Monday, 20 May 2013

How and why do Family Stories become Family History?

Where do family stories become family history?  Every time a group meets news is transferred, the latest information or gossip is passed on.  But which are the stories that become family history?  I suppose they would be the ones that are repeated more than once, that get passed from group to group and that resurface on regular intervals retold and reinforced.

Do we choose which stories to pass on to the next generation?  How much editing, to save embarrassment or to make the content suitable for the listeners, do we do consciously?  As family historians we are aware that we can never know the whole story behind a picture or a document - do we need to? 

Are the stories that are passed on the ones that illustrate a particular aspect of the family that, by consensus, we feel we need to emphasise?  Or is it just as simple as repeating interesting scandal and gossip that catch the attention of the group? We tell the stories which help us to feel a connection with the family members who are present, choosing not to repeat those which may alienate the listeners, or which might be of no interest to the group.

Popular stories are often those which remind us collectively, in a way which draws us closer together, of the members who are now gone from the group.  Stories about family members who are no longer with us can contain details that, if about a person still alive, may not have been repeated for fear of anger, disappointment or shame.  We love to find a common point of interest, a memory that is shared is more powerful than just one person's account. 

"Do you remember?" or "That was when you ..." Imagine these stories as the sticky threads of a spider's web, pulling us into the conversation, giving the speaker more authority by virtue of our participation and agreement over the details and content of the story.

If we find ourselves telling a story that turns people away or which elicits no interest we stop, change the subject, take the story down a different route - that is effectively an editing of the family stories by the consensus of the group.  Whereas a tale that causes people to go at once to another person, maybe in another room or who was distracted or out of earshot for the first telling and retell it again so they have not missed out, those are the stories which will be passed on and on. 

Yesterday I met a whole house full of my extended family, many for the first time face-to-face.  Some I knew virtually, through Facebook, some I had met at family weddings and funerals.  Some were comfortable talking to us, we who were 'relative' strangers, others kept their distance for a while.  Little children are great ice breakers in these situations, and once their initial shyness around new people was over they became amongst the friendliest of all, keen to collect a new adult willing to smile and praise them.

When a story was told that had a theme which evoked mirroring remarks and stories from the listeners, it encouraged the original story teller to expand upon their tale with details missed from the first telling as they now knew they had their audience's attention.  Sometimes this effect bounced back and forth between several story tellers with more and more detail being added to the tales as the narrators sought to reassure each other that they were sympathetic to the stories being told by their companions.

Finding someone who shares your world view, be it on beer or ex-husbands, childcare or education encourages you to speak more freely - this is not a phenomenon restricted to family gatherings.  But the stories we tell at family gatherings will become family stories, will become part of our family history and we choose them to suit the company, to suit the event, as tools to gain entry and acceptance to the group if we are new or to reinforce our status in the group if a longstanding member.

How do family stories become family history?   They are our collective memories, edited and agreed by the group.  They cannot exist without the consensus of the group - stories which do not 'fit' will not be accepted, stories which we 'discover' may, despite the documentary evidence behind them, never become part of the family canon.  Yet the stories on which we all agree, no matter how loosely based in reality, will become valued family history in time and will be fiercely defended against all comers!

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