Wednesday, July 13, 2011

On Life’s Terms

Family stories


In late May I was privileged to hear seniors at the Community School talk about projects close to home and all over the world. They were wonderful in every sense, but one stimulated my thinking about the joys of being in a family: the passing on of family stories to future generations.

This student visited her large family in the South to examine her definition of family and the sense of belonging it engenders: She was not disappointed, and some of the tales she heard from her grandpappy and those who loved him will be with her as long as she lives.

One was the saga of the family dog that had eaten a new bird the family had acquired: The pup was "put on trial" for murder. The evidence was irrefutable, as he had feathers in his mouth. Though all knew it was a pretend situation, a noose was suspended from a nearby bush to "hang" the perpetrator, and all the children dreaded Grandpappy's decision.

However, when the guilty verdict was pronounced, Grandma announced to everyone how ridiculous this was and gave the doggie an irreversible pardon. I can imagine being one of the dozen kids sitting on the fence dreading the verdict! Even with exaggeration and the knowledge of the fantasy behind the tale, it is part of the family lore.

I may have mentioned before in this column how I regret not being more persistent with my Aunt Linnea in the several years I visited her at her convalescent home. The last living family member of my parents' generation, Aunty Linnea was my mother's best friend and also like a second mother to me.

After my mother's passing, Aunty Linnea assumed the role of grandma to my daughters. She was always a fount of information about the heritage of our Swedish family and my mother and all the people who showed up to bask in the warmth of my parents' home during the Depression and during the rest of their lives.

Aunty Linnea knew it all, but I didn't ask her, except for one question: Did she know what my mother meant by the "secret" she expressed and wished she had revealed to me—but didn't—just before she died? She answered "no."

While I don't know just how to get family stories out of the elderly, except by the traditional oral method (I am sensitive to the idea that they may think we are on a death watch), I know that I am anxious to convey to my daughters, their husbands and any grandchildren, what the essence of my family life was. Let's just ask, in a subtle way.

As you can assume, having read me, my girls have learned more than they may need to know about their mother's family. I am nothing if not garrulous. At the same time, I wish my mother had been more open to the preservation of family memories and that she had written them down.

I believe that laughter is essential to all of us, and family stories often provide this in a loving way. My mother told me about how my cousin Helene and I, aged 6, put oranges in our blouses to convince visiting sailors we were teenagers.

That almost matched a story of my father's about getting sick during a radio broadcast in the network studios on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco in the 40s. He didn't miss a beat in his announcing because he opened a window to the streets of San Francisco and vomited into the air. Other family stories may be apocryphal, but I cherish them nonetheless.

According to legend, my grandfather, a young Swedish sea captain, was anchored in San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake and rescued a Salvation Army lassie who worked nearby at a refuge for Swedish sailors. They eventually married and had four children. He died at sea at the age of 39. Whether or not the actual circumstances are accurate, I don't care,

It is like the story of my birth, most likely exaggerated. My wonderful parents told me that they found me in an orphanage when, out of some 300 babies, they saw a small fist waving in the back, went to that bassinet, and chose me. As an adult, I know that is a glorified version of my adoption, but again, who cares! I grew up with the knowledge that I was chosen and truly belonged where I was. Family stories can do that.

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