Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “Some books are to be tested, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
Such is similarly the case with stories, especially stories that involve one’s family. Some family stories are good for one or two tellings, but a few stories are to be told over and over again. They are, like the title of a set of books that I was given as a child, Stories that Never Grow Old. And they should be told and retold so often that one’s children can tell them accurately to their own children, and their children’s children to their children.
They do not have to be long, elaborate, detail-laden stories; they might be mere passing incidents. But, told and retold, they become part of family lore and potentially carry with them strong family values. That’s how the children of Israel passed their religion from one generation to another with the purpose “that the generation to come might know” (see Psa. 78:1-7).
For example, when our daughters were young, my wife and I were driving in the city with them one day. We were driving the speed limit, but when a traffic light that we were quickly approaching turned yellow, I couldn’t stop safely, so I sped up ever so slightly and sang out, “We’re going through! The commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking.”
In response to my daughters’ curious inquiries of “What was that?” and “What did you mean, Daddy?” I told them about Fred, a college roommate who was a cinema major/speech minor. Fred had a lot of speaking assignments for his classes, and he practiced all of them before the mirror for hours on end. One night, when I was trying to study int he room, he was practicing an excerpt from James Thurber’s story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” As he practiced, he was increasingly dissatisfied with his rendition of one particular segment, and he kept repeating it in attempts to get it right–the right sound, volume, tone, and intensity of feeling. In fact, he repeated it so often that I had that part of the story memorized as well as he did by the end of the evening. And I’ve never forgotten it.
When I went through the caution light, the situation reminded me of Fred’s story line, and I instinctively repeated it aloud. After I had told the story to the girls, I used the phrase every time I went through an intersection on a yellow light. They soon became so familiar with it from my repeated recitation that they started saying it before I could.
The other day, one of my daughters told me of an incident that occurred as she and her husband were driving in their city. They had almost entered an intersection when the traffic light changed to yellow. Reflexively, she cried out, “We’re going through! The commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking.”
Her surprised husband looked at her strangely and asked, “What was that outburst all about?”
Suddenly realizing what she had done, my daughter burst out laughing.
“What made you say that?” her husband pressed.
Between fits of laughter, she explained the whole backstory of the exclamation. Now he knows. The story is spreading.
My sons-in-law are getting used to such things as they happen often in our family. Just as they’ve become used to saying, in chorus, “We were meant to be here!” whenever we’re out shopping and find a parking spot close to the store when the parking lot is crowded.
I recounted that lengthy explanation as an illustration of how family stories, legends, and even values get passed from generation to generation. That particular incident is inconsequential, but some family stories are critical to an understanding of who we are as a family, how we got to where we are today, or what makes us tick as a family.
What stories do you have to tell your descendants? Tell them! And then retell them–over and over again. Your family will, in turn, tell them again. “That the generations to come might know. . . .”