In recent months, a few of you have asked about why I’m posting less often on this blog—apologies for not giving an explanation sooner. In short, it’s because I’m working full time as a biographer for a family history and storytelling company. So although I’m writing more than ever, the time I have to dedicate to personal writing has been a bit more limited. The following post contains a bit about what I do and why I’ve come to value the preservation of family stories.
Our speaker for the morning was dressed in a floor-length, black, frontier-style dress, complete with hoop skirt and bonnet. As a long-time researcher of the history of the roles of women in the Old West, she was there to share some of her favorite stories with conference attendees, and she chose to start with (of all people) the soiled doves. Let’s just say there was far more information shared than I wanted to hear.
She went on to share about several more groups of women from that time period. Most of the audience seemed to be enthralled. I found myself listening with mixed opinions. On the one hand, I love history because I love stories, so hearing these historical odds and ends was interesting. But some of her stories were just plain depressing, and it made me think about why we record history, why we share and pass down our stories.
Someone involved in the company I work for shared the story of Jehonadab, son of Rekab, from the Bible with me and a few co-workers—it serves as an apt example of the impact of family stories. Jehonadab is first mentioned briefly in 2 Kings 10 as a companion of Jehu, the future king of Israel. “Come with me and see my zeal for the Lord,” Jehu tells him. So Jehonadab accompanies Jehu as he wreaks havoc on the wicked house of King Ahab and the worshipers of Baal.
After that Jehonadab disappears from the pages of Scripture until a rather obscure passage in Jeremiah 35. The Lord tells Jeremiah to invite the Rekabites to the temple and give them wine to drink, but when Jeremiah obeys, the Rekabites give him this reply:
“But they replied, ‘We do not drink wine, because our forefather Jehonadab son of Rekab gave us this command: “Neither you nor your descendants must ever drink wine. Also you must never build houses, sow seed or plant vineyards; you must never have any of these things, but must always live in tents. Then you will live a long time in the land where you are nomads.” We have obeyed everything our forefather Jehonadab son of Rekab commanded us.’” Jeremiah 35:6-8
The Lord then rebukes the people of Israel for not obeying His words as the Rekabites obeyed those of Jehonadab.
But where this really gets interesting is in considering how it was that the Rekabites were still obeying Jehonadab’s words generations later. For them to know exactly what Jehonadab had said, the Rekabites must have repeated his words over and over. Every night beside the fire, a father would lean down to his son and say, “Do you remember the story of Jehonadab? Do you remember what he told us to do?” Every night they would tell the stories, and every year they would continue to remember.
Stories—they’re the lifeblood of memories. Without them, words and lessons have a way of fading from our minds. But with stories, the moments, the values, the heritage—well, they at least have a fighting chance of living on.
In the last year, I’ve written stories for a variety of families. Some were about childhood memories; some were about careers; some were about loved ones who had passed on. Some were excited about the opportunity to pass on their history to their children or grandchildren. Some were hesitant or uncertain, wondering if they had anything worth saying. But after a year of doing this, I have to say: I have yet to hear a story that won’t be meaningful to the child or grandchild of the one telling it.
I think that’s part of why the conference speakers’ stories of women in the Old West meant less to me—the stories weren’t mine. They didn’t belong to my family.
They also didn’t belong to the speaker—not really. She had done the thorough research needed to tell them well, yes, but research can’t quite compare to hearing the heart of a loved one through their exact words, recorded just for you.
But I think there’s an additional reason those historical stories didn’t mean as much to me. When our speaker told those stories, she simply told us what had happened and nothing about how those events had affected or changed the women involved—she didn’t tell us anything about the meaning of the stories.
That’s not to say that every story needs a moral. When I was young, I enjoyed hearing about the escapades of the pets my dad had growing up, and none of those stories had or needed a moral. But I think when we consider which stories we want to pass on to the next generation, it is the morals, or values, that make those stories more meaningful.
A story of a fun family vacation is made meaningful by hearing about how it drew the family closer together.
A story of a difficult tragedy is made meaningful by hearing what those involved learned through that hard time.
A story of a loved one who has passed on is made meaningful by hearing about the legacy that individual has left for current and future generations.
Stories are powerful at any time, in any place. But they work their magic best when we understand their connection to us and when we understand the meaning woven into their words.