Thanksgiving Legends: The importance of passing on stories in our families, even when we don’t see eye to eye

napudollworld via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

The slow acid churn in the back of your throat, signaling your stomach hiccuping in protest to the fatty (delicious) food you just ate, is the banner of aging. Heartburn is the white flag your body throws, screaming, “Retreat! Retreat!” with each indulgent meal it now struggles to process, especially during the Thanksgiving Holiday.

My relationship to gorging myself on our southern inspired greens, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, ham, and mac and cheese, which typically graces the table during the holiday season, has slowed down (just a bit), but my passion for being fed another intangible and overlooked part of Thanksgiving has only grown: my fervor for family stories.

Growing up, every holiday gathering became a space to tell stories -- some of these stories were funny, like my mother being tricked by her brothers into smearing lemon juice on her skin and hanging out in the sun in the hopes of getting rid of her light brown freckles. Others were sad, capturing early loss or struggles, like my grandmother losing her husband too soon to a boating accident. Some were mundane, or jovial and light, like Star Wars obsessions or making each member bust out the latest dance craze moves.

Each story reflected our present while immortalizing our past. Some stories lived and died on our lips and ears that singular day. Other stories became legends, retold every year to the point that its origin became muddled because we could all crank it out, with our own twists, each moment unfolding with wild gesticulations and impersonations, punctuated by various voices and accents.

The legend of a story, retold each year, morphs into an oral history, becoming tomes that help us give our own life, and the lives of the ones we love, reverence.

Oral Histories are Cathartic and Powerful

When my grandmother tells stories of her childhood in Memphis Tennessee, it gives deeper context in understanding the many factors that shaped the trajectory of her life and essentially our lives -- from racism, poverty, and having a single parent raise her and her siblings, to being part of the great migration across the U.S. to settle in Utah.

I come from a long line of women courageous enough to leave behind what they know, to rewrite their stories with hopefully better endings in an unknown place. These stories aren’t written down, but informally shared over meals and years of spending holiday times catching up and rekindling memories that wisp from one family member to the next.

Oral histories helps us assign meaning to our lives and the lives of others, which is especially helpful for families who have dealt with generations of systemic struggle. The marginalized typically have their stories told, if they are shared at all, without their input or insights, warped with stereotypes and squeezed through one narrow lens or point of view. With personal oral histories we become the narrators, able to give nuance and valuable lessons where others may wipe out entire cultural revelations due to ignorance or lack of care.

Isabella Wilkerson uses the power of oral history beautifully in her award winning, ethnographic work, The Warmth of Other Suns. From 1,200 interviews she crafts a narrative of three lives -- three regular people who take heroic steps on their journey across the nation from their hometowns, just like the millions of African Americans that fled the South to find footing and some semblance of safety during the first half of the 20th century. She elevated their personal journeys in a way that many others can relate to, including myself. This wouldn’t have been possible without each participant tapping into personal, oral histories of their families and their past.  

Storytelling for the Modern Family

We are constantly facing the existential struggle of defining who we are. Our lifestyles, professions, experiences, and outlooks begin to gel into an identity unique to each of us, and it’s constantly shifting. The holidays can make this struggle even clearer -- generational differences, diverging political opinions, and differences in lifestyle can cause strain in families that make the holidays a stressful time that mutes conversations and positive exchange. No one wants to eat their mash potatoes with a side of homophobia/racism/sexism and sometimes being silent can feel like the best route to dealing with one another.

As we get older, we have autonomy in shaping the experience of the holidays. There are limits (some topics/values are non-negotiables for instance) but we can engage in meaningful exchanges that help us to understand each other, and our legacies, a bit better.

I challenge you to give heartburn the middle finger with at least 3 servings of pie, but also to make storytelling the center of your holiday festivities this week. You can create a space for this type of dialogue with four simple steps:

  1. Ask the right questions: Asking the right questions can inspire your family members to share untold and surprising experiences from their past. Ask about their childhoods, their funniest memories, their best moments, their hardest times, their quirks as kids, even their perspective and memories of you as a child. Here are 52 questions that are a great start (don’t ask all of them in one sitting of course, you also have to eat).
  2. Mindfully listen: An exchange takes two -- an active listener and an active teller. So few people truly, mindfully listen because they are either too busy worrying about what they will say in return, thinking about something else, or “multi-tasking” with a multitude of electronic distractions. Turn the TV off, put the text trigger fingers down, and give the person who’s sharing their story your focused attention. In a world where we spend less and less physical time together, engaging in mindfully listening to one another is becoming ever more important to capturing the moments that define a family.
  3. Become a Mirror: After listening intently, offer up insights and other questions about the story you just heard. Retell it back in summary to make sure you understand their experience. By also reflecting back their story, you show its importance to you and also the importance of how their personal experience can impact others in real time.
  4. Make it Permanent: We truly don’t know how much time we have with the ones we love, and each ticking moment is a precious gift of time. Ask permission to record some of these conversations if it feels good and makes sense in the moment. If you have a smartphone, you can easily capture the audio on your Voice Memo app.

Although the holidays can be a stressful time, they have the potential to help individuals reconnect in new ways that build legacies that are beneficial for them and the generations to come after. Between bites of gravy and food coma naps, take a few moments to capture the essence and lived experiences of your loved ones. It’s truly as simple as listening and sharing a good story.