The Stories of Our People
by Carl Josehart
Looking up at me with expectant eyes, she implores me
“Tell me a Pepper story.”
My niece, barely past her 5th birthday at the time is begging me to tell her a story about my childhood pet Schnauzer, Pepper.
Her father, my brother, often told her stories from his childhood before bedtime.
You see, our mother died mere weeks after my niece was born so she never had a chance to know her grandmother. My brother was hoping that through telling his daughter stories, she would come to know her grandmother.
At the time of this interaction with my niece she was desperately longing for her own pet dog and was more fascinated by stories of her father’s childhood pet then of a grandmother she barely met as a newborn.
Trying to satisfy my brother’s wishes and my niece’s insistent pleading I struggled to remember stories that involved my mother and our pet dog.
“Daddy already told me that one – tell me another one.”
Running out of stories I am struck by how hard it is to sum up a lifetime of memories into stories of everyday life. I found myself piecing together memories of events that happened at different times into apocryphal stories, if you will, that express an attribute of my mother’s that I wish my niece to know about. In essence creating Josehart family Midrash (folklore) – stories of our family interpolated into that space between fact and memory that express the essence of the attributes and values we hold dear as a family.
Spending time with my niece recently (she is now a college junior) over the Thanksgiving holiday – my mind began to ponder the ritual nature of some holiday celebrations. I began to realize the great challenge that lies before me – as an infrequent visitor into the lives of the children growing up in our family for me to create a strong, living connection to them in experience and memory.
Just as I found it difficult many years ago to impart a sense of relationship to my niece who missed knowing her grandmother firsthand by a few short years; it is also difficult to create a sense of personal connection between family members – especially the children – even today when we live miles apart and see each other only a few times a year.
These challenges have led me to a newer and more profound understanding for the tradition of story telling that is so much a part of my Jewish heritage as well as so many other faith and ethnic traditions. Telling you the facts – that my mother was born in 1938, died in 1996 and was 5 feet tall – seems so much less important than telling you that she enjoyed eating ice cream before bedtime, that her eyes squinted shut when she laughed and that when I was growing up she would often sit just out of sight on the bend of the stairway in order to listen when friends and I would discuss books we were reading in school.
Similarly, at Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, Easter or Passover – as we gather with our families and listen to our relatives tell stories of generations long past – often for the hundredth time – it is important for us to open our hearts to hear the message being conveyed about these cherished people. To understand that we don’t need to accept the factual accuracy of each story to respect the emotional integrity of the message – the innate truth of the lives that they lived as remembered by the ones that loved them and want us to know them as they did.
The opening of many prayers in the Jewish tradition call to mind previous generations, near as well as distant. Perhaps this can serve as a reminder to take a few moments when you gather with family during this holiday season to think about your parents, your grandparents, and other relatives about whom you may have heard stories or shared important moments. Think about your connection to them and then join in creating the next link in the chain of memory by telling their stories. In doing so we can add our own voices and memory to our family folklore and become a living link in the chain of memory and relationship connecting generations past and present and to the ones that follow.
Happy holidays, my mom asked me to say hello. She says your looking a little thin and should eat something.