Growing up, my family visited my maternal grandparents every summer on the Gulf Coast, where I could always count on two things: The sweltering Alabama heat and a never-ending supply of family tales, as told by my grandmother.
She was a voracious storyteller, the kind that made stories come alive like movies, and I became completely enraptured from a young age. On those afternoons when it was too humid to do much of anything outdoors, we’d all sit around the kitchen table and have a leisurely lunch as my grandmother told us the stories of her life.
She was one of those women who was ahead of her time. She started a career at a time when most women were still staying home to raise families. As a small-town girl from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, she shocked her parents by announcing that she was moving to Chicago to attend nursing school when she turned 18. Naturally, they were concerned and tried to talk her out of it, but she’d hear none of it. Her mind was made up and she braved the big city with a fierce determination. So off she went, without knowing anyone and not even knowing how to drive!
By the early ’40s, just before WWII, she was thriving in her studies and thoroughly enjoying her new-found life as a city girl when she met my grandfather. Their courtship was short (to hear my grandmother talk about it, I’m pretty sure they fell in love immediately), and they were engaged three months later. My grandfather left for the war shortly after, and nine months later, my aunt was born. It would be another two years until my grandfather came home and met his daughter for the first time. My grandmother once told me how nervous she was going to pick him up at the train station that day.
“Will I even recognize him?” she wondered. “Will we still have anything in common after all this time?”
Obviously, all her worrying was for nothing because they celebrated more than 50 happy years together, with three daughters and a beautiful retirement in the South.
When she died in 2002, I not only grieved her death but also the death of all those family stories. Without her to tell them, I wondered what would happen to them. But thankfully, my mom began carrying on the tradition a few years ago, only with a new, high-tech twist. For major holidays like birthdays and anniversaries, she sends around an email with a family story. It keeps these stories alive in a tangible way, and is a great way to spark conversation. As I get older, I’m starting to realize the value of keeping family histories alive and passing those stories from one generation to the next. There’s this instinctual need to know where you came from and how you became the person you are today. Plus, I can’t think of a better or more loving way to honor my grandmother, the original bearer of the family’s history.
Maybe her influence is even part of the reason I became a writer. Stories are powerful. Sharing who you are is powerful. Being brave enough to be vulnerable is powerful. My grandmother was all those things.
Hearing those stories as a kid, I appreciated them simply as a look into my grandmother’s life when she was young. But now, I can’t help but see the sneaky little tricks she pulled on us. She was telling amazing stories, sure, but more than that, she was sharing her wisdom and teaching little life lessons along the way. About finding out who you are. About running full-speed ahead after your passion. About living fearlessly. About falling in love and not looking back. It takes courage to do that, and I’m grateful every day for the courage my grandmother passed on to me. Be brave. Be you. And tell lots of stories.