Family stories are easily undervalued. They often include characters that have long ago passed away, and they aren’t always as funny or charming to the listener as they are to the person telling the story.
But the value of family stories is that they pass on values and wisdom that has help your line survive and thrive in a complex world.
As someone that hears a lot of family stories I have some advice for how to tell a story that will be retold across generations.
Use adjectives to describe characters
Skinny Grandpa, Talkative Vareena, Cheerful Aunt Rose.
Adjectives can make a character sticky in the minds of the listener. It is more important to create a memorable image of the character than it is to know precisely where a person fit in the family tree. The details that matter are the ones that describe the traits that made the person stand out and worthy of being remembered.
Your grandchildren won’t remember the name or exact relation of “great uncle-Father Bill” but they will remember the story about why the Irish priest that terrorized all his nieces and nephews with questions about the Gaelic vocabulary.
If you can’t make it right, at least make it funny
Stories that make people laugh, even at sad or tragic moments; get retold again and again.
Of course it is hard to tell the most important stories because they often involve difficult subjects. But when people are laughing, their minds are open. Laughter in the face of tragedy, doesn’t minimize the event, it helps make it more palatable.
It may be sad or frustrating to remember a time when you were swindled by a thief, but being able to laugh about the blue paint that shown through the cheap paint job, make the story one that can be retold enough times to be imprinted across generations.
Don’t articulate the moral of the story.
We’ve all heard the adage “show, don’t tell…”
Stories have a unique ability to flex and bend so that they stay relevant no matter what happens in culture. Stories have the family value already embedded into them. Tell a good story, then tell how you have used that story to think through a problem you had.
Avoid the temptation to tell people exactly what the story means, because they may need it to apply to a similar but different situation.
The fact that your grandparents we’re willing to flee a wealthy yet repressive old world to work as housekeepers in the new world will be all the lesson they need to know- if you tell them the moral, it may cause them to think it only applies in a specific situation and miss the true wisdom being transferred.