When you stop to think about it, it is an amazing stroke of fate that any of us is here. We are each so unique. The chance of someone just like any of us existing has got to be close to zero, less likely than the chance of winning the Mega Millions (which, by the way, is now up to $253 million here in California).
It is no wonder that, in recent years, there has been an uptick in interest in genealogy. It is hard not to be curious about exactly where you came from, how you ended up being you. I hear so many stories of regret that parents and grandparents didn’t write their memoirs, didn’t take time to tell us more of their stories. As if it were their responsibilities to do so! Most of us could have learned many of these stories, if only we had taken a genuine interest, had taken the time to ask.
I particularly enjoyed Rachel Mankowitz’s blog today, in which she describes her efforts to start a memoir-writing workshop for interested members of the elderly congregation of her synagogue. All those incredible stories, just waiting to come out and see the light of day. For many, this could be the last chance to avoid having those stories lost forever. But life gets in the way, and things like bridge club and winter flight to warm weather refuge in Florida took precedence. Unfortunately, Rachel’s class dwindled week to week, until only she and her mother remained.
I don’t know what it is that makes us think that our stories aren’t important, or at least not as important as other things we could be doing. Each of us has a unique voice, and perhaps we think no one is interested in hearing it because, well, no one bothered to ask before, and now, so late in the game, well, why does it matter?
But it does matter. Family stories are precious, for what happened to those before us played a part in making us what we are now. So I hope my niece tells her little daughter stories that her grandmother told her about how her mother was a child in Oklahoma whose family came west to work in California’s agriculture industry. And stories about sisters’ boyfriends and misleading a guy in the army with another girl’s photo — the crazy, amazing stuff of fate.
As for myself, I know I wouldn’t be here if my grandmother hadn’t, as a young woman, overheard a conversation on a train in central Europe, a story about going to America that convinced her to do the same thing herself. And that I wouldn’t be here had she stuck with her resolve not to marry my grandfather, a decision made in steerage while violently ill during a tempestuous Atlantic crossing. (When she arrived at Ellis Island, she found that she had to marry him after all in order to have a sponsor, without which immigration officials would have shipped her right back to Europe.)
I thought about family stories today while on the phone with my mother. She started telling me about how, when she was first married, my father was in the Air Force in southern New Jersey and hitchhiked home to New York City on the weekends. During the week, my mother attended college and lived back at home, sleeping on a fold-out bed in the living room of her parents’ one-bedroom apartment. My parents wanted an apartment in which to spend the weekends together (they played tennis and went to the movies, I’m told), but the only one they could find that was affordable was on the other side of the city, reachable only by several changes of buses and subways. Fortunately, the college was close to her parents’ apartment.
The newlyweds’ weekend getaway was in an apartment building filled with very poor people of diverse cultures and ages. My mother regaled me with stories of toddlers running out into the hallway naked and of the elderly couple living right above them (apparently the wife killed the husband, possibly by hitting him over the head with an alarm clock).
You’ve got to love it! I feel honored to know about how my parents began their lives together in the 1950s.
In a restaurant last night, my wife and I found ourselves seated behind a talkative gentleman. He was telling stories to the hapless server, who couldn’t find a way to politely tell him that, um, she had work to do? When the server finally extricated herself from his clutches, the guy began chatting up the elderly couple sitting across the aisle. He asked the old man whether he was in the war, and when he answered in the affirmative, shook his hand and thanked him for serving our country. Then he told the old couple that they so reminded him of his parents, at which point the guy became teary-eyed. He ended up buying them dessert. We found the whole thing to be a touching scene.
Here was a man who not only was eager to tell his own stories, but appreciated the richness of life related in the stories of others.
Please, go tell your story to someone you love. Do it today.