But if I had to nail down the origin of my obsession, I would choose the time my high school history teacher assigned me to interview the older members of my family. The purpose of the assignment was to record first-hand accounts of American history through the eyes of the Greatest Generation, but the discussion morphed into something much bigger than an A in the grade book. A project that was intended to take thirty minutes of my time turned into a three-hour conversation around the dining room table with my great grandmother, four grandparents, multiple uncles and aunts, and a video recorder. What unfolded was an oral history of my family tree, a priceless collection of memories and moments all caught on tape and forever saved for posterity.
It was during this interview that I discovered that my sassy old grandma used to sell moonshine to the sheriff during prohibition. I learned that my great-great-grandfather escaped from Sweden at 13 years old and stowed away on a ship bound for America. I found out that my Grandma took care of her baby brother while the rest of her family picked cotton in an Arkansas field and that their sharecropping days ended when they received news of available factory jobs in the north. The most ordinary people have the most extraordinary stories to tell, if we’d only just ask them.
Just last week, I witnessed this basic human instinct to share a connection play out in my classroom. My communications class has been working on a storytelling unit and I’d called in a local expert to spin them a tale. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. My students are teenagers who’ve grown up on electronics and instant gratification; they are a part of the YouTube generation and they’d much rather text than talk. My speaker was an elderly grandmother who specializes in Native American folktales and old world charm. Would she be able to tell a story that would reach them? Would they lose interest or tune out? I watched with bated breath as she started in on a legend about a turtle and within moments of uttering her first word, she had them. I knew it and she knew it. For the next ten minutes, she transported them to a fabled land filled with changing voices and compelling characters. I sat back and marveled at their transfixed faces and delighted in their emotional reactions to every curve and twist of the narrative. And when the story was over, they wanted to know more. In their remaining time together, they asked for her advice: how could they become storytellers like her? Imagine that—a class full of millennials in love with an art form older than the first Nintendo. They might be on to something.
So is it the storyteller or the story itself that draws us in and holds us hostage to the rise and fall of the plotline? Based on my non-scientific data collection and far-from-expert opinion, I think the answer is both. But in all of my research there seems to be one common denominator—an undeniable connection that is formed between young and old through a shared story that includes relevant themes for all generations. The reason I loved listening to the adventures of my elders is because it left me wishing for adventures of my own someday. Their experiences only served to heighten their status around the campfire. Granny suddenly earns a lot of street cred when the grandkids find out she was at Woodstock.
Now I usually don’t give homework over holiday breaks, but this year I’m making an exception. During this season of giving thanks, I’m encouraging you to learn a little more about those you love the most. Be thankful that you have grandparents sitting around the dining room table this November and ask them a question or two about their lives before you arrived on the scene. Chances are you’ll still be laughing by the time the pumpkin pies are passed around. If you are a grandparent, give thanks for the beautiful children running around the house and gather them all in front of your rocking chair for a tale from your younger years. This Thanksgiving, take the often-missed opportunity to connect through conversation. Replace the ubiquitous HD screens with actual faces and real definition. Tell a story. Listen to a story. And record it; you’ll thank me later.
If you are interested in recording your generational conversations for future enjoyment, StoryCorps (as heard on NPR) is sponsoring an event called The Great Thanksgiving Listen. Open to everyone, The Great Thanksgiving Listen hopes to preserve the voices and stories of an entire generation of Americans over a single holiday weekend. All you need is a smart phone and the free StoryCorps mobile app to record your conversation. The finished product can be shared with friends and family and uploaded to the StoryCorps.me website where it will also be archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. To learn more, visit their website at https://storycorps.me/about/the-great-thanksgiving-listen/
*Photo Courtesy of Caryn DeFreez Photography