Much to my joy and satisfaction, the first thing that my nine-year-old granddaughter Emilia does when she sees me is to give me a huge hug. You know, one of those hugs that go on forever and actually has to be ended by telling her to let go. But, the second thing that she does is to say, “Grandma, do you have any stories?” Now, she doesn’t mean stories of the fairy tale variety. On no, she means the kind of family stories that entertain, enlighten, and bring her closer to me and my immediate family, as well as to all those family members that she barely knows the names of.
As we know, and as Eric has already written about so eloquently in another blog, part of what makes us human is story-telling. We share the use of tools, communication, and intellect with non-human animals, but we, as humans, are unique in our need and ability to tell stories. We live in a narrative, and when, for reasons of brain injury or dementia, we lose that narrative, we invent one. For example, split-brained patients, or those who have lost the ability to communicate between the hemispheres of their brains, will invent narratives to explain otherwise curious circumstances. Put a spoon into the right hand of a split-brained patient, and s/he will tell you, say, that s/he is just about to have some ice cream. There must be a narrative there, even when one does not exist.
Emilia is searching for that narrative (and she offers her own stories quite often), but my dilemma is always what stories to tell her, and when. Of course, I have told her many of the funny stories about myself and other family members—like the time my sister Rusty pulled a total stranger off a public toilet seat by her feet (from under the door), thinking that it was my sister Libby that she was pulling onto that cold, hard, damp floor. However, due to a pair of identical sneakers, it was some poor total stranger who was yanked onto the floor, bare-bottomed, by another total stranger. It makes me laugh every time I think about it, despite the horror of the poor woman who probably ended up with a broken coccyx.
It is the darker stories that I wonder about telling. The ones about death, abuse, and the loss of so much innocence. I have told her a bit about her biological grandfather—not a nice or good man—but only enough to give her hints of a life long past, not enough toinvade her mother’s privacy. But, I have never told her the stories about all the cousins that she has lost, or the circumstances of their untimely deaths, and perhaps it is time to begin. But, I do not want her to become afraid or overly saddened by the loss of people she never knew, in the way that her mother once was. Of course, her mother watched me lose person after person, in that deeply difficult way of having to deal with deaths that do not affect you in a directly personal way. It would be different, I know, yet I wonder about age and timing, while, all the while, wanting her to know about these wonderful, bright, funny, and dearly-loved family members.
I also wonder about the stories of abuse. I do not want her to hate or resent her great-grandparents on my side—God knows I don’t. I learned long ago that there is a fine line between good and evil, and that some actions and some people don’t fit neatly into either category. I want her to know about me, as a little girl, devoted to my mother and remembering to this day the wonderful times that we shared together. And I even want her to know about my father, although the relationship we shared was much more complex than the one I shared with my mother. Still, I have forgiven him. But, how do I explain him without telling more of the story? I struggle with the answer to that question and just keep waiting until she is older.
Sometimes, I come to the conclusion that my family stories are much too complex for anyone who did not live them to fully comprehend. But, Eric comprehends them. And I wonder whether Emilia, with her love of family stories, will be our memory and our comfort when we are too old to remember the details ourselves. Besides, we have wonderful writers in our family,
novelists and short-story writers, and she may well be the next one in that long line. She needs the full and well-rounded perspective from which to tell her own stories and from which to write or simply talk. I want to be part of that history for her and to help fill in her own history.
I’m not sure how I will tell the stories from here, but I think that the next one might be about her beautiful, bright, and funny cousin who was hit by a car at two years old and killed. It might not be a light-hearted story, but it is one that comes from the heart and has changed our entire family. Maybe it is time to introduce her to Katy and all that she brought to my family in her life and by her death. I’m not sure exactly how I will proceed, but I am ever so grateful for that little girl who wants to know. May she carry on the narrative of a complex and loving family for as long as she loves to hear and to tell stories.