Once upon a time . . .
We all know stories that start that way, stories that our whole culture participates in, stories that provide insights and convey morals and, with luck, end with the words, “Happily ever after.”
They are the stories that are conveyed through myth (though some of them certainly don’t end happily) and are made into movies or television shows. They may be about a specific time or place, but they also express a universality.
But every family has its own stories, too, the tales that make us who we are. In my family we tell stories about sailing ships that crossed the ocean, about grandfathers who came to America seeking the American dream, about men going away to war, dying, and turning up forty years later living in the next county with a new wife.
We tell stories about cowboys and Indians (we’re both in all the stories). We tell stories about riots in the streets, bombings of union halls, working on the roads throughout the depression. We tell stories of wildcatting in the oil fields of Texas and joining utopian communes in New Jersey. We tells stories about crossing the plains in November and December, sleeping under the covered wagon all winter to be there for the sale of railroad land in the spring.
We tell stories about delivering newspapers when it was 30 degrees below zero. We tells stories about when the dog was lost – and blessedly found. We tell stories about when George Washington slept here (or there) and which of the silver spoons (there are two) that served him the meal. We tell stories of murders and gunfights, of trials and acquittals. We tell stories of gin-swilling aunts and ne’er-do-well uncles, of daredevil adventurers and devoted moms and dads.
No doubt you do, too. These are the stories that tell us where we came from, that make us smile or wince or shake our heads in wonder. They are the stories we mine if we are writers, the ones that worm their way into our books because they have become part of our emotional landscape.
Every time I write a book, I find myself digging not only into my grab-bag of locations gleaned from my travels (and judicious use of Google Earth and travel sites online), and into memories of teenage angst, love at first sight, tears of loss, and the joy of reunion, but also into the stories that have been told to me since I was too young to remember. They not only have made me who I am, they’ve made my characters who they are.
When I sit down at the computer, I don’t plan to use those stories. I don’t have to. They are simply there. Are they true? in actual fact, I don’t usually know. But emotionally they resonate. They provide explanation, they give meaning. Mostly whatever else they say, they say that through whatever life throws at us, we are resilient. We can survive.
Romance stories tell us that, too. But they say that we do it better in relationships. We want our happily-ever-afters, no matter what.
What do your family stories tell you?