Everybody is a story. When I was a child, people sat around kitchen tables and told their stories. We don’t do that much anymore. Sitting around the table telling stories is not just a way of passing time. It is the way the wisdom gets passed along. The stuff that helps us to live a life worth remembering. Despite the awesome powers of technology many of us still do not live very well. We may need to listen to each other’s stories again.
–Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal
Most of my childhood and teenage Sundays were spent at my Grandma’s kitchen table. There was always the smell of coffee, and the kitchen was warm and cozy in the winter, the perfect refuge from the freezing Minnesota cold outside. Grandma always had plants in the window, like the African violets I could never make bloom at home, and from her second-story window we could see the nineteenth-century red-brick Grant House Hotel and Restaurant across the street.
Some Sundays, especially when I was little, the kitchen was full of aunts and uncles and rambunctious cousins (I am number 41 of 44), and I would divide my time between hanging out and listening to the adults and playing with my cousins. Other Sundays it would be just mom, dad, and me, all of us gathered around Grandma’s table, talking: me listening, drawing or playing with my dolls, and the grownups telling stories. As I grew older, I was allowed my own cup of coffee, and I interjected a question or two, but mostly I listened, fascinated.
Many of these stories involved memories formed during the bitter years of the Great Depression, when my parents were growing up, and the World War II years, when my dad was fighting Nazi Germany and my older uncles were in the service. But although the tales they told were set during harsh times, they were filled with love and warmth and laughter. I wish every child could have that gift, to grow up as part of a big, loving, crazy, storytelling family.
The stories I heard during those years formed me into the person I am today. The tales related by my aunts and uncles and grandmother and parents illustrated for me the values that have become their greatest legacy to me. Like the importance of being able to laugh at your problems. Of always being kinder than necessary. Of not judging, because everyone is carrying a burden you might know nothing about. Of making your own decisions, not just following the crowd. Of the importance of forgiveness and not holding grudges. At 49 years of age, I am still plumbing the depths of the stories I heard at my Grandma’s kitchen table.
As Remen notes:
The best stories have many meanings; their meaning changes as our capacity to understand and appreciate meaning grows. Revisiting such stories over the years, one wonders how one could not have seen their present meaning all along, all the time unaware of what meaning a future reading may hold. Like the stories themselves, all these meanings are true.
Knowing your own story requires having a personal response to life, an inner experience of life…Most of us live lives that are far richer and more meaningful than we appreciate.
Perhaps this Thanksgiving we could put down our iPhones for a few hours…and tell stories?
Edit: I accidentally posted and sent out an earlier draft. Here is the corrected version. Thanks for your patience!