Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Hand family stories down to the next generation

Welcome to the April 2015 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Family History

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have shared stories, lore, and wisdom about family history. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

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Cuddle up for some intergenerational emails: Hand family stories down to the next generation == Hobo Mama
Cuddling up for some intergenerational emails

Mikko is seven, nearly eight. He doesn't like to say he can't read yet — he says he's "in training." This is very true.

Since Sam and I both learned to read, organically, from a pre-preschool age, we weren't prepared for a child who was heavily resistant to the idea of decoding written language. We don't want to push him to do anything he's not ready for, but we also have relatives and neighbors and other well-meaning folk asking us repeatedly, "Can he read yet? … How about now?"

So Sam and I got an idea. We'd emphasize with Mikko how much fun reading is, and how practical as well. (He's a pragmatic soul.) We'd talk about reading as it comes up in video game screens (very important to him), we'd read aloud fun books together (Mikko and I are onto the second Harry Potter at the moment), and we'd ask for help from some of the very people expressing concern: his relations.

I emailed Mikko's grandparents on both sides and his sole, delightful cousin. I requested, if they would be so kind, occasional emails, texts, and even written letters — maybe one thing electronic a week and one thing snail-mail a month. I had an idea that if a correspondence could be struck up and the ball pushed into rolling, Mikko would get caught up in the enjoyment of the back-and-forth.

Of course, this required cooperation from two parties for each instance: the relative and Mikko. My mom, my mother-in-law, and my niece emailed a tiny bit, scattershot. I think they figured Mikko had to read each email himself, so they kept each message short and simple. I appreciated this, but Mikko wasn't engaging as much as I'd hoped.

Oh, let's be honest. Mikko was throwing a flopping tantrum over the whole thing. What I didn't want to happen was happening: He viewed this as another schoolish lesson, another battle to fight, another chore I was forcing on him. He's not, shall we say, amenable to direction. He's got a strong will and a well-thought-out sense of what he finds valuable. He didn't want to read the emails, and he didn't care what I wrote back for him. No, of course he didn't want to type anything out himself. And don't sign it "Love" — ugh! (It's so uplifting parenting a 7-year-old who's secretly 15.) I didn't tell the relatives that he wasn't doing much of the reading or writing himself; I figured it was better to get him grooving to the idea of correspondence for pleasure first — but I wasn't sure my relations would agree.

And then my dad stepped in.

His first email was long. Very long. There was no way he was expecting Mikko to read this by himself, so we didn't even bother, and I didn't feel any guilt about it. I could read it to him one-handed on my phone as I nursed the baby, instead of having to carve out a specific time to have Mikko sit next to my computer with me, blowing up the font size until he could reasonably see what we were looking at and trying awkwardly to point to the words as I coached him along. No, with Papa's emails, it was just easy read-aloud story time.

And they were amazing stories, and they kept pouring in.

Papa wrote out a funny memory about me as a four-year-old exasperating my childless uncle on a train. He described his own childhood spring breaks, when he and his three brothers would go to his grandfather's (Mikko's great-great-grandfather's) farm to muck out the manure, with the eye-watering stench that ensued and the great pleasure of driving the tractor with the manure spreader when it was all done. He painted a picture of childhood freedom as he and his brothers and friends rode their bikes from sunup to sundown, bombing floating sticks (aka battleships) in puddles with pebbles as they zoomed past. He told Mikko my own story of learning to read. He talked about Mikko's uncle, my older brother, who graduated from West Point and went to war and is one of the most confident people we know and yet who once jumped a mile at a garter snake. He told Mikko the story of how a friend shot him in the eye with a BB gun ("You'll shoot your eye out" is not unwarranted fear) but that he never told his parents because they'd make him and his friends stop having BB gun wars. He also told Mikko to do as he says and not as he did and never shoot BB guns at anyone, and he sent a picture of a pellet gun he unearthed from the attic, promising Mikko can shoot targets out in their backyard next time we visit. He told more recent stories of how my mother was struck by lightning (truth) and was almost impaled on a giant tree branch coming through the ceiling during a storm (also truth), and he has a running gag of telling Mikko to remind him next to tell the story of when Nana was eaten by a bear.

As my mom said about these emails, she's just sitting back and letting my dad do his thing. He's obviously having a great time sharing these memories, I'm downright teary-eyed reading half of them, and Mikko — joy of joys — loves them. At first, he seemed to be only half-paying attention. But Papa started putting reading comprehension quizzes on the ends of some, and I was pleasantly surprised to find Mikko was getting all the questions right, or at least demonstrating that he had come to his conclusion logically. (For instance, he remembered that Papa had described his red bike as "shiny" so incorrectly remembered it as gold in color, but we went back and figured it out.)

Even better, Mikko will happily type out the quiz answers himself! He has plenty to say as he dictates the rest of his responses. And he begs me every night to "do Papa emails."

As a reward for answering so many quiz questions correctly, a special package arrived in the mail unexpectedly: a JFK 50-cent piece from the 1960s worth about $10 for Mikko to add to his coin collection. He was thrilled. He carried it around everywhere he went for days.

I hope my dad keeps going on, sharing these stories and photos from our family, some I remember and many I don't. I love to think I'll have this treasured archive of written memories to continue passing down to my children and any future generations.

Included in the photos my dad uses to illustrate his emails have been some fun ones of me.
I'm not sure Mikko believes I was ever that young.
Clearly I've been missing out on pinning my fabulous hairdo ideas.

