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The family lives in spoken history. Stories of ancestors - far and near - can serve as inspiration

By Ellen SteeseStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 12, 1988



Boston

EVERY family has its myths - its fabulous characters - enshrined in time and hallowed by distance. The aunt who danced on the stage for a year takes on a legend's glamour. The fortune lost by a great-grandfather is enormous and would have been ours were it not for malice or misfortune.

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As a rule, we don't talk about these stories very much. We gruffly call our families our ``roots.'' We think of the roots of a tree, perhaps an oak, spread wide and deep - and mostly out of sight.

Elizabeth Stone spent some time digging around in those roots, talking to some 100 people about their family stories.

The best of them are in her book, ``Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins: How our family stories shape us,'' just published by Times Books.

The idea came to her, she says, when she was writing an article for the New York Times magazine section about being a third-generation Italian- American. As she thought about the article, she realized that her mother's family was atypical in its interest in the arts: a novelist uncle, a painter aunt, and a mother who had done Strindberg on Broadway.

The only precursor for this was some old family stories - particularly the dramatic tale of how her great-grandmother had eloped in her shift with the town's musical postman.

To Ms. Stone, and also apparently to the gifted aunts and uncles, this was ``the flagship story,'' she comments. ``What that story said was that money really wasn't very important at all. And it certainly didn't hold a candle to talent.''

Families shape us in all sorts of ways, ``but it's very difficult to catch the family doing what it does - for good or for ill - redhanded,'' says Stone. ``Family stories are where you can catch the family doing what it does.''

Family stories serve three functions:

To define the family (``All Kennedys are interested in public service; all Redgraves are actors'').

To define individuals within the family (``You're the smart one,'' ``You're the dumb one,'' and, more sinisterly, ``You're the bad one'').

To inspire the family, through tales of illustrious ancestors and lost fortunes.

Often the stories express the family's view of marriage, money, and proper behavior.

Women, for instance, are sometimes told stories that emphasize passivity, says Stone. She cites one woman's tale. She was told that, when she was six months old, she was so well behaved that, when the family went visiting, they didn't even have to take the playpen for her. All they had to take was the playpen mat.

At the time, this woman was ending a first marriage - ``in which she had been altogether too compliant and well behaved,'' remarks Stone - and embarking on a second in which she hoped to be more independent.

``All of a sudden, an ancestor lit up for her,'' she says. It was her great-grandmother, a naturalist who had climbed Pikes Peak seven times in her 80s, and who had had a little red wagon she would take across the Texas salt flats to collect flora and fauna.

This great-grandmother had also been divorced early on - and had, in short, ``forged her own life. She had spunk and dazzle, a kind of pioneer spirit.

``And what this woman said was, `I don't have to stay on the playpen mat. I don't even have to be like my mother, who was too compliant. I have this great-grandmother, and she's a resource for me.''