Every Saturday, my great-grandfather walked to synagogue for afternoon prayers with one unlit cigarette in the breast pocket of his suit jacket. On his walk home, after sundown, he would smoke the single cigarette and relish the pleasure of another Shabbat well-spent.
Zayde was a round man with thick hands and squat fingers. His wedding band was so large it could fit around the wrist of a toddler. He drank his coffee black, with a small cube of sugar tucked under his tongue. On my parents’ wedding night, when my mother emerged from a crowd of sweaty dancers looking for a glass of water, he handed her a glass of vodka, and she gulped it down, unknowingly. He loved a good joke.
In the opening of her essay “The White Album,” Joan Didion writes, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We interpret what we see, select the most workable of multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
It’s true. Our lives–especially as they appear to our kids–are a phantasmagoria, an odd, dream-like scene. As writers and parents, we impose order on that clutter and confusion so as to try and remember it better; our memories become useful to us. In turn, our kids tell themselves stories to understand their world, to locate themselves in the abyss, which, when they peer into it, can be confusing and sometimes scary. Often, our kids tell themselves the same stories repeatedly, as the parent of any toddler knows.
I never met my great-grandfather, but I know him because of the stories I was told.
My husband and I are at that stage now where our kids want to hear “true” stories. As it closes in on 8 p.m. each night, by the light of the plastic blue octopus, we tell stories of the time I lost my sandals in the ocean and that time daddy climbed up the playground slide the wrong way. We talk about getting lost in the train station, eating fish heads for breakfast, and the special trip we took to see animals on safari in Africa.
From these bits our kids create the narrative of our family. They know who was in the waiting room when they were born, they know who kicked inside mommy’s belly, and who was quieter as a baby. They know how my mother used to warm my cereal milk in a pot on the stove during the winter months, and how as a child, my husband baked challah with his mom. Our stories become their stories, more engaging and vivid than any cartoon. The true stories are the stories they want to hear most, a layer cake of narratives, which will, with any luck, form the keel that keeps them afloat, safe from buckling under the weight of life and its detritus.
Or so we hope. I’ve written about all of this before, about the importance of telling stories, and in recognizing this repetition in my writing, I realize how much it matters to me. But since the last time I visited this topic, I’ve discovered research that backs up what seems like the obvious. Telling stories is actually really good for our kids. Builds resilience. Grit.
Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush, psychology professors at Emory University, have studied and tested the theory that telling family stories helps children weather life’s ups and downs and “eases the pain of growing up.” When kids know the story of their family and have a sense of their “intergenerational self,” they tend to have more self-confidence.
Duke and others who have studied the research emphasize that it’s not just about sharing the triumphs and joys of a family history, either. Rather, it helps kids to know that there have been hard times, too–people lost jobs, moved away, got sick, died–and yet, the family found a way to push on.
And push on we must, right? This is what Passover is about; this is what life is about. On Passover we tell and retell one particular story, but also, we tell others. When I was 10 years old, my family hosted such a big Passover seder that the table stretched from one end of my parents’ kitchen into their dining room and the living room, too. We hosted close to 40 people in our small house that year–rabbis, priests, family members who were Jewish, and some who were not. Those sitting on the kitchen side of the table had to exit the house through the side door, walk across the front lawn, and re-enter the house through the front door, if they wanted to reach the bathroom. As a kid, I told and retold that story, proud of it for no reason other than it was my crazy Passover seder story, just mine.
Fast-forward 24 years, to a Passover spent without seders, in preparation for the birth of my girls. Fast-forward 25 years, to a Passover spent in my father’s hospital room. I tell my kids these stories of holidays past, and some of the stories make them laugh, while some make them ask questions. But all of these stories root them in their own history, just theirs.
Passover obligates that we locate ourselves in Jewish history, as if we, too, had left Egypt. Yes. But as parents, we are also obligated to help our children locate themselves in our family history, messy and lovely as it is. And so we tell them stories, and we tell ourselves stories, and we live.