A recent New York Times article by Bruce Feiler reported on a study that found that children who know about their family history are more emotionally healthy, more able to recover from challenges. It is all about having a unifying narrative, preferably a healthy one. Feiler references the research done on this topic by Marshall Duke and his colleague Robyn Fivush. They work within the interestingly named Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life at Emory. Intrigued by Feiler’s article, I decided to dig a little deeper and read a number of papers by Duke and his associates on the "intergenerational self". Their finding is that through reminiscing and family stories, children develop an "intergenerational self” that defines one’s place within a larger family narrative. By anchoring their sense of self in a larger family context, their sense of self is strengthened.
So this got me thinking about my family’s narrative. As a family historian I have a strong intergenerational self and have learned much about my family going back several generations. My thoughts focused on the more recent generations, what my parents shared with me about themselves and about my grandparents. I know that education and teaching were central to my parents’ narrative. Both were smart kids without resources,raised by immigrant parents in Brooklyn. My father had the benefit of the GI bill which took him to Stanford. He later became a professor. My mother went back to college and became a teacher.
I have a letter that my maternal grandfather wrote to my mother when she graduated from college. In it he wrote a defining statement, “It is good to donate the knowledge to others.” I loved the choice of words, to donate the knowledge, to give it freely. Interestingly my parents both taught, my sister started out as a teacher and both of my nieces are currently teaching. Most of our family also has graduate degrees. Although I didn’t seek out a teaching career, I find that now much of what I do relates to teaching and education. In my family we seek out education and then we donate the knowledge.
I never really knew my paternal grandfather, but I knew many stories about him, a rather telling one from my aunt. My grandfather ran a surplus store and during the Depression they lived behind the store. If you couldn’t afford the rent, the marshals would come and put everything out on the street corner. My grandfather was fortunate to have a truck and if he couldn’t pay the rent, he would pay the marshals a few dollars to load the contents onto his truck and he would drive to his new location. This story conveys a shrewd man and perhaps a little anti-authoritarian, characteristics that would describe my father as well.
My father was not a rule follower and he was very successful by charting his own path. “Don’t let the bastards get you down,” was his refrain, viewing anyone who didn’t want him to do what he wanted to do as one of those bastards. When my brother tapped into the PA system in high school and the school authorities frantically searched for the source, my father was secretly amused. I think it appealed to his anti-authoritarian side and a certain appreciation of creativity. He didn’t sit around waiting for permission and he was a doer. My mom used to say if they had been in a concentration camp during WWII my dad would have likely survived. (I think only Jewish families contemplate such grim "what ifs"). He knew how to take care of himself and rely on his wits. I remember him taking me aside once and telling me that I would be OK because I was a survivor. I felt like I had been knighted into a secret society. I knew something important had been communicated.
Interestingly money was not part of the family narrative. My dad would often talk of how he came from poverty, but his point wasn’t that he achieved great wealth, but rather that he had found a comfortable life doing what he loved. My father chose academia over a corporate world where he could have had a far more lucrative career. And he supported my efforts regardless of whether they were well compensated. He was equally proud, whether I made my career in finance or the arts, and I did both. Both he and my mother loved what they did and they wanted their kids to love what they did as well.
My dad used to tell the story of a coin toss. As one of his university stints was coming to a close, he and a co-worker were both interested in one permanent position.They ended up doing a coin toss for the position. He lost, but ultimately he won. His next step introduced him to a person who would lead him to his life’s work. So one of the lessons I learned was that defeats are often opportunities if viewed through the right lens. If you can’t pay the rent, you can get the marshals to load your truck.
And there are lessons to be learned from defeats.Years ago when I had a career upset, my father remarked, “It was about time you landed on your ass, you were getting entirely too smug”. No one minced words in my family, the message was clear - failure is a necessary step along the road to becoming a full person. If nothing else it teaches humility. Later in my life when I experienced challenges I often asked myself what I was supposed to learn, looking for the lesson that would add meaning to the experience.
So I think there is something to this family narrative stuff. The gifts that I received from my family history are gifts that play out every day of my life.