It makes me resolved to do something like this myself, and I'd like to encourage you as well. We don't have to write a comprehensive memoir — that's too much pressure for most of us, I'd well imagine — but maybe every once in awhile, email or journal or videotape some of your stories: of yourself, of your children, of your parents or grandparents. Get other relatives involved, too. Sam and I are considering doing some sort of video-chat recording with his mom, since she's not as interested in writing. We've kicked ourselves for not doing more of that sort of thing with our own grandparents when they were still alive, but it was intimidating for us — it's a little less so to do with our parents, and even less so to do for our own stories! You could even get your kids to contribute, writing, drawing, or videotaping their own childhood memories now and as they get older.

I've been working on our genealogy, and it's such bare-bones data of birth, marriage, death, location. Think how rich and pleasing it would be to find tucked among the leaves of a family tree a wealth of stories of how these people actually lived, the jokes they told, and the ways they loved each other.

How does your family pass along its history? Do you tell your kids your own stories? Have you recorded any?

Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!
Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:
  • They Come Through You — Aspen at Aspen Mama shares what her late-discovery adoption means to her and her family.
  • The Shape of Our Family: Musings on Genealogy — Donna at Eco-Mothering delves into her genealogy and family stories, observing how the threads of family reveal themselves in her daughter.
  • Hand family stories down to the next generation — Lauren at Hobo Mama asked her father to help her son learn to read — never expecting that Papa's string of richly storytelling emails would bring a treasure trove of family history into their lives.
  • Saving Family Stories — Holly at Leaves of Lavender talks about why she thinks it's important to preserve fun and interesting family stories for future generations.
  • Serenading Grandma — When Dionna at Code Name: Mama started playing violin in the fifth grade, her grandma and mother were the biggest part of her musical cheering section. Her grandma urged her to keep playing and reminded her that someday she'd be thankful for her talent. As was so often the case, her grandma was right.
  • Family legacy ambivalence — With a family history of depression and suicide, Jessica at Crunchy-Chewy Mama frets about her children's emotional health.
  • Seder and Holy Week: Family Traditions, Old and New — As an Episcopalian whose children's ancestry is five-eighths Jewish, Becca at The Earthling's Handbook values the annual Passover seder that connects her and the kids to family traditions.


Jessica said...

How great that your dad has become family historian! I do hope my mom gets well enough to do some writing as she's said she wants to do. I'm so grateful for the last few days of my first pregnancy when I wrote out a long narrative of the pregnancy. My son and I read it on his 9th birthday -- in an album with photos from the whole nine months and new baby days -- and noted that his sister had nothing like this. Oh, I know! Well, at least there's some trace with the blog, but I need to create just for the kids and for posterity! Thanks for the inspiration!

Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said...

Oh, Lauren - I *love* this!! What a special and wonderful thing your dad is doing! Do you think it would work to gently suggest this to my own parents? I'd love to have them write these kinds of stories to my kids (heck, to me!).

Donna DeForbes said...

Oh, I love this post! What a wonderful way to get Mikko interested in words as well as relating family stories.

I do love your idea of writing or recording pieces of ourselves and our lives for our children, grandchildren, etc. You're right- the genealogy is so much about the facts, and not enough about the people in the tree. Capturing memories has been on my bucket list for a while now - I think its time to move forward with it.

Anonymous said...

How wonderful! My grandma and I used to send each other paper letters, but I was an eager reader and writer. It's great that your dad didn't let Mikko's reluctance shut him down.

My son loves to hear stories of my childhood. At one point he was badgering me for more and I couldn't think of any, so I told him some stories of my *mom's* childhood that I remembered her telling to me. I told him to ask her to tell them next time we saw her, to see if I got them right! She was thrilled not only that he was interested in her childhood but that I had liked these stories enough to remember them.

Lauren Wayne said...

@Jessica: We have the same problem with printed hardcover photo books of baby pictures. Mikko has two, Alrik has one, and we'll see when Karsten gets any... Maybe it will be a college graduation present?

Lauren Wayne said...

@Dionna @ Code Name: Mama: Definitely try! When Mikko was resisting it, I was thinking, "Oh, my gosh, I hope my dad doesn't get discouraged and stop — because I love it so much!"

Lauren Wayne said...

@Donna DeForbes: You & me both! I think Sam & I need to come up with a concrete plan of how we'll begin capturing memories in earnest.

Lauren Wayne said...

@articles: I used to write my grandparents, too! Seems so quaint to me now.

I love that idea of telling my parents' stories & letting them know we love those ones, too. I was just thinking I should tell Mikko the meet-cute story of how my parents first connected. :)

Megz said...

All it takes is that one special someone to really connect with our kids and get them going! Your son sounds ALOT like mine... someone else had to remind me that it's a special and rare quality that he takes his time, and gathers info before jumping into stuff, and it is :D It's also cool that you and your partner learned to read organically and are passing on that practice ;) very cool

Megz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lauren Wayne said...

@Megz: Yes! I should have known from my little brother. Everyone thought he was resistant to learning to read because he wouldn't practice with us at all — then, one day, he just started on up, straight reading. Turns out he'd just wanted to practice in his head, with no audience, until he got it right. :)

Holly Scudero said...

This post makes me so happy! See, this is exactly what I hope to inspire my own parents (and in-laws) to do. My son might not be old enough yet to fully appreciate whatever memories are passed his way, but by recording them in some form, they'll be there when he's ready for them. And along the way, who knows what kinds of cool things I might learn about my own parents? I am so glad your father is taking the time to write out these stories for your family.

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