into a motel room, a period I've occasionally discussed with friends and siblings and have by now reduced to a set of familiar headlines.
But until Joe started talking about that episode in our family, it didn't occur to me that I'd never heard his version, and as he told it, I realized: I don't know this story. His story. And I don't even exist in his story, do I?
After being briefly piqued that I didn't figure into his memory of that moment in our collective past, I realized something else: He hardly figured into my version of the story, either. Most significantly, he didn't know how that time felt to me any more than I'd known how it felt to him.
I was 17, almost an adult, when the motel adventure happened. Joe was 11, only a boy. I was on my way out of the family. He was stuck in it.
Only in hearing the tale his way did I start to realize how frightening that time must have been to him. I became more curious to know exactly what it was like for my other siblings. A story that was old to me became new.
A friend recounts a similar revelation during one of his recent family dinners. In 1963, his dad fell off a horse.
Almost 50 years later, as he and his siblings went around the table recalling the incident, they realized none of them carried it in the same way.
"Only in recalling it at a family gathering," he says, "did we begin to mesh the puzzle pieces."
All of us are the protagonists of our own lives, the heroes of our own dramas. Holiday gatherings are a chance to deepen our family stories as well as to preserve them.
Here's a good holiday exercise: Pick a family story. Go around the table and let different people tell it. See how it changes and brings you a little closer to what really happened.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC