Monday, March 10, 2008

The Scoop

Every so often I’m startled to realize that I’m now the senior member of my family of origin. No more grandparents, parents or older brother. Once the third oldest cousin on my dad’s side, now I’m the oldest. It’s the natural progression of life -- while losing senior family members the younger generations become prolific. That is good.

Memories sustain us and fortunately I’m saturated with so many. I don’t have personal memories of my great-grandparents, on either side of my family. One set lived far away in Colorado and died when I was young. The other three sets pre-deceased me. Despite not knowing them I heard stories about them and could recognize pictures of them. A few years ago, following the deaths of my parents, I found some of those pictures in my folks’ attic when I was emptying out their house. Several of those pictures now hang on my walls.

Today, like most mornings, I did my time on the stationary bike. The bike’s in the same room where two of my paternal great grandparents’ portraits now hang in their lacquered oval frames. Pedaling away while looking into the eyes of my great grandmother’s portrait day after day does something to me. She’s young in this portrait—probably in her mid to late 30’s. She died young—on Christmas Eve in 1918 from the influenza, during the horrific pandemic. While I can’t say that I’ve learned anything new about my great-grandmother these past few years, I can tell you that I’m more connected to her and enjoy my time in her portrait’s presence each morning.

My story doesn’t end here.

Downstairs in my kitchen I was baking bread last night. You can’t make cranberry cheese bread without sugar, and as I measured the sugar I was feeling connected to yet another great-grandmother. This one is on my mom’s side. The sugar scoop I use is tin, and black with age. It was first my great-grandmother’s, then my grandmother’s, then my mother’s and now it’s mine. Using the scoop adds an unnecessary step in food prep. For years (when it was in my mom’s sugar canister) I did just fine fetching my sugar. But today, each time I hold that little tin scoop in my hand I feel grateful, grateful for the other hands that held it. It’s my little magic time machine that takes me back to other kitchens, other times.

One of the greatest honours that we can bestow upon our ancestors is to remember them. This is a quote I found while preparing this entry for the blog. It was included in a website about the Art of Ancestral Storytelling. It’s said that, regret is the cancer of life, and one of my great regrets is that I wasn’t more proactive, diligent or sensitive in gathering my family’s histories and stories. But, rather than dwelling on unanswered questions, or untold stories I can begin to record the ones I do know and remember. Like an amateur archeologist I can weave some stories from my recollections and the wonderful family artifacts (heirlooms?) now integrated into my own home. While it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever have the privilege of knowing my own great-grandchildren I can leave them a gift of their ancestry by recording mine, and those who went before me. And you can bet that among my written ramblings will be included a little black tin sugar scoop.

Since the beginning of time, and throughout history, stories have bound us together through their teachings, their influencing and informing, not to mention their entertainment value. Yet we’ve all but lost "natural" story telling traditions and skills today. Rather we rely on professionals to tell us stories through TV, movies and books. So what can we do to see that our own personal stories get told? We can write things down without worry of “perfection.” Our purpose is not to sell volumes or make a best sellers’ list, but rather to connect one generation to the next and on down the line. We can make albums that include stories and pictures. We can make audio or video recordings of our stories, we can interview other family relatives and include their voices, their stories. We can tell a story that no one else can.

“Generativity”-- producing new life or offspring. For over a decade Dan P. McAdams, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, and his students have been examining this concept of generativity in the context of the adult’s concern for and commitment to the next generation – through both quantitative surveys and qualitative analyses of life stories. His recent book, The Redemptive Self: Stories American Live By integrates research and images of the life stories of American adults. This book won the 2006 William James Award from the American Psychological Association for best general-interest book in psychology, across all subfields.

This entry submitted by guest blogger, Cathy Colbert Inman