Holiday Season—The Perfect Time for Storytelling

Thanks for the super feedback from last week’s email about the 20 question “Do You Know?” scale. That email generated the all-time best response in my Family Legacy Planning series. I used these questions at my own Thanksgiving table, and it prompted a terrific round of storytelling. The best way to teach younger generations about their family heritage is by telling stories. People forget statistics, but they remember stories for a lifetime. Dinnertime during the holidays is a perfect time to tell these family stories.

The New York Times columnist Bruce Feiler asserts: “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” Author Mitzi Perdue concurs: “Stories tell us who we are and where we fit in… Families that spend time together and share their family stories are likely to be high-functioning families.”

Psychologist Marshall Duke explains: “There are heroes in these stories, there are people who faced the worst and made it through. And this sense of continuity and relatedness to heroes seems to serve the purpose in kids of making them more resilient. Ordinary families can be special because they each have a history no other family has.” Sharing stories of ancestors who conquered adversity gives a kid confidence that he too can overcome obstacles when (not if) they arise.

I’ll share a story from my own lineage that gives me strength. When my mother’s family was escaping Russia to come to America just prior to the Holocaust, her Aunt Rachel gave birth to a baby boy Morris during a stopover in Poland. Baby Morris was a Polish citizen; the rest were Russian citizens. When they arrived at Ellis Island, the quota for Polish citizens was full. Aunt Rachel, her husband Uncle Avrom, and baby Morris had to stay on the ship and go to Cuba. The rest of the family was admitted to the US. Aunt Rachel and her family made a good life in Havana until Castro came. Once again, they lost everything and even were forced to live in a small section of their home so strangers could occupy the rest of it. Years later after Uncle Avrom died, Aunt Rachel managed to escape to Miami, leaving everything she had behind for the second time in her life. But, Aunt Rachel made the best of it. Though elderly, she added English to the list of languages she spoke (Yiddish, Spanish, Russian) and made another good life for herself.

Knowing that I descend from survivors like Aunt Rachel helps me get through hard times. Every family has stories. The Emory University Family Narratives Project confirms that “family stories seem to be transferred by mothers and grandmothers more often than not and that the information was typically passed during family dinners, family vacations, family holidays, and the like.” These stories lead to “high levels of cohesiveness” and a strong sense of “intergenerational self,” which in turn leads to personal strength, moral guidance, increased resilience, and better adjustment.

During this holiday season, discover your own family narrative and share it with your loved ones.

Marvin E. Blum

A young Marvin Blum (center, standing) with family. Aunt Rachel (lower right corner) survived Hitler and Castro to make a better life in America after escaping both Russia and Cuba. Resilience!