Family stories are a part of your DNA. Sorry, Uncle Al. (Photo: Matthew White/Painting by Fred Mandell)

If you tell me you come from a family without any jaw-dropping, bat-sh$t crazy stories I will cry because that simply can’t be true

A Leica camera is passed down through three generations, each owner snapping photographs reflective of his time and position. It’s chronicled amazing sights, including the maiden voyage of the QE2. It’s been all over Europe. And then the most recent inheritor sells the camera to help pay for college.

A young, married man is dying of cancer. At night he dreams of his pending death. He chronicles these dreams on paper when he wakes. After his death, his younger cousin, a college student, searches for those recorded dreams, an intimate glimpse into private night dwellings.

A third student tells of her great, great uncle who was kidnapped by Gypsies in Ireland when he was in his 20s — at least according to the family scroll, a precise chronicler of the family tree. He was never seen or heard from again.

The class is gripped by these tales, lived experiences that capture our attention for the drama, the loss, the connection to a different space in history.


“My family is so boring,” said a student who feels she has no such family stories to tell.

“Mine too,” seconds another.

“Can I borrow some of your stories?” asks a third.

My great Uncle Eddie killed a German soldier during WWII, searched through his rucksack and found a Mein Kampf. I produced a documentary about this family story.

The class is divided into the haves and the have-nots. There are those whose recollections are rich with the quirky, out-of-the-ordinary, moving and narratively seductive family lore that is the backbone of our existence. And there are the less fortunate, those who believe their family to be boring because there’s no recollection of a grandma who was kidnapped by Iowa’s native population in 1918, no memory of a great uncle who brought home a copy of Mein Kampf during World War II, or no memory of the dad who barely escaped with his life when visiting Mississippi from New York during Freedom Summer.

In class today, where students were required to investigate a family myth or legend or heirloom, I had no verbal response to those who see their families as boring. I think I grinned sadly. But now I want to say this: The stories are there and they are your birthright. If you do not know of them, maybe it’s because you haven’t asked or haven’t yet listened or are so accustomed to them that they don’t seem special.

I’m not necessarily a cynic by nature. But there’s something about being a college instructor — and also a recovering journalist (and also a liberal) — that has made me more cynical than my natural state of being. But if there’s one arena in which I am a sappy, hokey, corny person it’s in the realm of family stories.

Give me your crazy, loony, tear-inducing tales of your nutjob aunt and your over-zealous grandma and I will lend you two eager ears. Just don’t say your family lacks these narrative gems. The prospect of a family void of myth, legend, tall-tales and verifiable lore is too sad for me to process. Because to me it implies distance. It implies a family structure that keeps its crazy all bottled up, blocking a story’s passage from one generation to the next.

Let the stories flow freely. They’re what’s left when we’re gone. If the stories don’t flow, how else will anyone remember us? In a literal, fact-based way? I hope not. Give me narrative. Give me emotion. I heartily endorse a generational game of story-telling telephone. Don’t be a bore.

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