Tell your story

July 30, 1999|By Jim Sollisch

MY DAUGHTER Zoey asks for a story. I start making up something about a killer butterfly. "No," she interrupts. "Something real. Something about your family."

At 8, Zoey is still eager to learn about her family, so I tell her one of the few stories I know about my grandfather.

When he was 4-years-old, his mother sent him to America in the care of a ship's captain. My grandfather was to join his father, who like so many immigrants, had gone ahead to New York to start a life.

The ship's captain had to make a stop in Brazil, where he ended up dining with the king and queen. They were a childless couple who fell hard for the 4-year-old. They kept him in their palace for six months until the captain returned and took him to America.

Zoey isn't sure I'm telling the truth. I back it up with my only evidence: My father told me it was true.

Zoey, a product of America, wants proof. She's cynical. She's on guard. She knows that you're not supposed to believe too much of what you hear.

But for most of human history, all people could do was believe what they heard. Oral history was all there was. No preservatives. But there were a few additives, you know, just for flavor.

Then the printing press came along and rendered oral history obsolete, at least for Western culture. But nothing could kill the power of the story told around fires, around tables spread with food, told at funerals, whispered over deathbeds, sewn into quilts.

We crave stories. And somewhere in our primitive hearts, far below our cynical minds, we believe them. As well we should. A few recent news stories confirm the power of oral history. Ironically, they rely on the science of DNA testing for evidence.

For 200 years, the Hemings family told the story of their patriarch, a slave owner named Thomas Jefferson, who happened to have written the Declaration of Independence and been the third U.S. president, when he wasn't re-designing America's most famous house.

Nonsense, said an academy full of historians. What's the weight of oral history compared with volumes of historical record? Apparently, a lot heavier than they thought.

Another story was reported last spring about a tribe of black people in southern Africa, the Lemba, who believe they are descended from the Jews of ancient Israel.

For a couple thousand years, they have told the story of being led out of Judea by a man named Buba. To this day, they practice circumcision, avoid pork and keep the Sabbath.

Coincidence? A team of geneticists doesn't think so. They've found that the leaders of the Lemba carry a DNA sequence that is distinctive of the Jewish priests recognized as descendants of Aaron, Moses' brother.

Today, when everything is written down, every transaction electronically captured, every property deeded, every marriage recorded, every memory photographed, we tell few stories about our families. We have the details, but we have lost the plot.

Instead, we tell and re-tell the myths of popular culture. We crave the stories of famous people, instead of our own people. We know more about Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Jr. than about our own parents and grandparents.

But our children will never learn who they are and where they come from by watching yet another TV segment on the Kennedy family. The prologue to the story of their lives can only be told by us.

Jim Sollisch, a free-lance writer, writes from Cleveland, Ohio.

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