How did you react when one of your parents or grandparents told you a family story that you had never heard before?
Think about that for a moment as you conjure up one of those stories.
Was it a surprise? Disbelief? Heartwarming? Hysterical? Historical? Revealing? Revolting? Unforgettable? Educational? Intriguing?
Of course, how you reacted depended entirely on the story and the context in which it was told. But the point is, you felt something. It’s unlikely that you simply shrugged and walked away. In fact, what’s more likely is that you became curious and asked follow-up questions, hoping to gain a better understanding of the time, place, and circumstances that contributed to the story.
As a result, you probably learned something about them that you will never forget. And ideally, you might also have learned a little something about yourself.
That’s the beauty of shared stories. Yet, all too often when we ask family elders about their experiences, they respond with, “Why would anyone care about what happened in my lifetime?” or something along that line. They summarily dismiss the notion that they have anything of value to offer.
How sad. And how unfortunate for the rest of us.
On the contrary, when you engage in conversation with aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents, and others who have led full lives and, along the way, cast some influence on yours, it can be rewarding… fulfilling… good for their wellbeing… and good for yours.
I’m reminded of an afternoon spent visiting with my father-in-law, Ray. He was residing in an assisted living facility, living alone, his wife having passed a few months prior. His apartment was small, furnished with a few furniture pieces and selected memorabilia rescued from their decades-long home.
I spied a group photo – a battalion of WWII soldiers arranged between two massive pieces of artillery – and asked him about it. That started a conversation about his tour in the army. As we spoke, Ray began to sit up a little taller. He had some fascinating stories to tell. There was more energy in his voice, his focus sharpened, and he had new life in his eyes.
The photo was of his infantry unit, just after completing basic training. From there they were shipped overseas and transported by railcar to their assigned camp.
Infantry. What was that like?
Ray had been lucky. Upon arrival, he and his fellow soldiers were ordered to get in a line. One of the officers started walking the line and tapping soldiers on the shoulder. Tap two… skip one… tap two more… skip one… and so it went. If you were tapped on the shoulder, you were headed to the front lines. If you were skipped over, you would be assigned other duties. Ray was skipped. One brush with danger averted.
In addition to some administrative duties, he was assigned to drive his commanding officer around – a chauffeur of sorts. On one occasion, following a series of advances by the front lines, the basecamp was being moved. Those not engaged in battle would strike camp, load gear and supplies onto trucks, and form a convoy to transport everything to the new location.
Sounds straightforward enough, right?
But here’s the fly in the ointment. When the enemy vacates a position, they don’t do so without first planting a scattering of land mines. That newly acquired territory is full of booby-traps! Suddenly, driving a convoy through territory that was once enemy-occupied became a treacherous endeavor. Scout teams were sent out in advance in attempts to locate and disarm the mines.
Ray found himself driving his commanding officer in a Jeep at or near the front of the convoy. At one point along the way, the drone of vehicle engines was interrupted by an explosion… somewhere BEHIND them!
Somehow, an overlooked and undiscovered land mine had been avoided by the lead vehicles in the convoy, only to find a victim further back in the pack. How much had his Jeep missed it by? Inches? We’ll never know, but another perilous brush with fate was avoided.
The stories kept coming. One day, he was preparing to drive his commanding officer along a route that could be dangerous. They might come under fire. As he approached the Jeep, the officer asked, “Where’s your rifle, soldier?”
Ray replied, “In the back, sir.”
The officer retrieved the rifle, checked to see that it was loaded and ready, then turned to Ray and said, “If we come under fire, you drive, and I’ll shoot!”
“Yes sir,” he replied. As he had done so many times before, he was just following orders, and once again tempting fate.
Ray was in the army for two years. I imagine that he woke up lot of days wondering if he would live to see the next one. Certainly, many with whom he served did not. Little did he know that he would not only survive, but help contribute a lot of branches to the family tree – 6 kids, 14 grandchildren, 32 great-grandchildren, 1 great-great-grandchild, and counting.
I cherish the stories he shared with me that day. They revealed a lot about his character and some of the events in his life that helped shape him.
His stories are valuable. They were worth sharing and a joy to listen to. Some were downright jaw-dropping. I believe the generations that follow him will value them as much as I do.
Your family’s stories are also valuable. They are worth telling… worth sharing… and worth preserving.
Who in your family might have stories you have never heard before? It’s time to start some conversations, don’t you think?
TightKnit is the perfect place for families and friends to share and preserve their photos, memories and life stories, together.
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