Commentary: Give the gift of story this year
As a young woman, Steve’s grandmother, Miriam Wasilsky, left her small village in what is now Lithuania and moved to the city of Bialystok, Poland, looking for work. She found a job in a dry goods store, and to mark her new life, asked a local photographer to take her picture.
The photographer liked the image so much that he displayed it in his front window. As family legend goes, Steve’s grandfather, Avram Rogowsky, passed the studio every day and gradually fell in love with the girl in the photo. They eventually met, agreed to be married and moved to America — where their first child, Steve’s dad, Will, was born 97 years ago this month.
Miriam became lifelong friends with the daughter of the shopkeeper who gave her a job. And just a few months ago, the grandson of that woman contacted Steve with a message: “I was going through a batch of family photos. I found the original picture your grandfather saw in that window. I’ll send it to you.”
And so at Thanksgiving, we passed around the photo and told two of Miriam’s great-great-grandchildren the story of where it came from. Where they came from.
Stories have always played an essential part in family life, especially at this time of year, around the holidays. But it turns out that trading tales has a larger and more vital purpose than filling the time between watching football and making dinner.
Bruce Feiler, who writes the “This Life” column for The New York Times, examined the scientific literature about family cohesion — psychology, sociology, even neurology — and summarized his findings earlier this year: “After a while, a surprising theme emerged. The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: Develop a strong family narrative.”
Feiler focused on the work of two Emory University researchers, Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush. In the late ’90s they interviewed 48 families, taped their dinner table conversations and then subjected their children to a battery of psychological tests.
“The more children knew about their family’s history,” Feiler wrote, “the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”
After 9/11, the researchers returned to the families and asked more questions. “Once again,” Duke told Feiler, “the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.”
The sources of that strength “have to do with a child’s sense of being part of a larger family,” says Duke. Or as Feiler put it, “They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.”
In an essay for The Huffington Post, Duke added a critical and fascinating point: The content of family stories is not as important as the process of telling them.
“In order to hear family stories,” he wrote, “people need to sit down with one another and not be distracted. Some people have to talk and some have to listen. The stories need to be told over and over and the times of sitting together need to be multiple and occur over many years.”
We know the truth of those words firsthand. Our six grandchildren want to hear the same family stories “over and over.” They relish the idea that “they belong to something bigger than themselves.”
Some years ago Steve wrote a memoir, “My Fathers’ Houses,” which includes the story of how his grandparents met and other family narratives. The New York Times review of the book said it read like “a bedtime story for the Robertses’ grandkids.” And they did not mean that as a compliment.
Steve’s reaction was: Guilty as charged. That’s exactly what I did. But how is that a problem?
Now, as a teacher of young writers at George Washington University, Steve encourages his students to mine their own families for material. For one thing, he tells them, your grandmother never says “no comment.” More seriously, he knows that students will be engaged and energized by what they learn.
Every family has stories worth remembering and recording. And since every cellphone is now a tape recorder and a video camera, preserving the past is easier than ever.
So a suggestion: This holiday season, share your family stories, even the sad and scary ones. You’ll be giving the younger generations a priceless gift — their own history. Their own identity. That’s a lot more enduring than the latest Xbox.