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

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.

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.''

Family stories can provide a kind of permission to escape. One man, fearful because so many of the men in his family were alcoholics, explored his family tree until he came upon an ancestor known as Red Anthony.

Mr. Anthony was said to have been so strong that he could pick up a beer keg with one hand and set it on the counter. What this slim scrap of an anecdote meant to Anthony's descendant was very individual: He thought of this man as ``the only O'Connor who wasn't squashed by a beer keg,'' says Stone.

No one else can interpret a family story. The important thing is not the story itself, but what it means to the teller. ``I think what's at stake here is not truth - it's belief. If [the story's] true, that's nice, but it doesn't matter a bit.''

A story can explain abstract concepts, such as racial discrimination, to a child that are hard to get across in any other way.

One woman told about her great-grandfather, a slave who had tried to organize the other slaves. In retaliation ``they - it's not clear who `they' was - they slit him,'' reports Stone.

``And the last they saw of him, he was running up the road holding his [insides] in. For her, that was a story about dignity. It wasn't a story about victory, it was a story about coping.''

This woman, as a child, was among the first to integrate the schools in Kansas. Her grandmother told her that story as she and her brother were taken to school.

``What she said was, `I felt that if he could do that, we could do any little thing that was required of us.''' Each generation creates its own stories as well as selecting those to pass on. Splintering of a family - divorce, dispersement - affects the kinds of stories told.

``I do think that, when families divorce, people don't hear the love stories,'' she says.

But stories can be a positive force in holding families together. ``We move hundreds of thousands of miles from where we grew up, and we may not see people from year to year. But the baggage of family stories stows pretty easily, and people bring it with them.

``I was talking a couple of weeks ago to a group of homeless women in New York. They were all single women head of households. They'd been burned out wherever they had lived. They had none of the accouterments of civilized family life. What were they going to do to furnish their lives psychically?''

Stone discovered that many of the women were familiar with the concept of the family story. One pointed out that black writers Alice Walker and Toni Morrison draw on this legacy.

One homeless woman, a single mother, had used family stories to give her son a feeling for the men in his family. ``She had wonderful stories about her brother, who was sort of a fractious and tough, crankish guy,'' says Stone. ``This was a way to connect the son up to this uncle he had never seen.''

People she interviewed who had grown up in the Army, ``who really had no deeply anchored sense of locale,'' also create a ``home'' out of stories and memories. ``What they had for themselves was some kind of psychic landscape of the heart,'' she comments.

One woman, brought up in Samoa and Germany, knew of the family home in the South.

``She knew how the family had buried their silver there during the Civil War. She knew about the family pony that didn't whinny, so the soldiers never found it, so the family was safe. There's a whole place that was home for her, even though she'd never been there. When she thought of home, she thought of this narrative landscape.''

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