For the Week of November 20, 2017: Why We Need Our Stories

The world begins at a kitchen table.  No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table.  So it has been since creation, and it will go on…

Thanksgiving, possibly the most enduring holiday in the United States.  Weary travelers willingly wait in long lines at the airport, cram their bodies into crowded and uncomfortable airplane cabins, or pack the trunks of cars with suitcases and drive long hours along busy highways, all to celebrate Thanksgiving, a time of remembering, of gratitude and family.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Although we celebrated the Canadian Thanksgiving in October,  memories of childhood Thanksgivings and the annual celebrations with my father’s family always make their way into my thoughts this time of year.  The Thanksgivings of my childhood were  a time of coming together, of forty or more Brays gathering to celebrate the holiday at our grandmother’s, and later, our Aunt Jennie’s home.  The smells of Thanksgiving dinner greeted us even before we entered her house.  There, the kitchen table was laden with turkey, stuffing, side dishes, pies and cakes.  Tables and chairs filled the living room, with seating at each determined by age group.  I remember how excited I was to graduate to the adult table when I turned twelve.   That was where my father and uncles regaled us with stories–many embellished– of their childhoods, grandparents and great-grandparents.

It was at the adult table where I most experienced  a sense of place and belonging as I discovered my family’s history through the family stories told and re-told each year.  Several years later, newly married and adventuresome, I moved with my husband to Canada–first to Ottawa, then  Nova Scotia. Each November, I was engulfed by homesickness and a fierce longing to return home, to sit again at the family table and hear the familiar stories told again, ones I already knew by heart.

Yet there are other memories tied to Thanksgiving, ones tinged by sorrow and loss.  My father died of lung cancer on Thanksgiving,  1992, soon after the traditional meal and his familiar  glass of Jack Daniels. Although I didn’t know it then, his death marked the end of family as I  knew it, and with his passing, the loss of stories, the yarns spun from childhood, enlarged and fabricated, threads of family history woven among his tall tales.  We had never seemed to tire of them, no matter how often they were told, and years later, whenever he visited us, I would hear my daughters plead, “Tell us another story, Grandpa!”

“The Stories that Bind Us, an essay written by Bruce Feiler and appearing in a 2013 issue of The Atlantic, highlighted the importance of family stories.  Books contain narratives, Feiler stated, but only family stories contain your family’s personal narratives. Fortunate children get both. They hear and read stories from books to become part of other people’s worlds, and they hear and tell stories of their family to understand who they are and from whence they came.

It’s a well established tradition.  Oral storytelling has been a part of being human for thousands of years.  Stories helped people make sense of the world.  They were the mechanism by which we passed traditions and wisdom from one generation to another.  “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel,” author Ursula LeGuin once said, “but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human.  We make men at it; we make women

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers…

I lived in Canada for 25 years, before returning, for a similar amount of time, to California.  I had, as my father had, yearned to leave the confines of a small town and see the world.  History repeats itself, I suppose, because just as I had done,  my daughters traveled and lived abroad before settling with their families thousands of miles across the continent.  Our family get-togethers quickly diminished in frequency as we  dispersed.  It’s no wonder I find such delight to once again now be living close to one of my two daughters, sharing meals and sharing stories from earlier years.  Yet I miss that big table, extended family sitting around it, passing platters of Thanksgiving fare and most of all, sharing the family stories.  Those stories, much more difficult to capture in our fast paced, instant communication world, are still important.  “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative,” Bruce Feiler wrote.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

Citing research from Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush of Emory University, Feiler wrote that children who know a lot about their families appear to do better when facing challenges.  “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”

I’m now writing some of those oft-repeated family stories my father told to me, trying to capture some of our family history to pass on to my grandchildren.  It’s an attempt to fill out the gaps in family history that resulted from distance and family losses.  In this world of distance and mobility, Facebook, Skype or the countless apps to make long distance communication easier,  it seems all the more important to capture and re-tell so many of the stories that solidified the sense of our family’s history and belonging.

Perhaps the world will end here at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite. 

(From “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” by Joy Harjoin The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, 1994)

It’s important to remember, as Alice Hoffman once advised, that cancer–or other difficult chapters of our lives–does not become your whole book.  As beneficial as it is to express one’s stories of the cancer journey, it’s important that to recall your “whole book,” telling also the stories of your life and family history, whether humorous or sad, the family stories  shared and repeated over time.

When families come together, it is a time to remember, to celebrate the richness of your lives and give thanks as you come together and share your family stories.

To those of you celebrating with your families this Thursday, I wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving.

Tell me a story.

In this century, and moment, of mania,

Tell me a story…

Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.

The name of the story will be Time.

By Robert Penn Warren, From: “Tell Me a Story,” in New and Selected Poems 1923-1985


Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about your holiday celebrations, the stories that are part of each family gathering.
  • Imagine you are the last storyteller of your family tribe.  What is the story you most want to tell?
  • What other stories do you want to remember, the ones that define your legacy?  Why not write them?
  • Think of your life’s “whole book.”  What are the most important stories you want to capture?  Make a list and start writing them!


About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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