Lately I have been thinking about the meta-meaning of family stories. Pardon me for employing such a vague and voguish term, but no other phrase quite seems to express the concept I’m reaching for: some ultimate tier of abstraction that might help me articulate the irresistible (for me) appeal of those family stories I consume so eagerly.
Seeking a framework for my thoughts, I turned to the Internet, where I ran immediately into trouble. The diversity of opinion on the Web—to say nothing of its diversity of assumptions, methods, and orientation—is bewildering. A Google blog search on family history returned as its third and fourth entries links to the Family History Information Standards Organization and a FamilySearch blog, Preserving Family History in Sub-Saharan Africa. Such disparate answers to one question—it’s like asking “What time is it?” and hearing a loud, deep voice intone “Columbus” while another breathy one trills “vanilla.”
The Family History Information Standards Organization takes a systems-oriented approach to genealogical data. Declaring itself an information standards-setting organization, it seeks to develop “open, international, technology standards and supporting documentation and services.” My day job requires a passing familiarity with industrial standards, so I recognize this approach. Still, nothing prepared me for the list of papers FHISO has received on subjects like Proposal to use GEDCOM X’s container format and Type safety in an extensible data model.
In our overwhelmingly technological age, I suppose it was inevitable that someone might unpack thoughts like these. I suppose they also have a certain theoretical purity, in an age like ours. But for a writer like me, who starts with fragments of memory and apocrypha—great-grandmother’s radiant beauty, uncle’s mechanical ineptitude, an automobile ablaze by the side of a road—it’s hard to how these constructs might result in a work of beauty and truth.
The FamilySearch blog was less technical, but not ultimately more helpful. Glenn Greener described the urgency of collecting family lore in Africa, where urbanization is rapidly drawing the young to the cities, leaving the elders and griots bereft in their villages and desperate for successors. Greener succinctly describes the role of oral history in African societies, where verbally transmitted genealogies preserve vital knowledge of clan, custom, caste, property, and tradition. He leaves out, however, the artistic power of this method of recording family history. If you have ever seen an African griot perform—splendid in dress, majestic in voice, magnificent in unimpeachable dignity—you have witnessed one of the rare wonders of the world, and your own life is in some measure complete.
The griot nudges me in the direction I want to go, but other obstacles appear. I have only so much material to work with. My lineage is obscured by centuries of diaspora. Only four generations are known to me. Besides, I am modern in outlook, not traditional. I have no experience of pastoral life. I do not speak the ancestral tongues. Religion has no hold on me. I am shaped instead by speed, power, wealth, satiety, technology, instantaneous communication, and a glut of media, dripping with irony and self-regard.
Besides, I can barely carry a tune.
When theory fails me, I fall back on some combination of feeling and reason. I start with feeling because I notice that every memory—an argument, a joke, a ho-hum day at work, a painful sunburn or moment of carnal pleasure—is imbued with it. Maybe I oversimplify, but life itself seems reducible at times to a passage from one feeling-state to another. So I start with feeling, or a feeling. Then I attempt to reason backward to its origins and forwards to its implications.
The sixth entry in my Google blog search led to a writer who share my methods. Anna Wiley, a student at Sacramento Country Day School, shares her family history in Even after the 40th telling, I love the story of my grandfather’s pet crow. She writes of her great-grandfather, a coal digger and bootlegger, and of her grandfather’s pet crow, which prattled like some ill-tempered mynah. She also notes the family lore that places her great-great grandfather in a World War I bunker with Benito Mussolini. I recognize the shiver a thing like that produces.
So which stories belong in my history, then, and why? My provisional answer is that the best stories link to other stories, revealing character in their accumulation of nuance and detail. The best ones also recall the times our relatives lived in and the way they responded to those times.
I like the image of my great-grandmother Edith Letwin’s radiant white hair because it leads to the story of her funeral, which reveals how deeply my Uncle Jay loved Edith when he was a child and how frightened he was at her laying out in the house on Shady Avenue, which leads in turn to the origin of the deeply felt enmity between Jay and my late aunt, Phyllis Esterman. Edith died in 1940, and the reverberations of her death are still faintly audible.
I’m also fond of the story about my father’s Valiant, which unexpectedly burst into flames on the Hollywood Freeway one day in the early 1960s. I like the image this story evokes—my father in a surge of manic energy, frantically signalling for help by the side of the road—of the story’s aftermath, which has my father selling or giving the car to my Uncle David after the mechanic patched it up. It does not seem far-fetched to me that so equivocal a transaction could take place between siblings. Mind you, I have no proof that my recall is accurate on this point, and my loyalty to truth requires me to label this epilogue as apocrypha. But the possibility that it is factually incorrect does not diminish its value.
© 2014, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.